Good: performance, ride/handling balance, everyday usability, sound
Not so good: high tax, entry-level version sparsely equipped, poor turning circle
Ford's Focus ST needs little introduction. The model has evolved from the understated (and much underrated) first generation ST 170, via the previous Focus ST powered by a turbocharged five-cylinder engine putting out 225hp to today's model, now with 250hp - yet still front-wheel drive.
Unsurprisingly, the Focus ST impressed us at the international launch, held in sunny conditions on some of the best roads in the world around Nice, but what about wintry weather in Ireland and our own line in bumpy mountain roads? Along with that challenge comes the need for the ST to manage being used day-to-day, potentially by a family. Only if it can do all that can this car hope to compete with the Volkswagen Golf GTI.
The first thing you'll notice about driving the Focus ST is the noise it makes. While we lament the personality and throaty roar of the old five-cylinder engine, Ford's attempts to give the turbocharged four-cylinder unit some character of its own have been hugely successful. A 'sound symposer' is fitted to help with that and the result is a car that sounds great from the driver's seat, even when you're not chasing the rev limiter.
However, find enough space to do just that and you'll be astounded at how quick this car is. It effortlessly achieves high speeds and, thanks to a sublime chassis set-up, maintains them even over rough roads. The brakes are phenomenal as well. Admittedly the suspension is firm at times, but what do you expect from a 250hp hot hatch? It's a good balance though and not as uncomfortable as you might anticipate. We like the honest, single-setting approach to it all too - there is no 'Sport' button anywhere in this car.
The steering deserves special mention. It's a variable ratio system, which means it turns in quicker the further away from straight ahead you rotate the steering wheel. The result is phenomenal response and turn-in, without any nervousness at a cruise. However, the turning circle is a bit rubbish. You'll only notice when doing a three-point turn though.
We've driven both the regular Focus ST and the ST2 and the latter is worth saving up the extra €2,300 for as it includes part-leather Recaro seats (and plenty more), which really lift the cabin ambience. As with the entire Focus line-up, there is no three-door version and the only gearbox available is a smooth-shifting six-speed manual.
The new Volkswagen Golf, due in Ireland this summer, had better be good...