FORD FOCUS ST REVIEW
Vehicle Style: Five-door Small Sports Hatch
Power/Torque: 184kW/340Nm (with 360Nm overboost)
Price: $38,290 (plus on-roads)
Fuel consumption (listed): 7.4 l/100km
Here's one more to add to the hot-hatch brat-pack: Ford's bad-boy Focus ST. With 184kW and 340Nm pummeling the tarmac, there's some serious business going on under its bonnet.
It's Ford's 2.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost doing the pummeling - the same engine, in a slightly different state of tune, as you'll find powering the EcoBoost Falcon.
As you'd expect, it makes the relatively light Focus ST a rocketship. Ours, in bright yellow, had all the understatement of a travelling circus.
The Astra GTC is cheapest, but, with just 132kW, it's more warm-hatch than hot (but the OPC is coming); and the 195kW Renault is definitely the maddest.
In fact, I vow and declare the Sport Megane RS 265 to be the fastest and best-handling front-wheel-drive performance car I've ever driven.
It's simply phenomenal. It has such levels of grip, balance and ability to keep power to the road, that I have absolutely no doubt it would give an STi curry around a mountain pass.
But is the Focus ST better? Is it possible?
At $38,290 it's certainly cheaper. The ST is also better equipped (by a country mile) than the RS 265, and it seems 'tighter'; the Focus has a 'hewn from a single billet' feel about the body; and it's certainly more comfortable.
So, let the hostilities begin. In the hot-hatch wars, who reigns supreme?
The previous Focus might have lacked a little for feel and trim-quality, not so the new range.
The interior of the ST is really special, particularly at the price. With soft-touch plastics, a cockpit-style 'control deck', and really smart polished black and buffed alloy garnishes and highlights, it's very easy on the eye and just as pleasing to the touch.
From a practical perspective it's not as convincing. The layout of the buttons and controls is as busy as a fish-market, and the multi-function wheel is absolutely festooned - on top, behind, in front - with buttons and functions.
Looking at it is a pain in the head - you know you won't work it out for at least a week.
But, otherwise, for the ergonomics of driving fast, everything falls exactly to hand, and feels really classy.
The Recaro seats, both front and rear, are deep and bum-hugging. They're also tightly bolstered in the back-rest (maybe too tight for our more lardy compatriots), but trimmed to perfection. I found them really comfortable.
Our yellow rocket came with yellow-leather bolsters and stitching - it's a look that might not be for everyone, but it grew on me, and adds a sporting ambience.
So too does the black headlining. Though it gives a coal-scuttle look to the interior, it adds to a high-quality, snug interior feel.
That steering wheel, with reach and rake, a nice solid feel and sitting square-on to the driver feels terrific. So too the stubby six-speed shift.
The shift-action is superb; far less notchy and more precise than the 'baulky' feel to the Sport Megane.
But its the feature-list at that $38k price point that sets the Focus ST apart. For what you get loaded in, this thing is a bargain.
Heading the features is Ford's SYNC in-car voice-control Sony audio and Bluetooth communication system. It comes with the expected aux-connections, 5-inch display, and nine-speaker audio system.
It's easy to use, allows you to keep your eyes on the road when driving, and is unexpected technology at this price.
Add to that satellite navigation, reverse camera, park assist, Ford's 'active city stop', smart-key (push button) ignition, ambient interior lighting, dual-zone climate control, 18-inch alloys, performance gauges (in a nice raised binnacle above the centre-stack), LED daytime running-lamps, alloy sports pedals, and tyre deflation detection system - all standard fare - and you've got a feature list that absolutely smashes the ST's hot-hatch opposition.
So chalk up a very clear win for the ST for feature-list and interior accommodation.
ON THE ROAD
You reckon a front driver can't handle all those ergs getting loaded in a rush onto the tarmac? Think again.
The Sport Megane RS 265 is the benchmark here. The way it slams Newton-metres onto a winding road will have you thinking that 4WD is two-driven wheels too many.
How well then does the Focus ST match up?
Like the Megane, the Focus uses a relatively conventional front-end set up (no 'revo-knuckles' here). However, its ST-tuned suspension geometry with torque-vectoring and 'enhanced torque-steer' compensation, all-but eliminates the wild tugging at the wheel that once bedevilled powerful front drivers.
Under full power though, the Focus is not as civilised nor as tamed as the Megane. Slide the foot off the clutch at 6000rpm and you'll feel a bit of left-right squirrelling through the wheel.
But even under full-power on lock (like when belting out of a T-intersection) there was none of the axle-tramp nor the tugging wide I expected from such a powerful FWD car.
It's very fast - off the line Ford is claiming a 6.5 second 0-100km/h dash - but you'll need to put it through its paces at a track day to get anywhere near its performance capabilities.
Overtaking, or powering out of a corner is simply a 'point and shoot' proposition.
With peak torque chiming in at 2000rpm-4500rpm (torque bands don't get much flatter and wider), you can be lazy with the cogs on the highway and still pull strongly out of a corner, or whack it back a cog or two, firewall it and hang on.
It's not quite as stuck as the Megane. It's a gut-feel thing (at this stage - we need to put them nose to tail), but we think the slightly harder-edged Sport Megane can hold a tighter line on exit, the Focus ST wants to run a little wider, and can get the power down a little earlier through the apex.
But, each superb, there's little in it.
The Focus ST's transmission and shift action is better however - much. The ST's six-speed is an absolute delight. The shift falls right to hand, the weighting is right, and the action precise.
Where the Focus ST wins over the Sport Megane though is in civility.
The suspension and chassis tune is just right for an Australian sports hatch. It's absolutely glued to the road - you'll wonder where its outer limits lie.
But, while firm, there is a superbly tuned initial compliance that takes the harshness out of a sports suspension, quells judder over rippled undulations and eliminates crashing over broken tarmac.
The result is a feeling of the wheels always riding the contours of the road, and providing astonishing grip and balance.
It's aided by a steering with a rack that 'quickens' as you wind on lock (the outer teeth on the rack are more widely spaced). It's got just the right weighting, feels super-direct, and is quite simply the best out there at there at the moment for feel and balance.
Where the Focus isn't quite so good is in its aural accompaniment. It's just a bit tame. The throttle-body induction sound is really tasty, but there's not much fizz and crackle at the twin exhaust. Nothing like the 'F1-whump' of the Scirocco on gear changes nor the 'crackle' on the over-run of the Sport Megane.
So, who wins on the road?
It's simply too tight to call. Which means, because it is priced so sharply - it's around $9k less than the entry model Sport Megane, and more than $2k less than the five-door Golf GTi - on a pound-for-performance measure you'd have to give the cigar to the Focus.
FIRST DRIVE VERDICT
The Focus ST is Ford's 'one-Ford' strategy at work; its first global performance car. For what it packages into the purchase, and its superb on-road sports performance, it is brilliant buying.
At the moment, in the hot-hatch category, you can't buy better at a sub-$40k price.
Four doors, lots of space, fat alloys, absolutely loaded with premium features, and 'get-outa-there' stove-hot performance, the Focus ST is such a complete car it simply buys itself.
We expected it might be a very good one from Ford. It's even better than that.
Have a close look for yourself, when word gets out, Ford's new Focus ST is going to bolt out of showrooms.
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