WITH Mustang mania at peak, it’s easy to forget that Ford’s performance pitch comprises more than a one horse effort and, in fact, is already well under way.
For: Five-door practicality, benefits from improvements to chassis and comforts .
Against: Still suffers from torque steer, though it’s less wrist-jarring now; doesn’t sound especially wild.
A pair of proud ST-badged Europeans, the Fiesta and the Focus, have been revving up their respective sectors for some time now. They mightn’t have the headline-assuring brand heritage or the sheer brawn of America’s Pony Car, but assuredly these hot hatches are not to be taken lightly.
The firecracker Focus that’s the subject of attention today is especially relevant, being the mid-life update of a car that has found a firm, if modest, following.
New Zealand’s fast Focus association began with the 127kW/196Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder Focus ST170 of 2003 then really fired up with the thrilling and hugely characterful 2.5-litre 166kW/320Nm five-cylinder Focus XR5 Turbo.
The Ford-Volvo divorce meant the five-cylinder had to go off with its Swedish parent, so now we’re back to four pots and 2.0-litres, yet with even more punch: 184kW/360Nm is a pretty decent dollop of kapow from an engine of this capacity.
Whose fat exhaust pipes will be blowing fumes at this $52,840 Ford, or can Focus drivers be assured they’ve the goods to keep these rivals in the rear-view mirror?
No-one could call a Focus ST subtle, but some might wonder why it isn’t even more overt. Ford, after all, has something of a habit of making sure its performance wares are seen (and heard).
Two letters explain why the ST is sporty to a certain point: RS. It’s only fitting that the feral four-wheel-drive Focus flagship that lands in mid-2016 will benefit from getting even bigger wheels, a brasher bodykit and a bolder kerbside persona.
Not that the ST is a shrinking violet. It has always looked the part thanks to a gaping mesh grille, 19-inch alloy wheels, the signature centre-mounted twin-pipe exhaust and a hunkered stance. For the facelift, Ford has updated the front end with a wider grille, slimmer headlights, rectangular foglights and a more sculpted bonnet.
Other detail changes include reshaped lower intakes, smaller LED rear taillights and a lower faux diffuser. It’s intended to make the car seem a bit more eye-catching and presumably more angry too; though the challenge is that the Focus shape is just too friendly-looking for its own good. Theirs is an air of menace here, but it’s not as overtly interesting as that RenaultSport Megane. Now there’s a car that makes your heart race!
Maybe it all depends on the colour, though I’m not sure if Ford understands why this can be effective, given that the latest hero colour for this car is a kind of metallic battleship grey called ‘stealth’. It’s an interesting hue, but not as captivating as the previous metallic orange that carried special status, a new yellow that has just become available let alone the red of our test car.
The sporty theme continues within, with front Recaro sports seats, a flat-bottomed and fat-rimmed three-spoke steering wheel that is better to look at and to hold than the four-spoke original, contrast piping, carbon fibre trim, extra gauges on the dash, a sports steering wheel, metal pedals, a metal gear lever and a generous distribution of ST badges.
The interior also alters with provision of the 8.0-inch Sync2 touchscreen system shared with the Mondeo, an alteration that significantly reduces the centre console button count and also lends the car a more polished, premium feel.
Other items on the ST's standard equipment list include dual-zone climate control, keyless entry and start, cruise control, bi-xenon headlights and LED running lights. The comprehensive safety specification includes Ford's City Safe collision avoidance system, which automatically applies the brakes at low speeds if an obstacle is detected ahead.
All sorts of engineering changes come with the 2015 update, but none were undertaken under the bonnet.
With 184kW and a maximum of 360Nm on overboost, Ford’s EcoBoost has good on-paper cred, yet that muscularity translates in intriguing fashion in that it’s an engine that feels faster than it potentially is. The most revealing insight into this trait is the claimed 0-100kmh sprint time of 6.5 seconds. That’s quick, but still sees it sitting behind the VW Golf GTi in its sharpest fit-out and the RenaultSport Megane. The Subaru WRX manual, too, for that matter.
Where the Ford engine might gain revenge is with something most performance car nuts probably give a lot consideration to. However, Ford clearly feels that economy is set to become increasingly important to the buyer base, so is exultant that the mill’s official burn rate drops by 0.1 to 7.3 litres per 100km with the addition of idle-stop, which is switchable if you simply find it annoying. And you will.
Despite having not laid a spanner on this engine, Ford has nonetheless made it sound a bit more interesting. Initially the ST used a sound chamber, a wee plastic box hidden within the dashboard, to amplify the induction noise. This obviously didn’t make the cut because now they’ve dropped that device and instead opted for another increasingly popuar cheat, enhancement via the speakers (based on inputs from the engine and existing cabin noise rather than a synthesized sound file).
