AUSTRALIANS, it’s often said, live for their sport. From the backyards, suburban streets and local parks across the nation to our 100,000-strong MCG stadium, sport is woven into our social and cultural fabric.
Maybe this explains why it’s also a word that’s long been stuck to the backside of our most popular models, represented by badges as evocative as S, GS, GT and SS. Consider that – right to the end – the SV6 and XR6 were the local Commodore and Falcon ranges’ best sellers.
Little wonder, then, that Ford hopes the ST-Line will resonate most with buyers of the latest Focus, released only last December. While it’s a German concoction, ‘ST-Line’ might as well translate to ‘XR5-Lite’, positioned above the base Trend but below the coming full-fat ST (for Sport Technologies) hot hatch. Sporty spice, but at a nice price.
Name aside, nothing carries over from the previous Focus. From the redesigned body and interior to the box-fresh C2 architecture that’s stronger yet lighter than before, this is Ford’s response to its nemesis; Volkswagen’s evergreen Golf.
The chief engineer reckons Focus IV is the “best Ford in history”. That’s a huge call, particularly as, for our market anyway, the hatch ditches the multi-link independent rear suspension (IRS) that the seminal 1998 original pioneered in this class, for a cheaper torsion beam set-up. Oh dear…
Further eyebrows are raised given that behind the ST-Line’s gormless gob (styled by a Melburnian) hides the same, newly downsized 134kW/240Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and eight-speed torque-converter auto found in lesser versions. You can no longer buy a manual Focus.
Thankfully there’s a body kit and retuned suspension with a 10mm-ride drop, so the ST-Line, from $28,990, at least looks the part, as well as boasting cornering lights, sports seats, climate control, keyless entry/start, auto folding mirrors, moodier trim and wireless charging.
These are on top of the Trend’s active grille shutter, auto on/off headlights and wipers, paddle shifters, remote-activated windows, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, sat-nav, voice control, Bluetooth, DAB+ digital radio, AEB, reverse camera, parking sensors, Lane Keep Assist, Lane Departure Warning and post-collision braking. Our test car also boasts a $1250 Driver Assistant Pack, bringing adaptive cruise with (excellent) full stop-and-go and speed-sign recognition tech, along with blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert. That’s $30,890 all up, then, including metallic paint.
Can the ST-Line lure XR-loving Aussies? We’ve lined up a trio of similarly themed foes, for a sporty hatch match.
Even fresher than the Focus is the just-launched Kia Cerato GT, from $31,990 – driveaway. Larger than ever (although the 2700mm wheelbase remains) and visually reminiscent of the suave Stinger, this intriguing new flagship oozes pizzazz/garishness (you decide) and introduces turbo and IRS tech, on top of the usual Aussie-specific ride and handling tweaks that Kia constantly trumpets.
Interestingly, the same lusty 150kW/265Nm 1.6-litre four-pot turbo as fitted to the now-defunct Koup Turbo coupe drives the GT’s front wheels, although it’s now via a seven-speed, dual-clutch transmission (DCT).
Also present are 18-inch alloys, LED headlights, a powered driver’s pew, heated/ventilated front seats, leather and up-spec audio – all items absent from our Focus. As tested, the Kia’s $32,510 D/A includes metallic paint and a seven-year warranty. Kia’s playing very seriously indeed.
From $29,985 including $495 metallic paint, our other Korean, the Hyundai i30 N-Line 1.6T 7DCT, keeps up with the others equipment-wise, although for the Kia’s powered and toasty/chilled front seats and banging sound system, you’ll need the $35K Premium.
As with GT, there’s also specific local IRS chassis tuning. The big question, however, is why can’t every other rapid hatch boast saucy red seatbelts like these?
Rising Fun: 2019 Toyota Corolla ZR Hybrid review
The final entrant in our sporty foursome is the 11th-gen Toyota Corolla, fresh from a rare yet decisive comparison victory in these pages late last year, and now ready to rumble in top ZR spec from $30,370 (or $30,920 in silver). While it’s atmo-only and has a CVT, the Japanese hatch’s 125kW/200Nm 2.0-litre engine’s muscular flexibility, combined with the athleticism of the ‘Toyota New Global Architecture’ base, usher in a new era for the series, along with IRS.
