There's no point trying any harder than this. The four fat rings of Michelin Pilot Sport 4S underneath the Ford Focus ST are keyed into the road so tightly, the commitment needed to push them into screeching understeer would, surely, put us into the scrub.
But the ST’s steadfast composure taunts you. Stop yourself from braking into blind hairpins and it barrels through, prodding your chest, asking if that’s really all you’ve got.
Pin the nicely sprung throttle pedal into the firewall and there’s no wheelspin or frantic brake intervention. The driven tyres hold purchase as you shoot from the corner, ready to size up the next bend.
Right here it hits us that the third-generation ST has arrived at a critical time for the Focus. That Ford has cut the RS from the range in a bow to incoming emission rules has stunned even those with only a passing interest in the hot-hatch game.
So while the Focus ST has long played sidekick to the RS, the newcomer must step into the spotlight as the range’s top-dog. Whether Ford wanted that to be the case or not.
On top of this, it still needs to nail the ST’s original ideals and deliver an accessible performance package. It must also succeed its predecessor which, frankly, was a scary car, with handling brilliance offered in snippets between snaps of turn-in oversteer and power wheelspin. But, importantly, the ST was relatively cheap.
So it’s a bit stressful to learn the price has rocketed up from the old car’s $38,990 before on-roads to $44,690 for the new Focus ST. Is it justified? Before we can judge whether it seals the deal on the road, there’s a fair bit to get through about what’s changed, since Ford’s truly clean-sheet overhaul accounts for a chunk of that price increase.
Production is again based in Saarlouis, Germany, where the plant rolls out wagon and even diesel ST variants. Oz only scores the petrol five-door hatch, and Ford’s new C2 architecture at its core lays a solid base. It’s torsionally 20 per cent stiffer. It’s also managed to squeeze a 52mm longer wheelbase into a body that’s only stretched 16mm in length.
While a torsion-beam setup has never penalised the Fiesta ST’s performance, engineers took advantage of the structure’s independent rear suspension capability and deployed multi-links on the Focus ST. Strut suspension endures at the front, but its steering rods are pushed forward and higher, while the rack ratio has been quickened to just two turns lock-to-lock.
Ford’s switched the brake booster to electric power as well, claiming improved feel and fade characteristics. It controls bigger brakes: twin-piston sliding calipers at the front chomping 330mm ventilated discs, while single-piston calipers at the rear bite 303mm items.
They’re tasked with handling the big-block inside the ST’s nose. Ford’s managed to squeeze in there its ubiquitous turbocharged 2.3-litre inline four-cylinder. It spins a twin-scroll turbine that relies on an electronic wastegate for boost control and helps the four-banger punch out 206kW at 5500rpm and 420Nm between 3000 and 4000rpm. That’s less than what the late RS managed with the same capacity, yes, but it’s well up on its competition. It’ll even out arm-wrestle a Honda Civic Type R, for instance.
But it won’t be a wild torque-steering beast with what’s been devised for the drivetrain. Ford’s employed an electronically controlled front LSD like the Hyundai i30 N.
The BorgWarner-developed technology, Ford says, relies on a hydraulic clutch that can fully lock on the front axle. The ABS system also chips in when braking the inside front wheel.
And if Ford’s intentions to dominate the segment weren’t clear enough, this eLSD has been designed to work with either a six-speed manual or seven-speed auto, which is half a second slower from 50 to 100km/h at 4.6sec in fourth.
We’re only in the manual today, which Ford says reduces throw by seven per cent compared to the regular Focus and packs its own gear ratios. And something tells us, after settling into the spacious cabin and finding the gearknob placed only a short reach from the chunky, softly-padded steering wheel, that someone at HQ prefers it this way.
Thumbing the starter button summons a hoarse growl from the tuned dual-tip exhaust system. After pressing the well-weighted clutch, it’s an easy thing to coax along at a slow pace. The cabin is hushed and Ford’s made the clever call to fit the ST with adaptive multi-mode damping.
Given 19-inch rims are standard and team with firmer roll bars, bushings and lowered springs, the ride on 30-profile rubber is still firm. Even in Normal mode the chassis is constantly transmitting information. However, there’s an underlying absorbency that, after a while, fades the talkative ride into background noise.
The upside to that is you can always tune into that frequency when needed. Or, better yet, you can engage Sport mode and amplify it. Accessed through a one-touch button on the steering wheel that brings the damping, electric steering, powertrain, amplified noise and brake booster tune to life, it also switches on a rev-match system.
The rev-match comes with a Performance Pack Aussie cars score as standard, which includes Launch Control as well. When you hit the steering wheel’s ‘OK’ button on the right keypad when stopped, two flags appear either side of a big ‘zero’ in the cluster screen to set the stage. Pin the throttle and the tacho needle slowly bounces off 3250rpm. Pop the clutch and the ST launches clean, holding traction and tearing away with little fuss.
