It would be a fair accusation to say that we've been a little conflicted about the Mk4 Focus ST thus far. Alright, that's just yours truly in fact, because nobody else has driven it: really impressive on track, maybe not so joyous on European roads, then much better over here. But we - or rather, I - have not been decisive just yet. Now, usefully, is the moment to be nothing but.
Because here is the Focus ST, in the bleak mid-September of the Peak District, against three formidable rivals: Megane Trophy, Golf GTI TCR and i30 N. Same time, same place, same atrocious weather conditions. Nothing reveals a car's foibles and failings (or, indeed, what's actually really good) like a comparison with direct competitors in identical conditions.
Why these three? The Megane is here as perhaps the most exhilarating hot hatch currently around, incisive and frenetic and demanding; the Golf GTI TCR is... the Golf GTI option, classy and mature and effortless; then there's the i30 N, arguably the car the Focus ST was in its previous generation: conspicuously good value, defiantly rowdy and perhaps a bit rough around the edges, sure, yet tremendously likeable nonetheless.
And what of the Civic? It's still a fantastic hot hatch, no doubt, but every debate around the car boils down to how it looks. If you can't abide its styling, that rather inhibits its appeal. However good it might be. So it's been left aside for this one - complaints to the usual address...
The test begins with the tedious, seemingly interminable, slog up the M1, sat in the firm embrace of the ST's Recaro seat - it's not quite the Heimlich manoeuvre of the Fiesta, but the Focus holds you reassuringly tightly. No time on the London-Leeds motorway could never be said to fly by, but the ST makes light work of it: punchy, comfortable and refined. Valid complaints are made about the detached, bloated feel of modern cars, though there's no doubting the impression of safety and security they offer when conditions would suit tillers more than tyres.
Anyway. Once we've all congregated at the accommodation for Monday night, it doesn't take long to begin nattering about the hot hatches. Nic doesn't seem all that enthused by the Golf, a "sluggish" DSG gearbox being his main complaint. Happens a lot. Dafydd has found precious few of the i30 N's 1,944 drive mode premutations to his liking under commuting conditions, while Sam reckons the Megane is hard work in traffic, but rather enjoyed the attention bestowed on the Liquid Yellow Renault Sport. There's little positive to report, it seems; suspicion is that that's as much to with the dull drive up and lingering hunger than the cars themselves. Tuesday can't come soon enough...
Actually, scratch that; yes it can. The day dawns damp, cold and blustery, even worse than Monday, with six weeks of rainfall predicted to arrive in 24 hours. At least a fortnight of it seems to have arrived before the last breakfast sausage is done, precipitation lashing against windows, wheels and faces. Time to drive a car then.
For those that like fast cars, it would take an obscene act of defiance not to like the i30 N. Even in a brief drive it raises a smile, because people who like the things you like have made this; the rev limit rises with the oil temperature like an M car, the contact points are simple and satisfying, the limited-slip diff is doggedly determined and the exhaust parps merrily. Immediately it feels built to entertain, involve and engage, precious commodities in today's automotive world - it's certainly one to return to.
The expectation of the Golf is to feel dowdy and demure after the boisterous Hyundai, a preconception it confounds pretty swiftly. While it goes about its business in a more reserved fashion - the TCR-specific exhaust being terribly polite - there's no arguing with the lightest kerbweight here and a power output just 10hp behind the Megane. Remember, too, that the DSG-only TCR has seven gears against the others' six, and that the EA888 has always been an eager engine, its briskness shouldn't come as much of a surprise.
Furthermore, there's a lot to be said for benign, approachable, progressive Golf GTI in these conditions. Despite being speed sensitive, the TCR's steering is easily the best of the group, consistent and readable in a way the others - Megane and Focus, especially - are not. Even in its most aggressive Sport setting, the Golf's damping retains a comfort and pillowy softness that eludes the others in their stiffer modes. The relative lightness - it has 100kg on the Focus - bestows upon it an agility that doesn't require chassis trickery to create, the Golf assured and accurate through direction changes and predictable without being dull. Even seven years after its introduction, its talents are plain to see.
