Driven - new Focus ST passes fun test
Is there still a place in our micro-regulated motoring world for family cars which are fast and fun?
The car manufacturers think so, judging by the continued popularity of the VW Golf GTI and the arrival of two new pleasure machines from Ford and Opel.
The latter's Astra OPC we'll hopefully cover soon. Ford's newcomer is the car you see here, the Focus ST in its new “signature” colour of Tangerine Scream. (Other hues are available, you might be relieved to know.)
The Focus is midway in ferocity between the familiar Golf and the vigorous Opel. A monstrously potent Focus RS may appear in the future, but for now 184kW will just have to do.
This new ST comes as either five-door hatchback or estate, although it appears that South Africa will only be getting the hatchback when it arrives in the fourth quarter of this year.
A prominent rear spoiler, a fierce front grille, an intriguing central exhaust pipe shaped like a pair of conjoined hexagons and some shapely sill covers give it visual clout.
The previous ST used a Volvo five-cylinder engine, 2.5 litres in capacity with a turbocharger, a 166kW output and a significant thirst for petrol. This clearly wouldn't do in a car world increasingly defined by CO2 outputs, so the new ST has a revved-up version of the 2.0 litre Ecoboost unit normally found in Mondeos and MPVs.
The extra power I've mentioned, but there's also massive gain in officially measured economy and a corresponding drop in greenhouse gas. The new engine is lighter, too, so perhaps this ST will lose the nose-heavy feeling that tainted the last one's agility.
Today's fastest hot hatchbacks in this size class - the Astra and Renaultsport Mégane - have clever front suspension to help the front wheels handle the power. The last Focus RS had such a system, too. In the new ST, however, Ford wanted to keep the price relatively low and has done it all with electronics instead. The purist in me says this can't work as well; how can a computer programme emulate the subtleties felt through real suspension components?
Well, it does.
I tried the ST on a snaking, sometimes bumpy, very fast track and it was thoroughly good fun. The engine pulls with great vigour from low speeds to very high ones, emitting a deep, crisp note channelled towards the cabin via an underbonnet “sound symposer” tuned to enhance the parts of the sound that best tickle a car enthusiast's aural fantasies. Driven gently, the ST stays quiet, but add gusto and it responds with suitable sonics.
Then there's the steering, which is designed to give a quicker response the further away you are from the straight-ahead. From full right to full left calls for just 1.8 turns of the steering wheel; most cars need somewhere between two and four. Yet despite this wrist-flick alacrity, the steering manages not to feel nervous.
The Focus also has a bank of clever electronics to channel both power and cornering forces to the wheels to make best use of them. You can make the inside front wheel spin when powering out of a tight corner just enough to remind you of the forces involved, and revel in the keen way the Focus adopts the slightly tail-out attitude of a rear-wheel-drive car as you power through.
Yet, for all this entertainment, the Focus ST is still civilised when you want it to be. It rides smoothly over bumps, it's comfortable, and only passengers who notice the racy seats with their brightly coloured inserts and spot the pod of three extra gauges on top of the dash, will guess at the ST's other character.
-The Independent on Sunday