As locations for a first UK test of the highly anticipated Ford Focus ST go, you couldn't ask for much better than the roads around M Sport's Cockermouth HQ. This is the Lake District, after all, where stunning scenery meets pretty punishing tarmac. While the test track thrash and the jolly in the south of France could be considered soft launches, there's no escape now - if the Focus is a great hot hatch, as we've come to expect, here's where it will be proved - or otherwise...
Perhaps it's the glum light of a Cumbrian morning, but it remains difficult to be too excited about how a Focus ST looks. While it sits lower than standard and comes with the requisite sporty add-ons, there's not the stop-and-stare appeal of a Renault Sport Megane, nor the classy restraint of a Golf GTI. While the Sports Technologies Focus has never been the most arresting of hot hatches, this latest car does seem a little tame. You might even say plain. The trouble, of course, with then going too far other way is a car as divisive as the Civic Type R, so Ford perhaps erred on the side of conservatism for that reason. It's fair to say, though, that the i30 N - it wasn't going to be long before that came up - strikes a better compromise in being interesting to look at yet not over the top.
Much inside the Focus is good; the new Recaro seats, for example, place the driver low, with comfortable distances to the wheel, pedals and gearstick. Once more, though, as with the outside, it's hard to be too enthused. Not to a woeful degree, but this is the ST pitched as one of the fastest Fords ever, quicker across the quarter mile than the old RS and ready to take it to a formidable bunch of rivals - it's a shame that the stats are so much more exciting than the first impressions suggest.
Fortunately things take a turn for the better on the road. If anything, this car's ST label is something of a misnomer; that dowdy exterior cloaks an aggressive, unflappable, engaging driving machine, one that does away with the endearing but slightly wayward charm of the old model and replaces it with a much more serious hot hatch.
The car's newfound traction is perhaps the first indicator of this, even if it seems an odd place to begin. Where once a Focus ST's front tyres would emit as much smoke as the Sistine chapel at a papal conclave, this new car - despite its 310lb ft - remains as composed as an evening mass. The eLSD - a similar system to VW's VAQ - has four different modes, though it seems across all that the Focus's front end delivers accuracy as well as a remarkable ability to get motive force to the road, surely helped by Michelin Pilot Sport 4S rubber. Even across craggy tarmac it remains resolute, only the odd tug of the sizeable steering wheel letting you know it's working hard. Where before the Focus's uncouth manners could frustrate, its ability now to put the power down is a real strong point, resulting in a much more accomplished, convincing performer.
As with the differential, the continuously variable dampers - at least on Performance Pack cars - have myriad settings, yet deliver in all of them. Alright, so Track is, funnily enough, best left off for the public road. But both Sport and Normal suit the UK; it would be a hard push to say either offer the supple experience Fords may have once been known for, though neither are they jarring, harsh or unforgiving. There's just total body control and sharp, agile responses, giving the driver the utmost confidence - supported by that diff - to attack a series of bends.
Ford makes a big deal of its steering for this Focus ST, though it's not the car's most convincing element. It's 15 per cent faster than a standard Focus at two turns lock to lock, and there are bespoke knuckles for more feel. In reality there are rivals which deliver a greater sense of connection with the front axle, and the immediacy of the rack initially comes across simply as contrived dartiness - perhaps a ploy to mask the 1,500kg kerb weight. Handily the chassis is in tune with all of this, and it makes sense after time, but steering isn't something the driver should have to attune themselves to or make allowances for - see the Megane for further proof. Predictably the racier the drive mode, the more leaden the wheel becomes - not great.
Without a Civic Type R in the world, the Focus's powertrain would receive a far kinder review. However the harsh truth is that the Honda does exist, and is available for similar money. Not only does it make 15 per cent more power (to carry less weight), the VTEC turbo is more willing and revvier, matched to a gearbox that remains unmatched in the class. There's nothing especially bad about the ST's engine and 'box - the former grunty and eager, the latter accurate and quick - they just never deliver spectacularly on the engagement and entertainment front.
Neither, however, are insufficient enough to make the ST anything less than excellent fun on a demanding road. There's that same energy and enthusiasm that's there in a Fiesta ST, a dogged determination to get into every apex, backed up with a little more dynamic sophistication thanks to a multi-link rear axle. It's neutral and pretty resistant to understeer, then benign and predictable if lifting the throttle to quell it. The fast Focuses, despite any other flaws, have always been blessed with a fine chassis, and this ST continues the trend in exemplary fashion.
But there are problems, centring on how you as the driver interact with that chassis - and the rest of the car. There are four drive modes in a Focus ST, but crucially no individual setting. So while you might be after the additional damping control and eLSD aggression of the Sport mode, that can only be had with snatchier throttle response and worse steering. Ramp it up further to Track and the driver is forced to endure a rather droney sound through the Engine Sound Enhancement and tough suspension for whatever other gains they might be after. Throughout, the brakes deliver huge power but feel over-servoed, which might be the Electronic Brake Booster; like the chassis, the hardware and ability is clearly there, but the relationship between it and the driver - so often a Ford strong point - is tricky to establish.
As tends to be the way with these things, 'Normal' provides the most authentic and natural experience, with a sensible throttle response, pleasant enough noise, damping that suits all situations and a tangible sense of the diff functioning. It's therefore a shame that any desired benefits elsewhere are tied up in contrived 'sportiness'. And enforced rev matching...
Still, do away with the £250 Performance Pack and drivers will be able to heel and toe to their heart's delight, as well as have dampers without any possibility of driver interference. Perhaps that's where the very best Focus ST lies, shorn of a few distractions and with its excellent chassis - one certainly the match of Civic, Megane, Golf and so on - brought to the fore. We'll find out for certain very soon, but be in no doubt for now; though this ST may not be without its flaws, and may come at a more grown-up price point, it's a much more serious, more capable hot hatch than it's ever been before.
SPECIFICATION - FORD FOCUS ST
Engine: 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)