Driven in SA: Ford's 184kW Focus STComment on this story
For Blue Oval fanatics the ST badge is a symbol of performance with panache - not as quick or as uncompromisingly focused as the fire-breathing RS models but infinitely more civilised and, it has to be said, more driveable in the real world.
And the latest in this dynasty of well-dressed big hitters is the all-new Ford Focus ST, introduced to the SA media this week ahead of its local sales release in November.
It's also Ford's first global performance car, the first ST to come out of the company's One Ford strategy, and will eventually be sold in 40 countries - and will be raced in next year's WesBank Super Series production car championship.
This ST is based on the new global Ford Focus, bigger and classier brother to the cheeky little Fiesta, but the performance and equipment developments that make it worthy of that special red badge are the result of close collaboration between Team RS in Europe and the Special Vehicles Team in the United States, with extra input from engineers in the Asia-Pacific region.
The new Focus ST has a re-mapped version of Ford's two-litre Ecoboost engine with high-pressure direct fuel-injection, a low-inertia turbocharger and revised intake and exhaust porting feeding twin cams, each with variable cam timing.
It's rated for 184kW and 360Nm, which should take it from 0-100 in about six and a half seconds and on to just shy of 250km/h flat out - but, thanks to the clean-running EcoBoost architecture, it's expected to average 7.2 litres per 100km at a cost of less than 170g/km of CO2 (20 percent less than its five-cylinder borrowed-from-Volvo predecessor) when driven nice and easy.
But, to paraphrase Tina Turner, since when did ST owners do anything nice and easy?
Minesh Bhagaloo of our sister publication Star Motoring was at the SA media launch, and came back with nothing but praise for the Ecoboost engine. Ford claims 10 percent more power and torque than on the previous ST, he says, and it feels like it, holding boost right to the rev limiter for a flat torque curve.
And the boffins at Team RS have kept it honest by feeding the intake roar directly from the intake trunking into the cabin through what Ford calls a symposer, rather than playing an electronic approximation of the real thing through the speakers of the sound system. It happens, Cyril, we kid you not.
Our man Minesh reckons it retains a good deal of the flavour of the previous, five-cylinder RS engine, but with a somewhat sharper edge when pushed hard, audible more in the cabin than outside.
Even the exhaust system, with its unusual twin hexagonal centre exhaust tailpipes, has been tuned to leave drivers of more mundane vehicles in no doubt as to what just passed them, with a quiet growl at low revs, becoming more authoritative as the revs rise.
The ratios in the Focus ST's six-speed manual cogbox have been revised for maximum punch, with a long top gear for relaxed, economical cruising. The Powershift dual-clutch option offered on other Focus models is not, however, available for the ST.
The Focus' electronic power steering has been recalibrated for the new ST, using a more aggressive version of Ford's torque-steer compensation programme to keep it on the straight and narrow under hard acceleration.
There is still some torque steer, says Bhagaloo, but it's easily manageable, making the driving experience more engaging.
A variable-ratio steering rack reduces steering directness in a straight line and increases it when cornering - going to almost full lock without the driver needing to move either hand on the wheel.
Torque vectoring gently brakes the inside wheel through a corner to reduce understeer, while cornering understeer control applies torque to induce yaw both in power-on and power-off conditions, further tightening the turn-in, even before the electronic driver aids start interfering.
The scribes at the media launch tried the new ST around Port Elizabeth's short, tight Aldo Scribante circuit. Bhagaloo found the chassis outstandingly well-balanced; he says he could induce mild understeer going into corners, changing to oversteer near the limit, but it could easily be controlled through the throttle.
The aforementioned electronic stability programme offers three modes: the standard mode is a tweaked version of the system used across the Focus range, a reduced or wide-slip mode disables traction control and lets things get quite seriously out of shape before it steps in, and finally, the electronic nanny can be switched off altogether.
Uprated springs and dampers lower the ride height 10mm compared to other Focus models, while the rear gets uprated suspension knuckles and a stiffer anti-roll bar.
Bhagaloo was impressed with the suspension; he described it as 'hard' but was at pains to point out that it soaked up the bumps without jarring its occupants or, more importantly, upsetting the car's balance.
That's what Ford calls the signature colour developed for this model, and Bhagaloo says it's just as eyeball-searing in real life as it is in our pictures. If you want a quieter ride, however, the ST is also available in red, white, blue, black and silver.
The front end is styled around a one-piece interpretation of Ford's characteristic trapezoidal grille; according to Bhagaloo it may not be to everybody's taste (to him it looks like a fish with its mouth open!) but it has become a signature ST styling cue.
A deep front bumper with a suggestion of a splitter morphs into bulging side skirts and a deeper than standard rear bumper with diffuser-style vents in the lower section, topped off with a neat roof spoiler.
The interior is all about dramatically dark headliner and pillar trim, a special ST steering wheel and Recaro sports seats, lower than standard, with length adjustment, and cushion tilt.
Even the rear bench seat, according to Ford, uses special foam to support and cosset passengers even in go-for-it mode.
TWO TRIM LEVELS
The new ST will be available in five-door format only, in ST1 or ST3 trim levels (ST2 is an intermediate trim level not available in South Africa)
The ST1 spec, at R309 530, includes keyless start, tyre deflation detection, cruise control and power-operated, one-shot up or down front and rear windows.
The high-spec, ST3 model, priced at R353 700, adds-auto folding mirrors, keyless entry, rain sensitive wipers and bi-xenon high-intensity discharge headlights with LED daytime running lights, auto-dimming rear view mirror and leather Recaro sports seats with eight-way adjustability and pull-out squab - as well as the newly-developed Recaro rear bench.
TALK TO ME
The ST3 also comes with Ford Sync (also available on Focus Trend and Sport models), a software platform that provides hands-free, voice-activated in-car connectivity, that allows users to connect a compatible cellphone or digital media player to their Focus ST via Bluetooth or USB.
Sync recognises up to 150 voice commands and can cope with variations in accents and vocabulary, allowing the driver to make calls via voice commands and steering wheel mounted audio controls.
The system will also retrieve text messages and read them aloud, allowing the driver to send a reply from a predetermined list of 15 responses.
Bhagaloo tried it out during the ride-and-drive portion of the launch, but said it was not as user-friendly as the more established systems. His actual words were “It's not an i-Drive,” which, considering the almost universal dislike the BMW system has evoked, is really saying something.
Satnav is not available for the ST, even as an option.
The Focus ST comes with a four-year or 120 000km warranty and a five-year or 90 000km service plan. Service intervals, however, have been stretched to 20 000km, making the service plan a bit of an anomaly, since it falls away after the 80 000km service.
When this was pointed out to Ford SA staffers at the launch they said they were trying to have the service plan extended to 100 000km, which would make more sense.
Ford SA has secured an initial allocation of 160 ST’s, and they are negotiating for more.
We'll leave the last word to our man Minesh, who says that even the top-of-the-range ST3 is significantly cheaper than its nearest rival, the R378 300 VW Golf GTI Edition 35, with more power and more torque - and, unless you really have to have leather seats, the ST1 at R44 000 less is a no-brainer. Read his full driving impressions in Star Motoring on Thursday.