Thing is, so are the draw backs. VW may well call it a "race-inspired model", but in reality the TCR feels no naughtier than a Performance Pack to drive. Which means it has a comfort zone, and doesn't feel at its best beyond it; in these conditions the VAQ differential can't put power down as effectively as the others, to the point that the wheelspin can convince the gearbox to change up prematurely - even in manual mode. Speaking of which, the paddles do rob the Golf of some involvement, and the DSG is no longer the paragon it was once seen as. When the going gets tough, the dampers don't really get going, the pay off for its comfort being a looseness and lethargy to the body control when pushed. It's fine, the Golf, really good at points - as Nic will argue only more stridently after more motorway miles - yet never demands your attention, or captures your imagination, like the very best. With an as tested price north of £40k, it ought to.
The Megane, on the other hand, doesn't so much demand attention as hook you to an adrenalin drip and prize your eyes open with matchsticks. In the sopping wet it's a really wild ride, fighty and agitated, but as the rain eases the Megane comes into its own. Despite Renault's claims of the RS being "easy to live with on an everyday basis", there's an intensity and fierceness to the Megane's drive that can't be found in any of the others - and it's great.
The four-wheel steer is contentious, and not as well integrated as some others, but you do get used to it; the agility imbued by that combined with the stability of those wide tracks means the Trophy fairly scythes through bends, feeling at once planted and ferociously direct. So much so, in fact, that Race (with the ESC off) eventually makes sense in place of Sport mode, which keeps the 4WS agility there until 62mph. The steering provides greater feedback with load through it than at lower speeds and the dampers - ably assisted by those hydraulic bump stops, surely - deliver resounding control where the Golf flounders. The Megane doesn't like consistent, pitter-patter bumps, but the body control over larger imperfections is remarkable, absorbent and eerily precise. Combine all that with the tenacity of its limited-slip diff, the best noise here and those incredible looks and the Megane is, if nothing else, never an experience to be forgotten in a hurry.
Immediately after that, the i30 feels a little old hat, not that fast and a bit leaden - sounds silly, though it's more a reflection of the Renault's demeanour than the Hyundai's. The N's genius, as becomes more evident during the day, is in feeling like a traditional hot hatch but never an old fashioned one. It focuses on what's important, not the fripperies. Despite all the settings it's an easy car to read and exploit dynamically, and once a Custom configuration has been settled on via those chunky buttons - make the engine and diff aggressive and the chassis as supple as possible - it can be left there and enjoyed. The i30 feels more compact than its rivals here, so it can be placed with greater confidence, yet it's also tough and only too happy to endure punishment. It's cheekily adjustable in an old hot hatch fashion, but not gratuitously so, more engaging than the Golf, less contrived than the Megane and - put simply - a right giggle.
So then how does the Focus compare to all of those? Well, it's worth noting the elements that still irk, perhaps the more so in light of the cars here. Not being able to configure an individual drive mode, as the other three permit to great effect, is daft; Normal suits a lot of driving, but some extra exhaust noise might be nice without the intolerable suspension stiffness of Track. Against the Megane the brakes seem a bit snatchy; against the Golf the steering seems over keen. Even stationary, the interior makes the Focus seem a chubbier, less wieldy car than the i30.
Make no mistake, though: there's some real genius underneath this Focus. In appalling conditions it pulls the most traction out of the surface by a margin, meaning the throttle can be chased sooner, with greater confidence, than in any other car. A decade ago, the Focus RS was a new benchmark for front-wheel drive performance, and there's simply no way it would be close to this torquier ST on a bumpy, wet road - nowhere near. This ST is so effective it's hard to imagine a 4WD RS being much faster - the front end is immediate on the way into a bend, trustworthy through it and always locked on line going out.
The purchase and precision are not at the expense of involvement, either, the Focus as game as any other fast Ford when the situation presents itself. The chassis is better balanced than the i30, working each corner more equally, while also requiring less concentration than the Megane for damn near the same entertainment. The Golf is stoic by comparison, and also less capable, the Focus a masterclass in ability and amusement. The chassis is entirely amenable, and predictable, to whatever you instruct through brake, steering and throttle.