It’s a better solution than the original idea insofar that, generally, the sound quality is nicer and more ‘natural’. The challenge for Ford is that anyone who knew the XR5 Turbo will still be disappointed; that car had a fantastic barking burble and, try as they might, Ford still cannot get the new four to emulate the famous five’s soundtrack. Maybe they’ll have better luck with the RS.
Even though Ford’s version of a direct shift gearbox, the PowerShift transmission, has been something of a disappointment, it remains surprising that this technology still hasn’t found its way into the performance model.
I’ve no problem with the ST only coming with a pure manual gearbox – this six-speed is a slick, short-throw delight – but I know a lot of potential buyers will nowadays be turned off by the absence of a two pedal, paddle-shift option. That more than 90 percent of all Golf GTi sales now are secured by the DSG version suggests Ford is missing out on a lot of action.
Ever experienced torque steer without wheelspin? Yeah, agreed, it’s a curious sensation, one that took a little getting used to with this car. It’s a trait that appears to result from this model picking up an electronic torque vectoring system.
There’s no doubt that TVS alters the behaviour of a car that used to be a real handful under heavy throttle load in its original form. Ford could have resolved the issue by fitting a full mechanical limited slip differential but its reckons this electronic aide is a better solution; it saves weight and cost and ensures maximum traction.
True enough, it does all that, however it hardly wholly quells the propensity for torque steer that has always been a challenge with this car. What it does, though, is remove less of the actual loading through the wheel when you give it a bootful coming out of a corner.
As result, there‘s less chance of it straining your wrists. But it still squirms and kicks if you’re greedy with the throttle, even if the wheel doesn’t tug as violently or as haphazardly as before. Also, the nose is still very keen to follow cambers too, so it pays to keep a firm grip on the wheel on uneven roads.
So, as a technology upgrade, the TVS is important but not the solution it hopes to be. A limited slip diff would work better and, if Ford does want to up its electronic enhancement, then the provision of adaptive dampers, which are still lacking might have been better appreciated to remove some of the ride’s ‘edge’ when dribbling around town.
While we’re on a moan, I’d also suggest the ST lets itself down on another count in that the driver’s seat is still set about two centimetres too high – which doesn’t seem much, and certainly doesn’t degrade comfort but nonetheless spoils the driving position. Also, it suffers from a massively large turning circle; you’ll notice this if seeking to u-turn it in a city street. A manoeuvre that a standard Focus can undertake easily becomes a wheel-twirling, three-point or more forward-reverse-forward again undertaking in the racer, due its tighter rack.
Get over this and it’s an engaging car. If you like your hot hatches to be involving, then this one certainly obliges. Ford has revised the damper settings on the MacPherson strut from, independent rear suspension, yet while the ride isn’t as jarring as that from some alternates, it’s certainly firm enough to make the car feel busy over anything super-smooth surfaces.
That low-profile rubber on 235/40 18-inch rims also has tendency to tramline and transmit surface imperfection, but that kind of feedback is in keeping the kind it is.
But you do become aware that the only chance you’ll have of tweaking the Sync2 set-up – which aside from working the nine-speaking sound system is also the pathway to the satellite navigation and Bluetooth – is by either learning how to operate it by voice control (which means parroting a whole series of prompts) or only accessing it when the car is at a standstill. It’s all very well having a touchscreen, but even that has limited usefulness when the bumps are making your hands wave all over the show. The new display also provides the display screen for the reversing camera.
With 10mm removed from the body height and firmer springs than standard, body roll remains in check when you’re intent on chucking it through corners and while the electromechanical steering hasn’t a wholly natural feel, it does have a meaty weighting. The brakes are pretty good, too. You really stand on the pedal without risking the car pitching onto its nose.
The cluster of gauges (oil pressure, temperature and turbo boost pressure) topping the centre console also add some flair even if, though they’re purposefully angled towards the driver, you’ll be too busy to monitor them.
A poor steering lock aside, it's handy enough to pass muster as a usable everyday car, not least because it presents as a five-door. This format might seem a bit less sporty insofar as appearance goes but surely gives the ST a sales edge when the ‘driver’ of the house has to balance their personal aspirations against the realities of everyday life in a one-car situation.
Though the sports chairs do eat into rear seat occupant footroom, there is nonetheless a good amount of headroom in the back seat plus ample storage and cargo space (316 litres).
How it compares:
Regardless that the greater proportion of car buyers are cool about hot hatches, there’s no shortage of choice: Along with the Volkswagen Golf GTi that tends to be considered the benchmark, there’s the Renault Megane RS and, latterly, Holden’s Astra VXR. Potentially the Subaru WRX, too, if you’re prepared to shop beyond a front-drive format.
Some are quicker and more dynamically rewarding, but for practicality and relative affordability the Focus ST is hard to beat. At least, that is, until the RS comes along.