It also brings style, as the swoopy Corolla’s 217-litre cargo capacity has been sacrificed to sub-Yaris levels at the altar of fashion, underscoring a newfound hedonism for the 50-year-old nameplate. Or is it a midlife crisis? Either way, save for the missing CarPlay/Auto connectivity, little is conceded equipment-wise in the Toyota.
While three of the four are closely aligned for size, price and spec, the Kia stands out as the group’s largest, roomiest and best-equipped. More liftback than hatchback, the all-new body borders on medium-sized, liberating a decent amount of rear space as well as a long (if quite shallow) boot.
We’re big on the dashboard’s elegant symmetry, with its orderly layout, clean, crisp markings and pleasing design details. Drink in the turbine vents, for instance. Excellent ergonomics, tempting seats and a sense of airiness also help ensure an inviting driver’s environment. And behold the old-school manual handbrake! Dig down, though, and the plastics seem cheapest here. And on the move, the Kia’s seats aren’t quite as alluring, more of which later. The contrast from Cerato to i30 is telling, because the older Hyundai is more polished overall. Yes, the Germanic dash is derivative, but functionality remains first class It also employs classier materials and possesses a higher air of quality. Best all-round vision, firm but fine seating, lots of hidden storage, a smartly presented (and more elevated) rear row and a deep boot further lift N-Line above GT.
Speaking of rising up … how upmarket is the Corolla’s cabin? Granted, it’s the least roomy (although still sufficient), the low rear cushion is somewhat flat, rear vision is restricted, rear-seat storage is poor and the boot is comically small, but the ZR does exude Lexus-lite ambience.
The dash boasts modernist minimalism, tactile switchgear, solidity and quality. Throw in gorgeous tombstone buckets that envelope and support, and it’s a relaxing place to be.
In stark contrast, the Focus will have to fight to win over customers on the showroom floor, due to a cabin that looks and feels like it was created to take on competitors (albeit German ones) from the segment below. Other shocks are a back seat with no centre armrest, missing rear vents and some unsightly plastics, which contrast with some desirable details elsewhere. While the previous model’s interior was overbearing, this is underwhelming. It only looks great at night, thanks to some deft LED downlighting.
And yet, beneath the already-dated simplicity of the fascia are some unexpected accomplishments from a comfort and interaction perspective. Sound control placement helps build a brilliant driving position, the clarity of instrumentation rivals the Cerato’s, ventilation to all occupants is very effective due to massive central dash outlets, seat support is exemplary, vision out is fine, Ford’s SYNC3 multimedia is miles ahead of the others, the German build quality is up there and the boot is bountiful.
Read next: 2019 Hyundai i30 N-Line review
Still, when even Corolla scores a multi-link set-up, we’re sceptical of the Ford’s chances. Fewer cylinders, no manual gearbox, AWOL IRS, missing armrest for passengers to brace themselves ... has the Blue Oval forgotten what made three generations of Focus the driver’s choice?
Over Henry Ford’s dead body, because the moment you push the start button, the Focus bursts into life and – over time – burrows under your skin. It’s just that type of car, and here’s why.
While it’s 16kW and 25Nm down on the hard-charging i30 and even rortier Cerato, the three-pot turbo engine’s lighter mass (which contributes to an 80kg-odd weight advantage) and tight-knit gearing means the ST-Line remains in sight of the Seoul sisters, leaping into action and punching forcefully up through the rev range with frenzied determination. All accompanied by a buzzy thrum that urges the driver to keep it on the boil.
Inevitably, as fiery as it feels, the featherweight Ford’s lack of cubic inches means the Hyundai and Kia duo do pull away decisively. While there’s only 0.1s between ST and N-Line at 60km/h, the gap is 0.4s in favour of the rampant GT, extending to a 1.3s lead at 100km/h. There’s also a yawning 1.5s divide in the 80-120km/h increment. The flipside is a remarkable 7.5L/100km on test for Focus, against 8.5 and 8.9 for i30 and Cerato respectively.