Ford made much of the Focus's torque at launch (50lb ft more than the i30), which doesn't count for as much on a test track thrash, but makes it effortless on an actual road. It saunters along through its mid-range meaningfully, defying the kerbweight and feeling at least as quick, if not a bit more so, than anything else here. It also makes its front axle behaviour seem even more miraculous. It was said at the top that now was the time to be definitive on the Focus ST - and it's most definitely extremely good.
In fact, by bringing together much of the Renault's dynamic edge, the Golf's manners and the Hyundai's sense of fun, the Focus ST is the best hot hatch of this four. It remains far from flawless - it's dull inside and out for this money, plus the rev match is annoying - but there's no denying the Ford's enormous ability, fine chassis and effusive character.
So what of the rest? The Megane resides second, the most exciting car here by any score, but demanding of too much compromise for victory. When it's great, it's properly brilliant, though opportunities to experience that are fleeting - if triumphantly memorable. The rest of the time the driver must deal with a tough ride and a frantic nature; the Focus proves being accommodating and riotously good fun are not mutually exclusive.
As in every test since its launch, the i30 N must take a moral victory (it's £11k cheaper than the Golf!) and is closer to taking second from the Megane than the Renault is from snatching a win. There's very little to dislike about the Hyundai, put simply, its effervescent nature supported by hardware quality for not much money; sadly the engine is the weakest here, and the top two proved a little better at the limit, but that doesn't stop the N being a great hot hatch.
For different reasons, the Golf is as well - because it's a really strong quartet of cars - though the GTI simply doesn't do enough to justify either the branding or the price. While it's been mentioned before, a Clubsport S was a more fitting tribute to this era of Golf GTI, and would have fared better in this test - that the TCR has been denied a sliver of that magic is something of a shame. The Focus takes victory, then, and has proven itself another finely executed fast Ford in the process. Best get hold of that Civic after all...
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)
Price: £31,995 (price as standard; as tested £34,940, comprised of Performance Blue paint for £800, Panoramic sunroof for £995, Blind Spot Information System for £400, Ford Performance Pack (with Track drive mode, shift indicator, launch control, rev matching and multi colour ambient light) for £250, Head-up display for £400 and wireless charging pad for £100)
SPECIFICATION - HYUNDAI I30 N PERFORMANCE
Engine: 1,998cc 4-cyl turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive limited-slip diff
Power (hp): 275@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 260@1,500-4,700rpm
Top speed: 155mph
Price: £29,495 (and £29,495 as tested!)
SPECIFICATION - VW GOLF GTI TCR
Engine: 1,984cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 7-speed DSG automatic, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 290@5,400-6,400rpm
Torque (lb ft): 280@1,950-5,300rpm
0-62mph: 5.6 seconds
Top speed: 155mph (limited, optionally 162mph)
Weight: 1,410kg (to EU, with 75kg driver)
CO2: 175g/km (WLTP combined)
MPG: 42.2 (NEDC correlated)
Price: £35,305 (price on the road, as standard; as tested £41,289.19, comprised or GTI TCR Performance Pack (19-inch Pretoria alloy wheels with 235/35 ZR19 tyres, speed limit derestriction to 164mph, 20mm lower sports suspension and Dynamic Chassis Control) for £2,900, Panoramic sunroof for £1,000, rear tinted glass for £100, side decals for £555 (now removed), rear side airbags for £300 and Vodaphone S5-VTS tracker (fitted by VW for press cars) for £534.19)
SPECIFICATION - RENAULT SPORT MEGANE 300 TROPHY
Engine: 1,798cc 4-cyl, turbo
Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
Power (hp): 300@6,000rpm
Torque (lb ft): 295@2,400rpm
0-62mph: 5.7 seconds
Top speed: 162mph
Weight: 1,494kg (to EU, with 75kg driver)
Price: £31,810 (price as standard; as tested £36,085 comprised of Liquid Yellow paint for £1,300, Bose Pack (Bose sound system with seven speakers, digital amp and sub, plus 8.7-inch touchscreen with R-Link 2), for £800, Front parking sensors and rear parking camera for £400, Visio system (Lane departure warning, traffic sign recognition and auto high beam) for £250 and Recaro Sports Pack (Renault Sport Recaro seats with red stitching and Alcantara) for £1,500)