Slowly but surely the Fast Ford is regaining lost ground in South Africa. There was a time when the blue oval’s sporty XR models were among the most desirable in the marketplace, but a tough decade or two, as well as some dubious marketing decisions have seen the likes of Volkswagen and Opel, nevermind Renault, race into the hearts of South Africa’s petrolheads. Leading the comeback is this car, the Ford Focus ST, already a highly acclaimed rival for Volkswagen’s dominant Golf GTI. How does the new Ford Focus compare?
Ford Focus ST is a restrained boy racerAlthough there are hot hatches out there that look more aggressive than the Ford Focus ST (yes you, Renault Megane and Opel Astra OPC), the Ford toes a delicate line between being too restrained and over-the-top. Which way the pendulum ends up swinging is very much up to your choice of colour – go for the very bright orange hue, and whatever conservatism there may be in the general design goes out the window, because this colour highlights some dubious body kit add-ons, such as the oversized rear wing and the strakes behind the rear wheels. Go for a darker colour, and these items are almost invisible, and the Ford Focus ST then relies on particularly its 18-inch alloy wheels and large exhaust outlets to grab attention.
A similar theme of restraint, punctuated by a few questionable details such as a pod with three extra gauges on top of the facia, and orange seat trim inserts, is to be found in the cabin. The expected hot hatch addenda are all there – different steering wheel, metal gearknob and drilled pedals – but there’s precious little to really lift the cabin out of its mass-market origins. In fact, the Ford Focus ST facia appears to be dating rather fast. And although soft-touch materials are used in the upper areas of the facia, the perceived build quality could be better.
The driving position, a crucial element to get right in a performance-oriented car, is not quite spot-on. Yes, there’s plenty of adjustment from the steering wheel and the seat, but the latter doesn’t adjust low enough, so one never feels quite settled behind the wheel when pushing on. So far, then, the Ford Focus ST is not entirely convincing, but the good news is that the criticisms pretty much stop here.
Ford Fiesta ST fitted with charismatic engineThe Focus ST’s 166 kW of power and 320 Nm of torque is churned out by a five-cylinder, turbocharged 2,5-litre engine, whereas most of the competition has gone for smaller capacity, four-cylinder units. The choice of powerplant immediately lends the Ford Focus ST quite a distinctive character. The engine has a raspy, racy sound to it, and can even emit the odd crackle and pop when pushed really hard. Power goes to the front wheels via a six-speed manual transmission that is generally slick and fast enough, although it can feel a trifle clunky at times, especially during down-shifting.
What is particularly impressive about the engine is the fact that, under hard acceleration, there is nary a hint of torque steer, which plagues so many powerful front-wheel drive cars. The steering does communicate the fact that there’s a lot of power going to the front wheels, but it never wrestles you for control. And once you’re through this phase of “dumping the clutch”, the power delivery remains smooth and linear, all the way to the red line, at which point it also sounds glorious.
Delicate ride & handling balanceWith the previous-generation Focus, and particularly the highly regarded ST170 model, Ford’s so-called “control blade” multi-link rear suspension system garnered lots of applause for its ability to generate plenty of grip, great cornering composure and a sense of agility. The latest Ford Focus ST is a heavier car, and yet it still feels remarkably light on its, er, tyres. Yes, the engine’s weight is noticeable on the front wheels and ultimately understeer is quite pronounced at the limit, but all the way up there the Focus feels neutral, keen to change direction and very stable upon braking for a corner. The lack of disconcerting body movement does come at a slight cost of low-speed suppleness, however, and consequently poor road surfaces are felt inside the cabin. But at higher speeds the suspension regains its ability smooth out the tarmac. Taken as a whole, only the Golf GTI really manages to achieve a similar compromise, one that would please both hardcore boy racers, and the upwardly mobile, performance-oriented sophisticate.
Ford Focus ST - VerdictIn many ways the Ford Focus ST recipe is similar to the Golf GTI’s. The styling is not too outlandish. The cabin retains much of its practicality. And the ride comfort and everyday driving character have not been compromised too much. What distinguishes the Focus from the Golf, however, is that it just pushes the envelope that little bit further in each department. The ride is a little firmer… the engine a trifle louder and more powerful… the styling slightly more extroverted etc. Whether you fall for its undoubted charms will depend very much on your own personality. The Ford Focus ST will appeal to those who want hot hatch performance, but also to retain much of the practicality. And they’d like to do that by not buying a Golf GTI…
· Raspy engine note
· Strong performance
· Supple, yet nicely balanced suspension
· Cabin comfort
We don’t like:
· Dated facia
· Driving position
Engine: 2,5-litre, five-cylinder, turbopetrol
Power: 166 kW @ 6 000 rpm
Torque: 320 Nm @ 1 600 rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
Wheels: 18-inch alloy
Top speed: 241 km/h
0-100 km/h: 6,8 seconds
Fuel economy: 9,3 litres/100 km
· Volkswagen Golf (5) GTI: A real return to form for Volkswagen’s iconic hot hatch. The GTI may not quite have the Focus’s power, but it doesn’t feel that much slower and is a beautifully balanced car overall, with a superior cabin.
· RenaultSport Megane 2,0T 5-dr: Also boasts five-door practicality and similar power to the Focus ST. Performance figures are similar, too, and the Megane is a more luxurious offering overall. Remains one of the best on the market.
· Opel Astra OPC: Brand new on the market and still to prove itself, but it does look rather tasty, doesn’t it? Offers the most power and the promise of blistering performance. The specification level is good, too, but the handling, though good, is not as precise as the others here.