Ford Focus ST review: hot hatch focuses on the fundamentals
A blend of performance, practicality, price and spec mean Focus embodies the hot hatch ethos
The Ford Mustang has a “friendly neighbor mode” that muffles the exhaust note of its mighty V8 on start-up. I mention this because the Focus ST has no such setting, meaning an early morning start is likely to wind up your neighbours as the 2.3-litre barks into life and settles with a cheeky grumbling note. Go on, ask me how I know…
It’s perhaps a small indication of the ST’s intent. Yes, this is a Focus, but it’s one with a particular, well, focus. While the rest of the range is almost offensively inoffensive, designed to fit in and not draw attention to itself, the ST is a bit brash, with a degree of swagger.
It’s not over the top, you understand. Compared to the Honda Civic Type R it’s positively subtle. But as the current performance high point of the Focus range, the ST features some aggressive bodywork, an ST-specific grille finished in black, a tailgate spoiler, unique 19-inch alloys finished in dark “Magnetite” plus the sports exhaust responsible for that neighbour-annoying growl. It adds up to an outward appearance that indicates this Focus means business.
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“Business” is handled by the aforementioned 2.3-litre engine. It’s a development of the four-cylinder turbo from the last generation Focus ST and in this version produces 276bhp and 310lb ft of torque. Zero to 62mph takes six seconds exactly and the quoted top speed is 155mph.
That all puts it a little below the manic Civic Type R with its 316bhp and a little above the 241bhp VW Golf GTI.
Backing up that performance is a chassis set up specifically for the ST. All versions get specially tuned suspension but five-door versions of the petrol car also get continuously controlled damping and an electronic limited-slip differential to maximise the Focus’s dynamic potential, of which it has plenty.
Bog-standard Focuses feel pretty sharp to drive but all the extra tech and tweaks mean the ST is a tonne of fun. Show it a stretch of twisting road and it will spring along, clinging to the tarmac, biting into every corner before powering out the other side with complete composure. That trick damping keeps things controlled even on a bad B-road and the steering is precise and quick without being over-sensitive, meaning the Focus feels like it flows rather than darts.
The Civic might be a touch sharper and livelier than this more grown-up Focus but there’s still plenty of fun to be had in the Ford. My only grumble is that our test car’s optional seven-speed automatic transmission robs it of a little of the engagement you want from a hot hatch.
The engine still packs plenty of punch and has loads of flexibility thanks to that healthy torque figure but that can all be better exploited if you opt for the excellent six-speed manual I tested in the diesel ST earlier this year.
Drive modes are a given these days and alongside the usual normal, sport and wet conditions options is a track mode. This alters everything from the e-LSD and damping to throttle mapping, brake response and traction control to give the most aggressive performance possible.
The Focus sits at the top of a three-car ST range, with the Puma and Fiesta below it. Being the biggest and heaviest of the trio, it feels a little less sparky and chuckable than the other two but makes up for that by being the more practical and more comfortable. Whether you’re pressing on or pootling around, it’s damped to neatly balance ride comfort and control and it can do all the boring family hatchback stuff as well as any car in the segment thanks to decent rear space and a decent sized boot.
Sitting at the top of the range, it also does all that stuff while offering a fairly comprehensive amount of equipment. The Recaro sports seats have a partial leather finish, the steering wheel is heated and standard tech includes wireless phone charging, a head-up display and 12.3-inch digital instrument array.
Our test car also added the £800 Performance Pack, which adds launch control, rev matching, shift lights, the adaptive damping and that track driving mode.
The brief for a hot hatch has alway been to blend performance that you can enjoy at the weekend with practicality that fits into everyday life. Once again, the Focus ST has that nailed, partly thanks to its solid foundations and partly thanks to the brilliance of Ford Performance’s engineers. Now if they could just see their way to adding an exhaust control button…
Ford Focus ST
Price: £34,710 (£36,710 as tested); Engine: 2.3-litre, four-cylinder, turbo, petrol; Power: 276bhp; Torque: 310lb ft; Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, front-wheel-drive; Top speed: 155mph 0-62mph: 6 seconds; Economy: 34.4mpg; CO2 emissions: 18g/km