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The Ford Focus ST has big shoes to fill

By Ash Westerman, 21 May 2020 Reviews

2020 Ford Focus ST review

There is plenty to like about the Focus ST, but is it enough to make up for the loss of the all-paw RS?

Overall Rating

5 0 5

Plus & Minus

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

  2. Minus Chassis could use more power; bundled drive-mode parameters; sub-premium interior

The Wheels Verdict: Ford is on a roll with its latest generation of hot hatches. The Focus ST sits at the top of the family tree, with a chassis that screams of quality engineering, and a manual gearbox that true driving enthusiasts can relish. There are foibles though, like interior presentation foibles, and an engine that fails to really thrill. The Focus ST is good, but falls short of greatness.

WHAT IS THE FORD FOCUS ST

Traditionally the entry-level performance-orientated Ford Focus, the ST is what happens when the Blue Oval’s performance division is let loose on a family hatchback. With the engine lifted from the four-cylinder Mustang, power is delivered to the front wheels via a six-speed manual. Poised as a rival to the traditional hot hatch cohort, the Focus ST has plenty of tough opposition to beat.

Read next: Here are the cars the 2020 Ford Focus ST has to beat

WHY WE’RE TESTING IT

With news out of Europe that the Focus RS has been axed, the ST has been given the responsibility of leading Ford’s hot hatch assault. Sitting atop the range, the ST needs to prove that the fastest Focus you can buy doesn’t need all-paw traction to excel. The smaller all-new Fiesta ST sibling stunned in its recent Australian debut, so it’s time to find out if brilliance runs up the family tree.

THE FORD FOCUS ST REVIEW

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 all-paw 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 – significantly higher than the previous Focus ST’s 2.0-litre turbo four-cylinder’s outputs of 184kW and 360Nm.

Read next: 2020 Ford Fiesta ST review

But is it enough? Well, it’s ample for letting you know these outputs are being funnelled through the front wheels only – there’s 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 we’ll get to in a second, are so capable you’ll almost certainly wish for a bit more.

This is a very good turbo four, just not a brilliant one. The twin-scroll turbocharger boosts early and with nice progression, giving the flexibility to pull from under 2000rpm, accompanied by a gruff snarl that’s mostly exhaust with a light overlay of induction. But it’s a shame the exhaust is not switchable, as the sound can get a bit much when you’re 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 there’s typical turbo flattening of the rate of urge as it nears 6000rpm, and by the 6400 redline, it’s properly tapped out and hollering for another ratio. It’s 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. We’ll reserve judgement until we try the seven-speed (no-cost-option) auto, but gut instinct says stick with the manual if you have a functional left leg and haven’t 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 that’s 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 can’t 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 it’s 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 you’re prepared to try properly hard to unstick it. Brakes, too, are brilliantly strong, with ample pedal feel.

Read next: The forgotten Ford ute concepts that preceded the Ranger Raptor

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 high-resolution 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 McDonald’s dining room is to the Qantas Business Class lounge.

So the ST is too hamstrung by a few of the donor Focus’s presentation weaknesses, as well as its bundled drive-mode parameters, to be a hot hatch of holistic brilliance. But it is a great drive, and that’s worthy of celebration, if not quite a rousing ovation.

RIVALS

Honda Civic Type R, Hyundai i30 N, Volkswagen Golf GTI

2020 FORD FOCUS ST SPECIFICATIONS

Model: Ford Focus ST
Engine: 2261cc 4cyl, dohc, 16v, turbo
Max power: 206kW @ 5500rpm
Max 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

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