When it comes to hot hatches, Ford really has known its stuff for more than 30 years. Since the appearance of the Escort XR3 in 1980, the company has been held aloft by driving enthusiasts across Europe, hooked on the expertly blended boy-racer styling and the accessible performance on tap, with price tags that keep things real. And one of the very best hot hatches - the second generation Focus ST - has a successor with huge weight upon its shoulders.
The previous ST was a barnstorming performance car. With a more grown-up appearance (if you discount the orange paint on offer), an interior that showed Ford really was getting its act together with quality, soft-touch materials, and a turbocharged, 2.5L, five-cylinder engine borrowed from Volvo, there wasn't much out there to touch it. It sounded gorgeous, it pulled like a freight train and handled with precision. But it did like to toss back the petrol and that, in today's hatchback world, will never do.
So the current Focus, itself an excellent car even in standard form, was something we fans wanted desperately to see in ST guise. And here it is. It's the first performance Ford, however, that must sate the appetites of every major world market, and that could spell disaster for the newcomer. Whereas its forebears were very Euro-specific in their tune and suspension set-up, this one must cope with British potholes, German autobahns, American city traffic and dusty UAE highways, and do so without any discernable difference in its behavior. That's quite some ask, even for a team as undoubtedly talented as that at Ford.
There have been some sweeping changes. First, there's no two-door option. It's available as a four-door hatchback and, in certain markets, a five-door estate (which is proving remarkably popular in Europe). And that engine, which was the heart and soul of its ancestor, has been ditched for a more planet-friendly 2.0L, turbocharged four-cylinder unit, using some 20 per cent less fuel yet, as is usually the case these days, providing even more punch.
To look at, the new ST is something of a triumph. It's just grown-up enough to appeal to those who wear a shirt and tie to work, yet it has all the visual drama to get teenagers frothing at the mouth, even with an extra pair of doors. It sits lower than the standard car and has attitude aplenty. Inside, there are fantastic (though a little high) Recaro seats, a dashboard festooned with dials and switches that tries a bit too hard to appeal to young drivers, and a feeling of solidity that Ford is now becoming expert at. A Golf GTI still delivers a better quality hit, but then the Focus does cost significantly less.
Fire it up and, despite its cylinder deficit, it still sounds pleasingly gruff, with a deep, resonating throb to its engine note. It feels alive, makes you want to get out there and see what it's capable of. So far it's given nothing away to its predecessor, so that's exactly what I do. I drive it as hard as I can, given the fact that I'm on public roads.
The transmission is a six-speed manual - a rarity in these parts - and that simply adds to my eager anticipation. It's precise and the clutch action is reassuringly stiff. It feels how a performance car should, even at pedestrian speeds. Stamp on the throttle and it moves like a scalded cat, its engine still heard throughout the cabin, and the steering provides weightiness and reassuring feedback. It's just like the old one, in fact, although its performance advantage definitely shines through.
It's no RS, though. The really fast Focus may or may not appear in this model's generation, but we live in hope. That car was the first I drove after first experiencing a Bugatti Veyron and it still felt ridiculously quick, which is about as high as praise gets. The RS made history as being the first front-wheel-drive 300hp car to not feel like it wanted to kill you, thanks to its incredible yet simple "RevoKnuckle" suspension geometry. The ST has no need for such trickery but it does avail itself of a torque vectoring system, and that means calm and flat cornering at speed. It feels planted at all times, egging you on to take bends at higher speeds because it can. It practically begs to be given a throttling.
And that is what fast Fords have always been about. They are heroic machines that remind us all what fun a simple drive can be. The Focus ST has more than enough paraphernalia to appeal to enthusiastic drivers - those seats are hip-hugging excellence, the 320-millimetre front disc brakes can stop you in the blink of an eye and it has plenty of grunt. The 100 kilometres per hour dash is dispatched in 6.5 seconds and there's 360Nm of twist available from just 1,750rpm, making it possibly all the performance car you could wish for.
Is it as good as the new Golf GTI, though? It's an extremely close call but the VW just about clinches it in my book. But for a world-ready Ford, the Focus ST makes a remarkably clear case for itself and it's more visually exciting to boot. Try it - you might like it.
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