Despite the latter’s lustier numbers, the N-Line’s power delivery is the smoothest and quietest here, even with the Kia’s fake induction gargle (which sounds as if the GT is running a lumpier cam) subdued. Yet their DCTs proved identically slick and quick, with comparatively imperceptible lag. And their ability to effortlessly surge ahead at speed is in a league of their own here.
So, where’s the Corolla in all this? Far behind, sadly. Maybe it was the searing heat, additional kilos or the Dunlop tyres’ extra grip, but our ZR’s numbers are half a second short of the Ascent Sport’s times, garnered in wintry conditions some months ago.
In isolation, with that torque-converter step-off gear in play, the Toyota feels lively off the mark, and can rely on the 2.0-litre’s hefty mid-range brawn and flexibility to keep things spirited. Only when mashing the throttle does the CVT’s elasticity become apparent, but it’s better than most, and responsive enough, especially in Sport mode. But in this company, the ZR straggled at every timed marker, and drank 10 percent more than the Focus.
Where the Toyota starts to catch up is when the roads turn twisty, thanks to steering that, while light, provides measured feedback and feel, for confident roadholding. The driver can rely on the inherent balance to clip apexes with accuracy and control. Furthermore, the suspension’s sophisticated suppleness imbues it with the best ride quality here, smothering the rough stuff with almost French-car softness. An outstanding dynamic all-rounder.
Read next: 2019 Ford Focus ST-Line review
Still, the Focus isn’t too far behind, despite its switch away from IRS. Keeping in mind that the Ford is wearing 215/50R17s compared to the others’ 225/40R18s, it, too, soaks up a broad array of rubbish surfaces, even at speed, without straying.
Where the ST-Line turns transformative is in the intimate ways it connects car with driver. Substantially lighter on its feet than the others, the helm is masterfully weighted for handling accuracy, backed up by incredibly planted, taut body control. Just like the underrated Peugeot 308, the Ford shrinks around its driver, carving through tight bends. Like a breath of fresh air, the heaviness of old has been replaced with astounding dynamic alacrity. Focus fans should exhale at this point.
After the Ford, the i30 seems somewhat inert and artificial, with Sport mode merely adding unnecessary steering heft; we prefer Normal. Still, the N-Line offers linear and direct cornering responses, and outstanding grip. A keen driver can really have fun exploring the Hyundai’s outer limits safely. On the other hand, there’s rack rattle, while the firm ride – though commendably quiet – can become annoyingly busy.
Unfortunately, the Cerato fails to capitalise on its pricing, space and performance virtues with a dynamic tune that seems… incomplete. Fine on smooth roads at lower velocities, with a delightful level of steering liveliness, at speed that sharpness turns to nervousness, requiring a second and even third bite through tighter turns. The safety systems are also prone to interfering. Furthermore, the GT’s already agitated ride can deteriorate dramatically. Okay on benign streets, when bumps come into play, you’ll feel like your butt is translating Morse code. More compliance, please.
Ultimately, the Cerato comes fourth rather than last, as it brings a welcome, rowdy character to go with its prodigious performance. Rough around the edges, the GT oozes spunk.
The Kia’s weaknesses are the Corolla’s strengths, and vice-versa, with the ZR crying out for more oomph. A sporty hatch needs some sizzle to go with the steak. Toyota fails to deliver.
Solid consistency is the i30’s greatest strength, barely putting a foot wrong. Yet while it avoids the lows, the N-Line never hits the highs; silken powertrain aside. Easy to love in a platonic way, hard to lust over. So close, Hyundai.
Nobody expected the Focus to step up after its IRS loss and underwhelming interior presentation. But the ST-Line’s progressive powertrain delights, its dynamics thrill and soothe in equal measure, and the cabin actually works brilliantly.
Ford set out to challenge the class best with a clean-sheet rethink and, in ST-Line at least, it has succeeded, respecting its proud legacy, as well as Aussies’ love of sports of all kinds.