Good: terrific steering and handling balance, powerful engine, handsome looks
Not so good: firm ride, cramped cabin, high price
The whole point of a hot hatch is practicality. I know, you're thinking it's about performance, but it's not. Why? Because it matters little whether you're driving a 230hp Golf GTI or a 185hp Focus ST diesel; you cannot deploy all of the power all of the time, so ultimately, the power output is actually pretty meaningless. That's really why hot hatches were created in the first place. The appeal of the small two-seat sports car waned in the late seventies, and hot hatches were both cause and effect - car makers realised that what people wanted was sparkling dynamics, butch looks and the potential to unleash all the grunt on a discreet Sunday morning blat, but most of all what they needed was four seats and a decent boot.
And that's why the hot hatch formula has endured, through an ocean of anti-social brickbats and insurance clampdowns, the good ship Hot Hatch sails ever on because who doesn't love practicality mixed with performance?
Unfortunately, someone at Ford didn't get the memo. I loved the second generation Focus ST. Its warbling, five-cylinder Volvo-sourced engine with its 225hp could do the hard-charging stuff or it could lie back in the seat and effortlessly cruise you across country. The handling was spectacularly good and the cabin and boot were utterly massive - you simply could not ask nor wish for more space in a family hatch body. The only shortcoming was that it was far, far too keen of a drink.
So, the new Focus ST TDCi should, in theory, be the answer. Ford's engineers have been busy with the screwdrivers and the laptops and have squeezed a very healthy 185hp and 400Nm from its 2.0-litre swept capacity. Performance is suitably brisk - the 0-100km/h time doesn't tell the whole story, as the torque curve is low, lazy and evenly laid throughout the rev range. Give it half a chance to take a breath and the ST TDCi will propel you forward on that wall of torque with zero effort. And it doesn't even sound too diesel-y - quite apart from the fact that the engine is refined in and of itself, Ford has added an active sound system that plays a petrol-like growl through the stereo speakers. It's a touch cheesy, but you do grow to like it.
Economy is simply fantastic given the performance on offer. Drive a little gently and you should see north of 50mpg in daily use. Use the power to its full potential and you'll probably still crack 40mpg. Even tax is reasonable at €190 a year.
And it looks good, no great even. The relatively plain red paint and silver alloys of our test car, to be honest, don't show the Focus' shape off to best effect. It looks good but a touch generic. Can I recommend a quick trip to the options list and a selection of the metallic battleship grey paint and the black-finish alloys? Then the Focus ST starts to look really mean and menacing.
Lay eyes on the interior and you'll think you're in for a real treat. Our car came with the optional (€450) SYNC2 eight-inch touch screen that isn't quite so slick as some of its competitors, but is still decent to use and connects easily and simply to your phone. Plus there are the gorgeous, heavily bolstered Recaro bucket seats and the three-spoke steering wheel, so everything is looking appropriately tasty.
Ah, but there's a problem right there. The rear cabin of the standard Focus has, in this generation, never been quite spacious enough and the bulk of the Recaros rob it of a crucial few millimetres of space. If you're on your own in the car, it's fine but if you have passengers in the back, even children, you'll have to crank your seat forwards, taxi-driver style, to make room. It's just too cramped in there, sad to say. Even the boot isn't all that big, at a mere 416 litres.
It's nothing compared to the seats themselves though. Look, I know I'm on the chunky side (38-inch waist, 46-inch chest since you ask), but I just can't fit into Ford's Recaros. The bolsters and supports are just set too narrow for comfort and I end up basically sitting on, not in, the seats. And it's not just me - I've sat in such extremely sporty hot hatches as the last-generation MINI JCW GP2 and found bucket seats that were, compared to the Focus', apparently made by Rolls-Royce. Come on Ford, do a favour for the fatties...
At least there is compensation in the handling. The steering is not quite perfect, as there's a faint but noticeable artificial edge to the feedback, but on the whole it's pretty good - reactive and well-weighted and there's no doubting the way the Focus can change direction. It's like an especially determined Jack Russell on the trail of a rocket-boosted rat. Grip is simply not an issue, thanks to the 18-inch Goodyear tyres, but you'll have to watch it in the wet when it comes to traction. Putting all that torque down on greasy surfaces can lead to quite a bit of wheel spin.
It is an epically talented chassis when you hook it up though, and feels born to tackle the tight, twisting confines of an Irish mountain road. The ride, slightly too firm around town, loosens up a little at speed to give you just the right amount of flexibility, while the body control over crests and down dips is just phenomenal.
It's just a shame, to me anyway, that Ford couldn't mix that performance and that dynamic brilliance with decent cabin space and a better price. With just that one option box (for the SYNC2) ticked, our ST2-spec test car was clocking in at a whopping €40k. Yes, that comes with a heated windscreen, keyless ignition and LED daytime lights, but what about cruise control? What about climate control? What about the fact that you could have a more spacious Skoda Octavia RS TDI with four-wheel drive and an automatic gearbox for €2k less?
The problem here is a hot hatch that didn't have a good enough starting point. The ST bits of the Focus ST - the steering, the grunt, the poise, the looks - are all better than brilliant, but the basic Focus bits - the cramped cabin, the small boot and the slightly cheap feeling to the interior - have left it short of greatness.