Ford RS is too edgy but ST provides perfect business Focus
While having been left ‘unmoved’ by the basic Ford Focus, reports Iain Robertson, the significantly more focused ST variant continues a positive stance, from where the previous generation car left off and the news is mostly beneficial, which is a relief.
As one of the best-selling cars in Europe, the Ford Focus has had a monumental task to fulfil. When the first-generation car arrived in 1998, as a replacement for the thoroughly conventional Escort, its appearance polarised opinions immediately. It was the first mainstream example of Ford’s ‘New Edge’ design philosophy. However, it was up against the constantly evolving VW Golf, let alone a raft of competitive rivals.
Although it took some time before the dust settled, Ford resurrected the RS badge for a specially developed version of the Focus. Retaining front-wheel drive, when the market had expected 4WD (as a road-going alternative to the rally car), was a cardinal error. Ill-mannered and on-the-limit ‘dangerous’, it had enough cachet to qualify as a much-prized collectible today.
Landing at Le Castellet airport (alongside the current French GP circuit in the South of France), in late-spring 2005, to drive the all-new Ford Focus (mark two) in ST guise, powered by a Volvo 2.5-litre 5-cylinder petrol-turbo engine, its 225bhp enabled a 0-60mph dash in 6.4s and a top speed of 152mph. While firm, the suspension was compliant enough to provide the car with pleasant handling, despite the nose-heaviness. It was packed with character and charisma in a way that, as good as it was, the subsequent mark three, 2012 model, with estate car variant thrown into the model mix, failed to replicate.
Due to the popularity of the Focus, discounting the purposeful RS model, the company needs a range flag-bearer in its latest ST. Powered in its new guise by the 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine that develops a heady 277bhp and a useful 309lbs ft of torque (35.7mpg; 179g/km CO2) and also serves purpose in the base versions of the Ford Mustang, an initial drive session reveals that the new model more than meets muster. Two engine options are available, with the 2.0-litre diesel offering 187bhp/295lbs ft (58.8mpg; 125g/km), although I shall test the latter in due course.
The revised and punchier petrol engine is wondrously free-revving and despatches the 0-60mph sprint in just 5.4s, before peaking at a maximum of 162mph. Allied to it is an anti-lag system that ensures a near instant reaction to throttle depression by maintaining compressor spin speed and enabling boost to build faster. Naturally, selecting Sport mode, it is accompanied by immature pops and bangs from the exhaust system, which, to be fair, appear less odd on the 5-door hatch, than the estate car version. Pick any of the garish shades available from Ford’s colour palette and you will be likely to garner the commensurate level of attention. The more business-like estate car benefits from the subtler shades.
In technical terms, the engine response is enhanced using a low-inertia twin-scroll turbocharger, which scavenges exhaust gas energy more effectively, by using separated channels to minimise interference between gas pulses. An electronically actuated waste-gate allows closer control of boost pressures for optimised engine performance. In addition, an unique, twin outlet exhaust system that reduces back pressure, a bespoke air intake system and optimised intercooler further improve breathing. As usual, a ‘symposed’ engine noise is channelled into the car’s cabin to make it sound even sportier.
The mark four version of the Focus is longer and wider than before; the long wheelbase helping the car’s overall dynamic balance, while also providing significantly greater cabin space. Ford used its ‘Third Age Suit’, a special set of clothing developed by its engineers to replicate the mobility issues confronted by older people, when formulating the cabin package; as a result, it is outstandingly roomy and airy, even for a 2m tall driver like me. Powering through a six-speed manual gearbox that features reduced throws between gearshifts and also the revs-matching technology used on the new Mustang, accessing the available performance is not just made easier but is markedly superior to the standard offering. A new seven-speed automatic transmission is also available, its shift speeds modified to suit the zesty character of the ST.
Despite retaining the standard Focus’s spring rates, the front dampers are 20% stiffer, with the rears at +13% (the estate car obtains a slightly different geometry to the hatchback, to account for its load-carrying potential). The upshot, working with a quicker steering rack, is dramatically improved handling, roadholding and ride comfort. For a car possessing overtly sporting intentions, the overall dynamic envelope is simply outstanding, aided by the Borg-Warner developed eLSD traction-enhancing technology. Torque vectoring, which applies the brakes autonomously and seamlessly to retain cornering stability and agility, is a standard feature. Suspension bump-thump is kept to a low ebb, while torque steer is virtually absent…it can be felt through the leather-wrapped steering wheel rim, more notably when the standard 18.0-inch diameter alloy wheels are replaced by the sportier 19.0-inch options. This is surely due to the lower profile tyres, which is a nuisance, and the faster, two turns lock-to-lock steering, as their enhanced grip is a welcome aspect.
Three driving modes are available for the first time on a Focus ST and, if you opt for the Performance Pack (which also provides red brake callipers) a fourth Track setting is applied. Overall, the new Focus ST benefits from apposite chassis re-fettling that hikes it by a good margin above the rest of the range. The superb Recaro sports seats are not merely hip-hugging but are also matched perfectly to the ST’s suspension settings. The new Ford Focus ST could become the hot hatch of the year, so significant are the changes that have been wrought on it. As a former Ford RS owner, it would be an accolade that I would support totally.
Priced from £26,495, prior to applying options, the latest Ford Focus ST is a most rewarding car to drive and is every bit as good as a Golf GTi. We shall have a full road test of the TDi version soon.