by John Barker, 3 Jul 2019
Verdict: The Focus ST is characterful, fast and capable: everything it needs to be to take on the class leaders
Evo Rating: Four out of 5 stars
For: Dynamic and capable, strong engine
Against: Can’t tailor (optional) drive mode features
A few weeks ago, we got a rapid ride in the new Focus ST at Ford’s Lommel test track in Belgium. We drove it too, but we couldn’t write about it until now... when we’ve also driven it for a whole day on some great roads in the south of France. The last-generation ST didn’t really cut it, but not only is the new model more powerful, with 276bhp, anti-lag and a skipload of torque, it also has the features it needs to run with the big dogs of the class, namely adaptive damping and an electronic limited-slip differential.
Engine, transmission and 0-60 time
The ST’s four-cylinder turbocharged 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine delivers 276bhp and 310lb ft of torque, fed through a six-speed manual (with a shorter throw action) gearbox, with a seven-speed DCT option to come before the end of the year. For improved throttle response the motor’s twin-scroll turbo features anti-lag in Sport and Track driving modes. This, combined with the engine’s generous torque, makes the ST quicker than the RS in the mid-range, says Ford. Claimed figures are zero to 62mph in 5.7sec, with the estate version a tenth slower.]
As well as adaptive damping, the chassis of the new ST is also 10mm lower and has springs that are stiffer front and rear by 20 and 15 per cent respectively. It has an ‘eLSD’ — effectively an electronically controlled limited-slip differential — which is supplemented by torque vectoring. The ST’s is just two turns lock-to-lock and its 18- and 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport tyres have been developed to give precise, strong steering response and a chassis balance that makes the rear of the Focus mobile in an exploitable way. The ST also uses an electric brake booster (EBB) that adapts and keeps feel consistent, even in extreme circumstances.
What’s it like to drive?
Within the confines of the Lommel proving ground we were able to get to the ST’s limit of grip and experience its strong, outright dynamic character: lots of grip and no understeer, no matter how hard you pushed. One of the key dynamicists on the ST project, David Put, asked why you’d build in understeer and let the car run wide, potentially across the white line, when you can have a very agile car with a mobile rear and contain it with stability control?
So the ST feels very agile, very eager, right up to and over the limit. Pick up the throttle ahead of the apex and there’s almost instant torque flowing through the front tyres, hauling the car hard through the turn, the eLSD subtly managing torque distribution. Alternatively, back out of the throttle before the apex and the tail comes round, gently and progressively, making it a tool to be used on demand. The feistier the drive mode, the stronger the characteristics, with Track mode disarming stability control, hence its name.
Public roads are another thing entirely and present a different challenge. You get the odd clear-sighted corner where you can commit the car, but generally you’re driving with a lot in reserve. To get into a rhythm and have fun you crave more subtle attributes such as calmly precise steering, a throttle that’s sharp but not abrupt, easily modulated brakes, an unflustered ride, good chassis balance and great traction. Happily, the Focus ST has all of these.
Two turns between lock stops sounds lively, but the Focus is such a well-balanced, well-rounded dynamic package that it all melds into a keen but unnervy experience. On the demanding roads behind Nice, the Focus feels quite at home, its superb engine quick to respond and strong on low-and mid-range torque, its chassis grippy and poised and its steering direct. Only a couple of times during the day do I steer keenly into a turn with lots of momentum and induce some of that rear mobility so strongly evoked at Lommel, and it felt a bit odd.
We are on great roads, always twisting and a challenge to read, to find the optimum line, but they are also generally well surfaced. At Lommel, on a busy surface, the character change from Normal to Sport mode was a transformation, the car instantly firmer and busier. Here, it’s not nearly as obvious, but Sport does also bring superb, keener throttle response, and firmer steering weight as well as tighter damping. The road surface is so good for quite a few miles I am even in Track mode, the damping deliciously taut.
The drive modes — Slippery, Normal, Sport and Track — come as part of the £800 Performance Pack, which also brings rev matching, upshift lights and launch control, and we reckon it’s a must have, to have access to the full range of damping. On a UK B-road, Sport would literally be a tough choice, which is why the mode option should come with a ‘custom’ setting, as its rivals do, to set individual attributes, because once you’ve tried the Sport throttle, you want it all the time.
The brakes, initially numb on moderate applications, get better during the day, and I really enjoy the speaker-generated engine noise enhancement, especially the classic twin-cam chug under heavy load in Sport and Track. Downsides? The gearshift is merely good, occasionally baulking on demanding downshifts, while the pedal spacing for me is poor for heel-and-toe (the rev matching solves this problem), and the steering, although ever direct and great around the centre and when committed, lacks feel in that vital place in-between, where you can spend a fair bit of time on great roads.
Price and rivals
The Focus ST now has the dynamic bandwidth to take on the class leaders — as long as you’re prepared to add the optional Performance Pack. It’s a must, even though it takes the £31,995 list price to almost £33k. You can have the pick of the class at that money, from the Hyundai i30 N to the Civic Type R and Golf GTi. It’ll take a test on UK roads to sort out where the Focus sits, but it’s great that Ford has created a car that can challenge for top honours again.