Focus on performance in fun Ford ride

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 10:20 05/11/2012
Ford Focus III ST
Fairfax NZ Zoom
Aero signature: As well as sporting alloys, the Ford Focus ST gets more a prominent spoiler, valance and sill work than the standard hatch.

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The initials GT, XR, RS and ST have suffixed the names of all manner of fast small and midsized family Fords in the past 50 years and they have all had one thing in common: fun.

AT A GLANCE
Drivetrain: Transverse FWD 1999cc DOHC EcoBoost turbocharged inline four. Six-speed manual Durashift transmission.
Outputs: Max 184kW at 5500rpm, 360Nm at 2000-4500rpm. Max 248kmh, 0-100kmh 6.5sec, 7.1L/100km, 169g/km CO2.
Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear control blades; electric variable ratio rack and pinion steering; 18 x 8 rims, 235/40 tyres.
Safety: Vented disc brakes all round, ABS, EBD and EBA; stability control, front, side and side curtain airbags; 5-star NCAP test.
Dimensions: L 4364mm, H 1484mm, W 1823mm, W/base 2648mm, F/track 1554mm, R/track 1544mm, weight 1437mm, fuel 55L.
Pricing: On sale in November at $52,490.
Hot: Smooth, punchy, flexible engine; well-balanced grippy chassis; fine driving position; sharp sticker.
Not: Wagon and durashift not available in New Zealand; naff seat colour choices; yellow only decent body colour.
Verdict: Worthy wearer of the ST badge. Now, Ford, how about an even hotter RS Focus?
While hotter varieties became RSs, the GT badge soldiered on for merely "warmed-over" models.


Click on photo at left for more views of the Ford Focus III ST.


With the advent of front-wheel- drive Fiestas and Escorts in Europe, the XR badge came into being, with the XR2 and XR3 versions gaining boy-racer currency that still sticks today.

Those boys' dads could pick an XR4 version of the Sierra, while the Aussies, too, fronted with XRs.

As the Escort was replaced by the first Focus, the initials ST also replaced XR on the Fiesta, and the Mondeo also included ST versions. Each Fiesta and Focus also gained an even faster very limited edition ultra-high- performance RS model, with STs from then on being seen as the more civilised face of Ford performance.

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So the third-generation Focus ST driven here is a simmeringly warm hatch, rather than a boiling- hot one. Mind you, the figures most often quoted in a pub- bragging "What'll it do?" sense, tell you, as kitchen experts will, that going from simmer to boil- over is no great gap. The Focus III ST can get to a governed 250kmh flat out, and on the way there it will have dispatched the arbitrary 100kmh mark from a standstill in 6.5 seconds. Not bad for a 2.0-litre family five-door, eh?

The heart of the new ST is an engine that is physically and literally 20 per cent smaller than the preceding model's Volvo- derived 2.5-litre transverse five.

The latest Focus ST may have given up a cylinder and lost some capacity, but the engine produces more than 10 per cent more power and torque - at 184 kilowatts and 360 newton metres - than the previous five pot, while reducing fuel consumption and emissions by more than 20 per cent.

The car uses a slick six-speed manual unit only, although there has been discussion about a double-clutch two-pedal PowerShift transmission.

The power unit is, of course, a version of Ford's ubiquitous EcoBoost 2.0-litre four. It's ubiquitous because it's doubtful that there's a four-cylinder engine with more applications.

As well as the Focus, Mondeo and various SUV and people- mover derivatives of those models in Europe, the EcoBoost 2.0-litre is employed in the US by the Explorer, Fusion and Edge, with Lincoln and Mercury models also using it. Volvo, Land Rover and Jaguar also have EcoBoosted models, and Ford Australia's Falcon has a rear-drive version which will even be found under the bonnet of the next Mustang.

An additional benefit of the EcoBoost unit is that it is lighter than the old five cylinder unit, which means it is not the lead- tipped arrow the previous ST could be in some conditions.

To make an ST out of a stock Focus, the car's independent front MacPherson strut and rear control-blade suspension is given new springs and dampers, stiffer anti-roll bars are fitted front and rear and there's a 10mm reduction in the ride height.

Ford also fits the ST with an enhanced version of the Focus' Torque Vectoring Control, designed to quell inherent front- wheel-drive torque-steer.

However, the biggest difference, when driving the car, is in the steering itself. It has a new variable ratio rack (with more teeth closer to the steering centre point) and fresh calibration of its electronic assistance.

While Ford fanatics will readily spot the ST among a bevy of other Focuses, unless you opt for the "Tangerine Scream" paint of the test car, it doesn't stand out that much from the standard model, which is a pretty good looker as it is and is shod with similar diameter wheels in Titanium models.