Switch off ESP, though, and you’ll learn how hard the computers are working to keep the torque in check. As revs near 5000rpm the front axle breaks into chattering axle tramp, demanding an early shift into second.
On the way through the gears, the six-speed feels slick enough in action and rowing it is only a chore from second to third when the shift needs care to avoid baulking. There’s a neat ‘ST’ shift indicator light on the tacho (it’s in the Performance Pack) that flicks from green to yellow once you’ve passed the ideal shift point.
That’s because not much happens in the last couple of thousand revs approaching its 6500rpm redline, but if you’re chasing Ford’s 5.7sec 0-100km/h claim then you’ll need to hit the 6625rpm cut-out to pass 100km/h in second. Just.
During all this, Ford also says you can keep the boot in on upshifts, essentially to ‘flat-shift’ (which we didn’t try), while there’s also an ‘anti-lag’ system. And while that’s a slight stretch since it doesn’t inject fuel into the exhaust manifold to spin the turbine when you come off-throttle (like anti-lag in rally cars), it instead holds the throttle plate open to sustain the compressor wheel’s speed – and reinforces the lengths to which Ford has gone to try to maximise response.
Still, under 3500rpm there’s still a pause before you really get going, revealing the real benefit here is a more refined delivery. Combine it with the brilliant front limited slip differential and the Focus ST makes for a serious point-to-point weapon.
That’s obvious back on the roads that originally introduced this story. Whereas the old ST would aggressively rotate into corners so it could straighten early and reduce the burden on its open front diff, the ST’s front-end is loaded with unshakeable grip.
While it might not dance around like before, and that’s partly down to its tubbier spec, you can hold your intended line while applying power or add a surprising amount of extra lock into decreasing radius bends. There’s only occasional assistance from the car’s anti-torque steer software compromising the sweet steering weight.
Yes, the longer wheelbase can render the handling somewhat inert. But stiffen the dampers in Sport and the car comes alive, hinting at its deep reserves of talent by either adopting a slow-in, fast-out approach or lightening the inside rear wheel to get on its tippy-toes.
Throw in some ruffled surfaces and it’s almost unflappable. While each wheel works the road, the ST’s body remains steadfast and only the rudest mid-corner bumps question the rear-end’s purchase. The steering, meanwhile, remains locked on course and is laser-accurate, even if it lacks reassuring feedback.
While the ST felt set to earn four and a half stars, we must say the electronic brake booster masks the true pressure in the system and sometimes leaves you second-guessing yourself. And then there’s the noise. Try as the ST might with an amplified engine and exhaust note for true theatre, which adds a hint of likeable warble, the 2.3-litre’s workman-like character is obvious.
And the price? Ford Australia’s obviously wised up to the fact that the sub-$50K hot-hatch segment’s no playground sandpit and equipped the ST to the hilt with weapons-grade stuff for a fighting chance.
Still, $45K is a lot. But, thankfully, it’s more obvious where your money goes this time around in a cabin that feels and looks more expensive, even if it now only seems equal with the outgoing Golf GTI. At least the equipment list is full-fruit, leaving the sunroof and prestige paint (like our car’s Orange Fury) as the only options available.
Crucially, though, the ST’s overall package represents the most value. The way it gives you options in the heat of battle reminds us of the RS, and while the ride’s not perfect, it’s a damn good compromise that is tolerable even after six hours of driving and a good-hearted fang. It should leave a Hyundai i30 N for dead – but we’ll have to compare them to confirm.
While the old version was a reverse-cap wearing hooligan, the new ST has accepted its role as the Focus’s new leader in its stride, with all the maturity and close to all of the talent that requires.
2020 FORD FOCUS ST SPECS
Body 5-door, 5-seat hatch
Engine 2261cc inline-4cyl, DOHC, 16v, turbo
Bore/stroke 87.6 x 94.0mm
Power 206kW @ 5500rpm
Torque 420Nm @ 3000-4000pm
Transmission six-speed manual (seven-speed auto optional)
Suspension struts, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (f); multi-links, adaptive dampers, anti-roll bar (r)
Tracks 1567/1556mm (f/r)
Steering electrically assisted rack-and-pinion
Brakes 330mm ventilated drilled discs, two-piston sliding calipers (f); 302mm solid discs, single-piston sliding calipers (r)
Wheels 19 x 8.0-inch (f/r)
Tyres 235/35 ZR19 (91Y) XL (f/r); Michelin Pilot Sport 4 S
Price $45,340 (includes optional prestige paint Orange Fury)
PROS Tenacious front-end; mid-range grunt; crisp handling
CONS Climbing price; iffy brake feel
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
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