The year is 2002. Ford’s small-car entrant, the Laser, is so old it’s shaving each morning. Effective though the Laser concept had been, its glory days were back in the 1980s when leg warmers were cool, Bob Geldof was a singer, not a saint, and there was still some major differentiation between the Laser and its mechanical twin, the Mazda 323.
This feature was originally published in MOTOR’s June 2007 issue
So by the time the calendar flipped over to ’02, things were pretty slow on the Laser-selling front. But instead of creating a new Laser by simply re-badging the then-new Mazda 3, Ford turned its sights on Europe.
The Focus is to Europe what the original Laser was to 1981 Australia; the default setting for anybody looking for small-to-medium sized wheels with a hatchback layout. Which was fine, but it also meant that performance wasn’t exactly top of the charts when it came to designing the original model.
So when the Focus lobbed here in 2002, it wasn’t inflaming the passions of performance enthusiasts (that’d be you and me, then). Clearly, a hi-po version was needed and, by 2003, the ST170 had landed. It looked good in an understated way, and promised much.
The 170 thing derived from the fact that the engine was good for 170 horsepower, although in a metric Australia, this was probably lost on most folks. But even when metrificated, the output was still 127kW, and there was nearly 200Nm of torque to hustle things along. A six-speed manual gearbox was the only choice and the three-door hatch the only bodyshell. None of which made any difference, because that’s how you or I would probably have specced it anyway.
Standard equipment was decent, with air-con, 17-inch alloys, a six-stacker, sporty front seats, leather-trimmed tiller and a body kit, but like so many Euro-packaging cock-ups, cruise control wasn’t part of the deal (as it isn’t with the otherwise brilliant XR5 Turbo, either).
The other thing that was a bit hard to fathom was why the thing didn’t feel a bit perkier than it did. Oh, it was quick enough if you flogged it along, but it never really felt like it was a free-revver or that it really wanted you to spank it.
The torque seemed to be stacked pretty high in the revs and even when you got there, there was less of a smack in the chops than there should have been.
However, part of that feeling was down to just how good the chassis was. The cornering was fairly flat, but the stiff ride that comes with it just didn’t materialise. Overall, the ST170’s suspension gave
the impression of being well thought-out, well-specced and based on a competent platform to begin with. Which is pretty much the story.
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Like a lot of really stable, sorted chassis’, the ST170 always felt like it could use more grunt. Even with its perky turbomotor, the current XR5 feels a bit the same, so maybe it’s just a genetic thing blighting all performance Fords.
With all that in mind, the ST170 can be shunted along a quiet road with a fair degree of accuracy and comfort. While the spine-tingling thrills may not be in abundance, the ST170 will get you to where you’re going quickly, with only a decent serve of understeer limiting things once entry speeds are really up there.
Gone but never forgotten on classic MOTOR
Safety-wise, you’re looking at dual front air-bags, side bags, seat-belt pretensioners, ABS and even electronic brake-force distribution (ESP was an optional extra).
And when you look at that lot and remember that it really is a child of the 21st century and the thought-police that inhabit it, it’s a wonder the ST170 is any fun at all. And that blue oval badge? Well, that just makes it all the more remarkable.
2003 Ford Focus ST170
BODY: 3-door, 5-seat hatchback
ENGINE: 1988cc 4cyl, DOHC, 16v
POWER: 127kW @ 7000rpm
TORQUE: 196Nm @ 5500rpm
TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual
SUSPENSION: struts, A-arms, anti-roll bar (f); control blade multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar (r)
BRAKES: 300mm ventilated discs, single-piston calipers (f), 280mm ventilated discs (r), ABS, EBD, ESP
WHEELS: 17 x 7.0-inch
TYRES: Continental ContiSport Contact 215/45R17 87W
PRICE: $37,000 (Aug ’03)
2003 Holden Astra SRi Turbo
Similar money to a used Focus ST170, but a much bigger bang for your buck. The Astra was also European, not as supple as the ST170, but its turbocharged engine is a mighty good one. Turbo badge might be harder to get past Mum/Dad/insurance company, though.
Classic MOTOR: Astra SRi Turbo v 206 GTi 180
With 165 turbocharged kilowatts, the Megane Sport is one fast bubblebutt. And with the Sport treatment, even the J-Lo caboose looks kind of cool. The steam comes on quick like all good modern turbos, but the front end just ain’t up to it. Ragged, but fun.
2003 MINI Cooper S
A bit more money than the Focus on the used market, but arguably a stack more personality. The Mini plays the nostalgia game as well as any, but there’s also some substance in supercharged S form. Six-speed manual is right on the money and it’s groovy to the max.
2004 Mazda 3 SP23
Once the Laser’s brother and now the Focus’s arch enemy. An old principle but a good one: drop a big engine into a small car. Result? The 3’s brilliant chassis combined with the throaty 2.3 lifted from the Mazda 6. Nice one and only overshadowed by our 2007 hot-hatch champ, the 190kW MPS.