It is surely a measure of Ford’s waning interest in the conventional hot hatch that you can only have the latest Focus ST in one trim, and in a range of colours that no longer include Tangerine Scream. Not so long ago it was cost options precisely like Ford’s you’ve-been-Tango’d orange that helped the Focus transition from omnipresent family runabout to ASBO-grade lout. Yes, being good to drive was obviously the bedrock for the ST’s popularity - but the Ford’s GTI rival rarely seemed bothered with the Golf’s clever, classless appeal. It had attitude instead.
Even in vibrant Mean Green, the facelifted version of the current ST has lost some of the old chin jut. To be fair to it, the modest styling tweaks are generally to its advantage - some carried over from a wider model update - but the fourth generation Focus has always seemed desperately benign when measured against its often note-perfect predecessors. Standard 19-inch Matt Magnette alloys help it stand out a little in a McDonald’s car park, although you’ll be waiting in vain for lingering second glances.
Probably that would be fine if the ST retained its underdog pricing, but with a single flagship variant now atop the range, Ford has sacrificed the leeway needed to produce a more cost-effective version. This means you’ll pay £34,960 for a standard six-speed manual - just £1,225 less than the starting price of an entry-level Mk8 Golf GTI. The Hyundai i30 N, a car purpose-built from the ground up to usurp the ST’s position in the nation’s affections, starts at £34,095.
Still, things have undeniably come on a bit inside. Best not to gush too much about the new, much larger Sync4 13.2-inch touchscreen that monopolises the Focus’s redesigned dash, because it has inherited most of the HVAC controls - and we’ve vented about that all-too-common issue elsewhere. But truthfully the tidy up has done wonders not just for the interior’s appearance, but also its ambience - especially when twinned with the nicer trim materials deployed in the range-topping model, and new and improved sports seats up front.
For all its swagger, the ST hasn’t always been the most appealing place to sit. The latest version might be the best so far in that regard, and that’s a significant upgrade for a hot hatch that’s likely to endure heavy use. Ford hasn’t necessarily nailed the few hard physical buttons it has left on the dash, but it’s hard to complain about having direct access to the ESC kill switch. You can even extinguish the start-stop, which seems like a novelty these days; ditto the decision to continue making the least possible fuss of the ST’s drive modes - even with a Track setting now added to the roster.
Of course, arguably the most notable absentee in our test car was a gear lever. Among modern hot hatches, the ST is not freely associated with two pedals; probably because where its rivals have invested in snappy dual-clutch transmissions, Ford has made do with a seven-speed torque convertor. This does not immediately suggest dynamic verve, yet in truth the carried-over 2.3-litre four-pot is a decent enough foil for an auto. The unit has always been more about the 310lb ft in its middle than the 280hp at its peak, and you’re probably not going to want for gusto in everyday driving. The good stuff seems to be on tap when you want it, and nearer the top of the accelerator pedal travel than in some rivals.
The problem, somewhat predictably, is there’s no concealing the gearbox’s comparative shortcomings if you endeavour to seek them out. As amenable as the ST is in D mode, you’re going to want to manage gearshifts yourself at some point, and while no hot hatch can realistically claim to be the last word in involvement or positivity when it comes to the business of paddle clicking, the Focus lags behind those wielding a DSG or DCT. It isn’t deficient to the point of annoyance, it’s just that bit less snappy. And when the engine isn’t the last word in high jinks beyond 5,000rpm anyway, it provides less encouragement than it should.
Luckily for the ST, it is still wedded to a characteristically assured front-drive chassis. The Focus has rarely strayed in this regard, and the latest version balances composure and incisiveness with familiar, Ford-branded confidence. Much of the zing is in the steering, which retains both its speed and a springy enthusiasm for returning to centre. The weight and accuracy befit the ST’s capacity for impressively urgent direction changes; the car never seems highly strung or overwrought. It goes where you point with an instinctive sort of purpose.
The particularly wonderful thing about that is that it makes the most expensive Focus seem like a hot hatch all the time, rather than relying on your foresight to push a button. And better yet, it extracts a low dynamic price for the pleasure. The current Audi S3 preceded the ST in the test car cycle, and it seemed a blunt instrument in comparison to Ford’s sophisticated ride quality. Minor intrusions - i.e. those faced all the time, everywhere - are generally smothered at the wheel, which makes most A and B roads that bit more pleasurable to get down.
Granted, there is the occasional stiff-backed moment, and you probably won’t go looking for potholes to fall into around town, but for the most part the latest ST continues a long-running trend: without appearing to try especially hard, it convinces you that it is among the very best FWD hot hatches you can buy. In fact, driven exclusively in the dry, it does a predictably good job of persuading you that four-wheel drive is a luxury you don’t really need as well.
You will definitely be wanting the manual version, though. The problem with the automatic is not that it’s bad, it’s just that with only two pedals to worry about, the Golf GTI (or its facsimiles) are made to seem better - or at least punchier. Drop the clutch back in, and there’s not much contest in terms of raw driving pleasure. But you will still have to make your peace with a pricier, plusher sort of Focus ST. Because the other option is the scrappier, sillier and now handily cheaper i30 N. Ford should probably consider itself lucky that you can’t get that car in orange either.
Specification | 2022 Ford Focus ST
Engine: 2,261cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: Seven-speed auto, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 280@5,500rpm
Torque (lb ft): 310@3,000-4,000rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 secs
Top speed: 155mph
Weight: 1,529kg (DIN)
Price: £36,410 (as tested: £39,385)
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