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Ford Focus ST | Driven

Enough with the test tracks - what's an ST like to drive on the road?

By Matt Bird / Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Nothing like starting an ostensibly comprehensive review with a couple of caveats, so here goes: what's coming over the next thousand words or so is not a definitive verdict on the new Mk4 Focus ST. It can't be. Why? Simply put, the quality of the hot hatch class is currently so good, with such enormous talent throughout, that all the main protagonists need to be tested in the same place at the same time. Testing one car in isolation simply won't cut it in a sector of cars where everything is great and has a USP to boast as well.

Second caveat? We might have been wrong. The brief first drive from Ford's Lommel HQ may have carried one or two assertions this correspondent would like to rescind... But we'll get to those - to the car first off.

This is the fourth generation Focus ST, the sub-RS sporty version having been with us for 17 years through the ST170, then the five-cylinder car, followed by the Ecoboost four-cylinder and now this latest model. As before, it'll be offered in petrol and diesel form, as well as an estate body, with an automatic gearbox coming before the year is out. And, well, to be frank, the salient points have been covered: price and tech details are here, the full engineering rundown is here, and the briefest of first drives here.

Up to speed? Or skipped straight here? Thought so. Important details are 280hp from a version of the 2.3-litre four-cylinder used in the Mustang and previous Focus RS, 310lb ft (more than any comparable hot hatch), Ford's Continuously Controlled Damping, super quick steering of two turns lock to lock and a 0-62mph time that bests the Escort Cosworth. It also weighs 1,508kg with a driver and a tank of fuel, which is a number to keep in mind.

It takes all of about 15 seconds for it to become clear that this is a markedly more serious and focussed (it'll only happen once, promise) ST than the car it replaces. Where the old fast Focus was a big hearted, slightly uncouth entertainer, this one signals its intent from the off.

There's more immediacy to every control than ever existed before: damping that's more precise and, to be frank, more unforgiving than it was; a gearshift with increased positivity and less slack; reduced lag in the engine (thanks to anti-lag tech, no less) and the impression of greater agility with the steering's swiftness. The relationship with the Fiesta ST feels clear, that sense of uncorked ability at low speed and an insatiable (if manageable) desire to go quicker and quicker.

By and large, handily, the Focus ST delivers as speed increases. This feels a very cleverly damped car, even on the largely smooth roads of southern France; the CCD system adjusting every two milliseconds, and in the Performance Pack guise of the test cars its parameters can be altered further still. So although Track feels a little too jostly and restless for everyday tarmac, Normal and Sport deliver the sort of damping plushness and sophistication that really, really impresses. Where an old ST could be a little languid and wayward, and the previous RS punishingly firm, this car strikes a very nice balance indeed - precise and measured enough to allow for considerable punishment over bumps, yet supple enough to be usable.

Furthermore, though it's been 10 years now since a Focus RS emerged with front-wheel drive and - for then at least - a frankly ludicrous 305hp, the way this ST gets its power to the tarmac feels a real achievement. The combination of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S tyres, a BorgWarner eLSD system with Ford tuning and torque vectoring by braking gives the Focus prodigious traction out of low speed bends, the throttle chased earlier and earlier as a result. There is some torque steer higher up the rev range, but not much more than a wriggle. The ST's performance is all the more impressive when you consider that BorgWarner tech is broadly similar to what's used in the Golf GTI Performance, with clutch packs to divvy up power rather than a mechanical locking differential. The Ford responds more eagerly to throttle inputs, diverting power with greater urgency and thus reduced wheelspin, than the VW. Against the old ST, fun though it was, this Focus has really moved things on.

As for the engine that's providing that motive force, it's hard to be too bowled over. It does the numbers, it makes some pleasingly parpy exhaust noises and it's clearly located well enough to keep the chassis balance in check, but it comes across much more as a power unit for a very good chassis than a point of celebration on its own. The induction drone doesn't help, neither does its undersquare nature (87.6mm bore, 94.0mm stroke), making it rather more of a lover than a fighter when it comes to high revs. To its credit, though, the 2.3 Ecoboost does lug out of bends hard, delivering convincingly in that mid-range where the vast majority of driving is done. It needs to as well, with a lot of rivals at the same money packing more power, or carrying less weight, or both - and don't pretend like numbers aren't important to hot hatch buyers.

So there are clearly some very good bits about this ST. Those that are less convincing, certainly having tried them on both road and track now, are the steering and the brakes. Their immediacy, both in pedal feel and initial response, can come across at road commitment levels as abrupt, making it difficult to establish a rhythm and flow with the car. That desire to keep the brake pedal firm with a booster has resulted in it feeling overservoed at points and, while the chassis is eager and in tune with the steering, it arguably takes more getting used to as a system than it should. Same went for the Fiesta, in fact. So perhaps it just needs time.

Then there are the drive modes. Customer response to the introduction of them to the Fiesta was that they weren't discrete enough, many modes feeling too similar to each other. The solution was to create real differentiation between Slippery, Normal, Sport and Track, which most certainly has been achieved. The issue that arises, without a configurable setting, is that none ever perfectly suits because of how distinct they are. It ends up with the car being left in Normal, where the steering feels at its most natural and the noise at its least intrusive, but then the driver loses out on the eLSD's additional tenacity and the damping control of Sport mode. Which seems a shame. It's more irksome since neither of the previous STs - Fiesta or Focus - felt like they ever required dynamic configurability. Neither was perfect, but you knew what you were getting.

More frustrating than all of that, though, at least for PH-y types, is the rev-match system. In Slippery or Normal mode it doesn't function; in Sport or Track, where the driver could be trying a bit harder, it is permanently on and can't be disabled. At all. Of course it's a minor concern to the vast majority of drivers, but what is the point of having this system if it can't be turned off? One of the great joys of driving is learning to finesse (or getting close to finessing) a heel-and-toe downchange. To be denied that opportunity, when every other similar system can be deactivated one way or another, is a real shame. Particularly with an automatic coming.

There are issues, then, including proper ones beyond ideological grumbles about heel-and-toe technology, that might prevent the Focus ST being considered the unequivocal triumph we've become so used to from Ford Performance. Of course this is still all to be decided when it's assembled with its rivals, but this perhaps isn't the most auspicious start despite a host of promising areas.

Put at its bluntest, this Focus ST feels broadly competitive everywhere, yet not class-leading anywhere. A Civic Type R is faster (with a nicer powertrain), a 308 GTI is 200kg lighter, the Megane looks way more exciting, and an i30 N costs - albeit the 250hp version - £6,000 less. That's before any of the existing VW group hot hatches have been mentioned, too. The ST was always going to have a tough task on its hands to saunter to the top of the hot hatch tree; what a pity, therefore, that it doesn't seem quite up to matching the best on offer at £32,000.

Still, many a fast Ford has given its finest showing on a British B-road - let's hope that proves true, more so than ever, for this latest variant. After all, we've all been wrong about something or other in the past...

2,261cc, turbocharged four-cyl
Transmission: 6-speed manual, 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: 1,508kg (lightest kerbweight with 75kg driver, full fluids and 90 per cent fuel)
MPG: 35.7
CO2: 179g/km
Price: £31,995


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