There would be something rather amiss if a new fast Ford didn’t impress on one of its development routes. Not that the Lommel test track is the only place the Focus ST has been subjected to a good thrashing – the UK, northern Spain and that German racetrack also featuring – but it’s one with a great deal of significance attached. While not a dedicated track area like Fiorano or Hethel, the Lommel facility has a multitude of testing surfaces for any fast Ford flaws to be exposed. And, well, think of some of the recent successes: both of the most recent Fiesta STs and every fast Focus since the middle of the last decade, just for starters – they’re doing something right.
So here’s the plan: right now, the world’s media is driving the new Ford Focus ST on the roads around Nice (assuming they haven’t melted), a story we’ll report on as soon as humanly possible. Here we’ll detail a few impressions from driving the ST at Lommel during the tech day, which involved a few circulations of the famed ‘Number 7’ handling track and wherever else the group was escorted (no pun intended).
Spoiler alert for starters, because we’re all keen: this Focus ST is good. Really, really good, competitive across the board against what is a really talented group of rivals. Now, of course, it was always going to feel good at the Ford test facility; something would have gone chronically wrong if it didn’t. Though even allowing for that, there’s reason to be encouraged.
Leo Roeks, Ford Performance’s boss in Europe, spoke through the day of being a “friction fetishist”, his desire being to get all unnecessary resistance out of the car’s controls, while also maintaining a sense of connection. That work is immediately apparent, steering (through an overly large wheel) being pleasingly clean, crisp and consistent, avoiding current trends either for hyper alert responses (despite just two turns lock to lock) or gratuitous weight. This point stands even when cycling through the drive modes – Slippery, Normal, Sport and Track – with the wheel not afflicted by that odd cloying sensation off centre that’s sometimes there when ‘sporty’ steering is attempted. Whether it’s preferable in its less aggressive modes is a point to clarify soon – memory suggests it might be.
The six-speed manual gearbox is borrowed from the Edge (presumably for the torque capacity), but with bespoke ratios here - there wasn’t opportunity to try the new automatic gearbox, which is coming later in the year. Like many Ford manuals, it’s an entirely acceptable gearbox without being much more; despite the work of Roeks and his team, it never delivers the swiftest or slickest of shifts. Handily, the Focus benefits from few of its rivals – Civic excepted – boasting great manuals, so it’s perhaps not the problem it could have been.
If the gearbox isn’t tremendous, the brakes seem pretty damn good, with more aggressive pads than the old ST and an electric brake booster to keep the pedal firm. Certainly it felt nice on the test track, braking power great – better than the old RS apparently – and, just as crucially, easy to modulate and meter out via the pedal. Perhaps the only disappointment is that the auto rev match that comes with the Performance Pack can’t be switched off – one to investigate in France.
Dynamically, it should come as little surprise to discover that the Focus hits the mark, again with the caveat that this is exactly the place where it should do so. Though not as hyperactive as a Fiesta ST or quite so serious as an RS, this ST feels to strike a nice compromise in between. The fitment of a BorgWarner LSD has also given it better track manners than before, while still boasting that famed Ford neutrality and adjustability. It feels a right old giggle without being loutish, essentially; capable as well as good fun.
By and large the engine is a worthy sidekick, delivering bountiful torque – 310lb ft is more than anything else in the class – as well as a pleasingly rorty soundtrack through a new exhaust and sound enhancer. It maybe isn’t the revviest unit in the world, though, as with the gearbox, Ford is fortunate that the class isn’t chock full of scorching powertrains. It feels an ideal fit for the job at hand, Roeks’ friction obsession seemingly even extending to the swift throttle response and pretty minimal turbo lag.
Those are some initial impressions then, ones to be bulked out in the next few hours. That there’s still a lot more to discover, and that the prospect of doing so is pretty exciting, bodes very well for the new Focus ST. We’ll know for certain shortly, but anybody in the market for a C-segment hot hatch shouldn’t move before the verdict is in – it could well be near the top of the class.