FORD FOCUS ST

NO RS, BUT A HOT HATCH TO†WARM THE HEART

ASH WESTERMAN

FIRST AUSSIE DRIVE

HAVE YOU ever attended a christening and a wake on the same day?

Okay, me neither, but I imagine the emotions involved may be a little like those felt here. The celebratory part is the local arrival of the $44,690

Ford Focus ST hot hatch, but its launch coincides almost exactly with news that the overlord of the semi-affordable hot-hatch segment, the Focus RS, has copped a bullet to the heart.

When Ford delivered the news that its revelatory, drift-capable allpaw hero would not be renewed in fourth-gen form, a few of us (okay, only me) whimpered like small girls. But it raises the question: is this new ST any sort of cut-price conciliation? After all, its 2.3-litre turbo four is a detuned version of the 257kW/440Nm†unit that powered the previous $51K RS (and the 236kW/448Nm version in the Mustang High Performance). Here it makes 206kW and 420Nm Ė significantly higher than the previous Focus STís 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinderís outputs of 184kW and 360Nm.

But is it enough? Well, itís ample for letting you know these outputs are being funnelled through the front wheels only Ė thereís angry axle tramp if you get wilful with the throttle on damp roads, and a bit of tweaking torque steer out of tight exits from the electronically controlled LSD. But the chassis tune and tyres, which weíll get to in a second, are so capable youíll almost certainly wish for a bit more.

This is a very good turbo four, just not a brilliant one. The twinscroll turbocharger boosts early and with nice progression, giving the flexibility to pull from under 2000rpm, accompanied by a gruff snarl thatís mostly exhaust with a light overlay of induction. But itís a shame the exhaust is not switchable, as the sound can get a bit much when youíre trying to just drive swiftly but stealthily.

Commendably, the EcoBoost four makes good use of the extra 300cc it packs over rivals like the Hyundai i30 and Civic Type R, with a 20Nm advantage over the latter, and fully 67Nm over the Korean. And it is smooth, and mostly pretty willing.

But thereís typical turbo flattening of the rate of urge as it nears 6000rpm, and by the 6400 redline, itís properly tapped out and hollering for another ratio. Itís not an engine that headbutts the limiter hungry for more.

Speaking of upshifts, this is the first Focus ST to be offered with an automatic transmission, which will put this car on the radar for a load more buyers. Weíll reserve judgement until we try the seven-speed (no-costoption) auto, but gut instinct says stick with the manual if you have a functional left leg and havenít lost the zest for life. The manual is a good one; the throw is acceptably short, with an oily, lightly knuckled feel, well-spaced ratios, and teamed with a clutch thatís light and positive.

As for the chassis, it feels to be the product of real finessing, giving fine†body control teamed with perfectly judged ride compliance in the softer of the two damper modes. The Sport mode (labelled Ford Performance) ties the show down tighter than the Pulp Fiction gimp in his bondage chair, and only works on super-smooth roads. This mode also adds a chunky helping of steering weight; not to my taste, and canít be separated from the stiff damping and more aggro engine mapping. Not allowing any of these three parameters to be individually adjusted may be noble in theory, but itís annoying in practice.

The lighter steering has real hyper alertness and turn-in eagerness, with a near-perfect self-centring return rate, even if true road feel is not quite there. The heavy mode just loses the nuance. Stacks of grip from the 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S rubber, though, and a nice rotational inclination from the rear with the ESC in Sport mode if youíre prepared to try properly hard to unstick it. Brakes, too, are brilliantly strong, with ample pedal feel.

To justify the hefty $5700 price hike over the previous model, Ford has loaded the ST with the works. Standard equipment includes LED headlights and tail-lights, auto-dipping high beam, wireless phone charging,†a 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, DAB radio, and sat-nav accessed via a slightly dinky-looking 8.0-inch highresolution touchscreen. Wonderfully supportive Recaro front seats, too, and the wheel feels great in the hands.

Just a shame the instruments look so budget, even if their legibility is fine. But the faux carbon trim is naff, and the overall cabin presentation,†compared to the forthcoming Mk8 Golf, is like what a McDonaldís dining room is to the Qantas Business Class lounge. So the ST is too hamstrung by a few of the donor Focusís presentation weaknesses and calibration misses to be a hot hatch of holistic brilliance.

But it is a great drive, and thatís worthy of celebration, if not quite a rousing ovation.

ASH WESTERMAN

PLUS

Strong, willing engine; quick steering; chassis tune and grip; seats; equipment

MINUS

Fine chassis could use more power; non-switchable exhaust; interior lacks premium feel

Model Ford Focus ST

Engine 2261cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo

Power 206kW @ 5500rpm

Torque 420Nm @ 3000-4000rpm

Transmission 6-speed manual

Weight 1508kg

0-100km/h 5.7sec (claimed)

Economy 7.9L/100km

Price $44,690

On sale Now