Hot hatches are said to pair rapid performance and everyday practicality in the perfect motoring marriage. We tested the Ford Focus ST for an extended period to find out just how well-balanced those attributes are...
I couldn't contain my excitement! I got to call another hot hatch "my own car" for a whole month rather than just the usual 10-day test period. I’m no stranger to living with hot hatches (having tested a Renault Megane RS Trophy for 6 months), but I was quite looking forward to driving the Focus ST, which is a little less hardcore/track-oriented – a firm, sporty ride and heavy clutch are great on the track, but offer little comfort on the congested commute to work.
The Focus ST arrived finished in Stealth Grey with 13 000 hard-driven kilometres on its odometer and its interior seemed to have stood up well to extensive use (by members of the motoring media) since it became a fleet vehicle. The seats looked almost new and there weren’t rattles or ill-fitting panels in the cabin. The number plate needed a better mounting system because it rattled against the body every time the hatch closed; double-sided tape would sort that out.
Living with the 'heat'
The Focus ST has an incredible soundtrack once you exploit its full (184 kW) power output. Ford has managed to keep the throaty growl from the old 5-cylinder engine, despite lobbing off a cylinder with this latest model. The sound elicited excitable throttle inputs from my right foot and I took just about every opportunity to get the ST growling: I leant hard on the throttle when pulling away from 'lights and punched overtaking moves with more pace than required. Of course, that played havoc with fuel economy... The ST averaged 10.1 L/100 km during the test, which is not awful, considering how much "fun" we were having.
The Recaro front seats are impressively supportive and easily the highlight of the Focus' cabin. It’s nice to be held firmly in your seat by the large side bolsters that stop you from sliding out of your preferred position when the ST is driven enthusiastically on twisty roads. Some larger passengers complained that the seats were a bit too tight for their liking, but the pews' cushioning does smooth out the ST's stiffer ride quality to an extent.
Now in the latter half of its product cycle, the ST has been updated with a stiffer suspension setup and the steering has been sped up in order to make the hot hatch more agile. Despite the less-absorbent damping, the ST rides well over all but the sharpest of bumps and doesn't feel overly unpleasant over longer trips. If you’re doing a long-haul trip, however, the ride can get irritating after 3 or 4 hours, so plan a few stops along the way. You may also want to add a mountain pass or two to the journey. Once I got to grips with the way the ST handles, I aimed it at the nearest mountain pass and put it to the test.
Recaro seats offer impressive lateral support but not built for "wider" people
Despite a highly-engineered suspension and a clever torque vectoring system that’s meant to reign in torque steer, the ST is wild. Slamming on the power during corner exits will elicit tugs from the steering wheel (as if the Focus wants to go into a direction of its own rather than the one the driver intends). You have to be fully vigilant when pushing on: the wheels are more than happy to spin up considerably before the traction control gets involved. Once fully awake, the ST’s chassis feels alive and its proportions seem to shrink into those of a smaller, easily chuckable- and confidence-inspiring driver’s car.
There’s just enough wiggle from the rear end when you lift off the throttle to get a tight, apex-hunting turn in. As your confidence grows with each and every successfully negotiated corner, understeer will eventually intervene to let you know that you are asking too much from the front tyres. It’s more at home on sweeping, flowing bends than tight hairpins or point-and-squirt sections. The torque steer is a bit too intrusive to really enjoy consecutive tight switchbacks.
I never tired of the engine sound and muscular gear-shift action though. The tractable nature of the turbocharged engine means that 6th gear is good enough for overtaking from almost any speed. The ST provides a smooth everyday experience and, when lit up, delivers thrills to sustain adrenaline junkies.
The finer things
I missed a navigation function in the Focus ST – it’s something that’s not offered and there’s no way to interlink a Smartphone app to do the navigation either. You can still connect your phone via Bluetooth to make calls and the Sync system will also display text messages. Overall, the Sync system is intuitive to use (accessing media and altering climate settings can be done via the touchscreen). There are also climate controls toggles on the centre of the fascia.
As a third option, you can change just about any setting through the voice activation system. I found this to be a bit too difficult to use and it was easier and quicker just to use the touchscreen – it’s a cool gimmick to show your mates, though. Standard seat heaters are amazing; winter is here and there’s nothing better on a crisp morning than putting the seat heaters on full blast to warm up your posterior while the main heater takes its time to come on stream.
Sync system on the Ford is intuitive and easy to use but there's no navigation or reverse camera available
Practicality wise the perky Ford did more than an adequate job. It ferried my mountain bike and trail dog (in its luggage bay) to several venues around the Western Cape and found itself with 4 people up a few times. Larger occupants (6ft plus) complained about the legroom in the back when seated behind the driver, but remarked how comfy the seats were. Notable omissions are parking sensors and a reverse-view camera. They're not even available as options. As a terrible reverser/hitter of hidden tree stumps, I’m terrified of backing into things. Cameras and parking sensors are the first options I'd tick on the list.
The GTI question
The question that every hot hatch buyer has to ask themselves is this: is the Ford Focus ST better than a GTI? Well, the Volkswagen is the segment leader, but the ST is more powerful and certainly a more fun car to drive on track/when a road snakes its way around a mountain. The GTI wins on the comfort front, but that’s not really what hot hatch hooliganism is about. The ST’s a more original choice than the GTI, but probably won’t hold its value as well in the long run. Ultimately, the ST is not the performance bargain it once was, but even with that in mind, the Ford is still more of the driving enthusiasts' hot hatch.
More Ford Focus ST content:
Watch the how the ST performs on track at Killarney: