The civilised face of Ford performance

DAVE MOORE
Last updated 07:40 07/11/2012
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Ford Focus ST
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Ford Focus ST

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The initials GT, XR, RS and ST have suffixed the names of all manner of fast, small and mid-sized family Fords over the past 50 years and they've all had one thing in common: fun. While further hopped-up models became RSs, the GT badge soldiered on for the merely 'warmed-over' models. With the advent of front-drive Fiestas and Escorts in Europe, the XR badge came into being with the XR2 and XR3 versions of those cars gaining a boy-racer currency that still sticks today.

Those same boys' dads could pick an XR4 version of the Sierra at the time, while the Aussies also fronted with XRs. As the Escort became replaced by the first Focus, the initials ST replaced XR, with the Fiesta and Mondeo also including ST versions. Each Fiesta and Focus models also gained an even faster, very limited edition, ultra-high performance RS version, meaning that the STs are seen as the more civilised face of Ford performance.

So the third-generation Focus ST driven here is seen as essentially 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 6.2 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 184kW and 360Nm - than the previous five-pot while managing to reduce fuel consumption and emissions by more than 20 per cent. The car uses a pleasingly slick six-speed manual unit only, though 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 is ubiquitous because it's doubtful that there's a four-cylinder engine with more applications. As well as the Focus, Mondeo, various SUV and people-mover derivatives of those models in Europe, the front- drive EcoBoost 2.0-litre is employed in the Explorer, Fusion and Edge as well as various Lincoln and Mercury models, while Volvo, Land Rover and Jaguar also use it and Ford's Australian Falcon has a north- south rear-drive version that will even be found under the bonnet of the next Mustang.

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An additional benefit of the EcoBoost unit is that it is considerably 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's Torque Vectoring Control, designed to quell inherent front-wheel-drive torque-steer. However, the biggest difference when driving the car comes from the steering, which 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 shod with similar diameter wheels in Titanium models. But to give it some visual cut-through, the car has a roof spoiler, a black grille with an ST badge in its left side. There's another ST badge on the right rear of the car, centre- mounted twin exhausts and black, straked vents at each corner of the car. 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 for the seating as well. You can opt for blue or red highlights or plain charcoal, but you can't get those subtler colours 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 set-up,which engages easily with an iPhone - and so should do the same with most other hand-held electronic accoutrements you might bring with you. Using voice activation, you can talk to all sorts of menus and select from albums, musical genres, radio stations and of course phone numbers, with it being possible to even run a conference call. For me, the latter ability is starting to make a fool 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 set up I've experienced.

Sync is standard in all Focus models except the wagons - the models, in sales rep's 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 tends to exemplify what we could call the accepted zenith of current mass-produced performance hatchbacks. Though 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 though 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, while the leather wheel has exactly the right rim diameter and texture. 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, though it figuratively clears its throat when down-shifting delightfully, but inoffensively.

Once underway, 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 its 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, of course.

The quicker steering rack makes tight corners single-bite affairs, and though 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 set-up is a clever one and by braking the inside wheel to keep the ST's nose in line with your intent, the car feels remarkably implacable while camber, tightening radii and almost 250 horsepower conspire to try 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 is loaded with thoughtful equipment, looks the part without shouting about it - unless you're a Tangerine Stream fan that is - 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 wouldn't ask for more than this, thanks.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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