To give it some visual cut- through, the car has a roof spoiler and a black grille with an ST badge in its left side. It also has another ST badge on the right rear of the car, centre- mounted twin exhausts and black straked vents at each corner.

RS kickplates are the first thing you'll spot getting in the car, followed by the Recaro seats, especially if you order the Tangerine Scream paint job, because you'll get garish tangerine highlights on the seating as well. You can opt for blue or red highlights or plain charcoal, but you can't get those subtler tones with the brightest body colour, sorry.

Otherwise, the interior is much the same as any other top-echelon Focus. Mine had Ford's easy to use new Sync setup, which engages easily with a smartphone, and so should do the same with most other hand-held electronic accoutrements.

Using voice activation, you can talk to all sorts of menus and select from albums, musical genres, radio stations and phone numbers, with it being possible to even run a conference call.

For me, the latter ability makes a nonsense of in-car phone-use advice, and I prefer to respond to an incoming call by asking people to ring back while I park, even if the car has the best hands-free setup I've experienced.

Sync is standard in all Focus models except the wagons - the models in sales reps' terms that could best use it, and comes with built-in navigation in any model above Trend specification level.

So it's loaded with gear, is as cosy as a den to slip into, and from behind the wheel, the feel and the view tend to exemplify what we could call the accepted zenith of current mass-produced performance hatchbacks.

Although hot-hatch juries might vote for the more powerful hot Meganes or hot Golfs on paper, this warmed but far from overheated Focus tends to close its case when you start to drive it day to day.

I didn't like the hidden push-button starter at first, and although I was sitting on, rather than directly looking at, the garish yellow upholstery highlights, it was forever coming into my peripheral view.

But such observations are churlish. The Recaros grip and comfort their occupants perfectly, the leather wheel has exactly the right rim diameter and texture and, as we've expected since rear- drive Escort GT and RS days, the oily snick, snick of the transmission is gorgeous.

Ford deliberately directs some engine induction noise into the cabin and with some skill too, for while the idle noise is present, it never drones at cruising speed, although it figuratively clears its throat when down-shifting delightfully, but inoffensively.

Once under way, being sure to have adjusted the seat distance to best suit the clutch take-up point, the ST is a delight. It doesn't have to be driven madly to impress with its flexibility and vastly impressive ability to cover ground briskly.

The torque-steer mitigation measures appear to work well, and the car's advertised ability to scamper up to 100kmh in just over six seconds is perfectly believable, but with that great flat plane of urge from 2000 to 4400rpm, even the super-slick gearbox can be left alone for long periods as the car and its occupants surf along on the engine's prodigious torque.

However, the full potential of the EcoBoost unit is eminently useable when an overtaking opportunity comes up. The torque means you only really need to pop down one ratio when more highly strung units require dropping two, but the resulting lunge is impressive and pleasingly accessible, and more than once I indicated to pull back into line after passing to find that I had a couple of hundred metres more to spare.

All that performance is fortunately contained in a car that's remarkably supple, even on the broken coarse chip of New Zealand back roads. Potholes are absorbed with pleasing ease, as are sharp bumps, imparting not a skerrick of kick-back, which can be a drawback when a car uses the front wheels for both traction and steering - not to mention braking.

The quicker steering rack makes tight corners single-bite affairs, and although crossed-arms driving sadly appears to be more acceptable these days, the Focus simply doesn't require you to indulge in it. A simple push-pull technique with an occasional dropping of the left hand to the gear-lever will do nicely, thanks.

There is still a gentle wriggle of torque-steer, but the car's torque vectoring setup is a clever one. By braking the inside wheel to keep the ST's nose in line with your intent, the car feels remarkably implacable as camber, tightening radiuses and almost 250 horsepower conspire to upset it.

There is a degree of body roll, but it's finely controlled and provides just enough information about the car's general stance at the time while cornering and when braking is required. The strap-hanging power of the four- corner vented discs is impressive and provides the same telegraphic feedback as the steering does.

Ford has been very clever with the Focus ST. It's loaded with thoughtful equipment, looks the part without shouting about it - unless you're a Tangerine Scream fan - and provides a remarkably efficient power train that never threatens to overwhelm the car's chassis or the driver.

The cleverness comes from the fact that there's still room for a really unruly, much more powerful RS model on top of this $52,490 ST iteration, which for the price of a pretty ordinary Falcon provides a car of immense performance, talent and poise.

I personally wouldn't ask for more than this, thanks.

- Stuff

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