Overall rating: 3/5
The Focus ST is an opportunity missed. Having spent so long focused on the Golf GTI, Ford has been outflanked by the Volkswagen's Czech and Spanish cousins, not to mention the likes of the Mégane Renaultsport and forthcoming Honda Civic Type R.
In the Metal:
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder of course, but to these eyes, the new Focus ST is a good-looking car: aggressive where it needs to be and particularly impressive in darker colours. It has just the right amount of pumped up looks to hold its own in the hot hatch wars without needing to go down the road of bumpers so low they ground out on every speedbump or spoilers so big they can legitimately be used as an impromptu picnic table. On Irish roads, we would probably stick with the standard 18-inch wheels but there is no doubt that the black 19-inch rims are more attractive.
Inside, the Focus suffers from the same problem that has blighted fast Fords for generations: seats that are too tight. Noted: this writer is not as fit and trim as he once was but the Focus ST is sold in America - where, in parts, people are not exactly known for their stick thin figures - so how does Ford keep getting it wrong? Hire some larger test drivers. Yes the half-leather heated Recaro seats do hug you in all the right places and keep you in check when you engage Sport mode, but they are like a pair of shoes that need to be broken in: ungodly uncomfortable at first, but they come good in the end. Personal preference maybe, but we quite like trainers that fit first and every time.
Aside from the seats and a smattering of ST badges (and three gauges atop the dashboard) the ST is almost identical to the recently facelifted Focus inside. The 'winged' radio controls are no more and, on our test model at least, there was the new touchscreen infotainment system shared with the Mondeo, but the overall quality is still below some rivals. It is very well screwed together and undoubtedly the plastics will last a generation - they just look cheap.
Ah here we go, the nitty gritty. A fast Ford could look like something you scrape off your shoe (it doesn't), but as long as it drives well, all is forgiven. Well there are no fears there. The 2.0-litre EcoBoost engine is fundamentally the same as before with the only change of note being the introduction of standard start-stop. This knocks 10g/km of CO2 off the top but it makes no difference to the tax. Instead, most of the work has gone into the suspension; there's a stiffer front-end structure, all-new front springs and sportier rear shocks, stiffer bushes and beefier anti-roll bars, meaning that the already talented ST is even more of a giggle to drive.
Point its nose into a corner, squeeze the throttle (savouring the delights of the augmented soundtrack) and it just goes like a scalded rat. It is perhaps not as much of a point-to-point car as its baby brother, the Fiesta ST is, but nor is it meant to be. The Focus is not as uncompromised as that car, as it has to serve the dual role of hot- and family hatch and, when not driven quickly it does a commendable job of the latter. Yes, the rear seats are on the tight side, but that is a Focus problem in general and not restricted to the ST and the stiffer suspension is able to track down ripples in the tarmac you didn't know existed, but that is the downside of the ST's chuckability.
This all assumes you are on dry, perfectly manicured tarmac though (as we were); get the ST back to Ireland and we suspect traction will become an issue. Even in the dry you can encourage the wheels to spin in third gear; get on the power coming out of a corner without the steering wheel at the straight ahead position and torque steer will try to wrestle the wheel from your hands. On tighter corners, the front end just washes away if you enter the corner too quickly, leading to understeer. Ford has stood steadfastly beside its RevoKnuckle suspension set-up to keep its hot hatches in check but perhaps it's time to look at ditching it in favour of a mechanical limited slip differential, as available on the likes of the Golf GTI Performance Pack, Leon Cupra and Megane RS.
What you get for your Money:
Oh dear. This is where it all comes apart. Pricing of the Focus ST isn't so much a chink in the armour but more its exposed flank waiting to be dealt a fatal blow. The 250hp 2.0-litre petrol model tested here will set you back €39,100 with a, not unreasonable, €800 premium to swap over to the 185hp diesel. While not officially priced or on sale in Ireland, the wagon version is likely to cost an extra €1,000 on top of that. Ford has benchmarked the Focus ST against the Volkswagen Golf GTI and when you spec a Golf up to comparable levels (five-door, Performance Pack, leather seats etc.) they are about the same but the Golf isn't even the best hot hatch in its extended family and Volkswagen badged products can now legitimately command a slight premium.
For what it is worth the standard specification on the ST includes 18-inch alloys, half-leather heated Recaro seats, ST specific suspension, auto lights and wipers and of course the body styling.
The new ST will only hold onto its crown as fastest Focus for a short while. Soon the hardcore Focus RS will be launched at the Geneva Motor Show. Using the same 2.3-litre EcoBoost engine as the Mustang, the RS will offer up 320hp and all-wheel drive. That promises to make for an interesting combination. Read the initial news story about the Focus RS here.
In trying to keep pace with the Golf GTI, the Focus ST has lost sight of fast Ford's blue-collar heritage and allowed the likes of Skoda and SEAT to assume that mantle. While undoubtedly fun to drive, the ST is too expensive when compared to the equally talented Leon Cupra and Octavia RS. Considering Ford got the pricing of the Fiesta ST so right it is a crying shame the same could not be done with the Focus version.