What are you driving?
Well, it's the Ford Focus ST, which means it's a hot Focus. Indeed, it's the hottest version that there is, or ever will be, of the current Focus, as Ford has confirmed that, alas, there will be no RS model this time around. Still, with 280hp from a Mustang-related 2.3-litre turbo engine, perhaps it would be churlish to complain.
To help the Focus ST cope with that power, it sits lower than a standard Focus and, while the suspension components are basically the same, it does get adaptive dampers, which stiffen and soften according to which buttons you've pressed in the cockpit, and everything's set up to be rather firmer than normal. Those grey-finished alloy wheels are also wrapped in very grippy Michelin Sport Pilot tyres.
To help keep those tyres pointing in the right direction, there's also an electronically controlled differential, which uses hydraulically operated clutches - and a myriad of sensors and inputs - to shunt as much as 100 per cent of the engine's power to the wheel that can handle it best.
The engine, to help keep it on the boil, gets an anti-lag system, distantly related to that used by Ford's rally cars, which keeps the turbo spinning even when you've lifted off the throttle.
Other ST add-ons include the subtlest of body kits, Recaro front bucket seats and some minor trim upgrades.
Name its best bits
I'm not sure if the styling counts as a 'best bit', but I'm going to stick it in as the ST is the best-looking of the current Focus line-up. The current Focus has been, rightly, described as being too bland, but the ST body kit, quiet though it is in comparison to, say, a Honda Civic Type R's, looks handsome and muscular, and rather appealing.
The Focus ST's best bit, by far though, is its engine. Basically it's the Mustang's 2.3-litre EcoBoost turbo four-cylinder unit, turned sideways, and detuned just a little. Its 280hp is more than you'd get in all but the most expensive versions of the Golf GTI, the same as the Renaultsport Megane, and a bit less than a Honda Civic Type R. With 420Nm of torque, and that clever anti-lag system, it's sure not slow - that 5.7-second 0-100km/h time tells only part of the story, as this is an engine that feels robustly muscular all through its rev range. It also sounds good, almost more like the old MkII ST's five-cylinder engine than the regular four-cylinder, with some nice pops and crackles on the overrun.
Performance, though, is nothing without control, as a well-known Italian tyre company once put it, and here too the Focus excels. It has a chassis that just gets better and better the tougher the questions you ask of it. Although, obviously, stiffly sprung, it never feels harsh nor uncomfortable, and if the steering is a little rubbery in its assistance, then it certainly never detracts from the Focus' cornering enthusiasm. Indeed, this Focus ST is a far more impressive car in dynamic terms than its predecessors, partly because Ford has somewhat neutered the handling of more basic Focus models with cheaper rear suspension, so the comparison between a base model and this ST is that much more stark.
It's also just slightly unruly, which we find hugely appealing. There are occasional little tugs of torque steer, as that 420Nm finds its way to the ground, and it's laughably easy to get those front wheels spinning up, even in the dry. The Focus ST never actually misbehaves, but it feels as if it might, which makes it a far more entertaining, and engaging, companion than some hot-hatch rivals.
The six-speed manual gearbox is also a delight, with a shift quality that's just the right side of hefty, and an occasional delightful mechanical clunk as the cog slots home. You can get a Focus ST with an optional seven-speed automatic, but if you do that by choice rather than necessity, then I'm afraid we can't be friends.
Where this ST pulls out a major lead over its direct predecessor is in its refinement. While there is a good deal of tyre noise, this Focus ST is now refined and comfortable enough to make for a good long-distance cruiser, and it's much more roomy in the cabin than the old Focus ST ever was, which is a bonus.
Fast, fun, agile and a bit of a bargain? That's a classic fast Ford recipe.
Anything that bugs you?
Bargain? Well... At €41,099 the Focus ST isn't cheap, but it's not out of line with competitors. The problem is that Ford has been struggling of late with its residual values, so that does make the cost rather harder to swallow, especially if you're buying on a PCP. Still, more power than the Golf GTI for more or less the same money isn't a bad deal.
Other faults? Well, the interior - although fundamentally well-built - looks a little cheap in places, and the boot's none too big. Those gorgeous front Recaro seats are a little snug across the shoulders for the huskier gentleman or gentlelady, too. Oh, and the brakes definitely need more bite for proper confidence on a give-and-take road.
And why have you given it this rating?
The last-generation Focus ST was, to be honest, a crushing disappointment. This one exorcises more or less all of that car's demons, to put in a hugely credible hot-hatch performance. It's slightly racier than a Golf GTI, more sober than a Type R and finds a comfortable niche between the two. It is, very much, an archetypal fast Ford - rapid and responsive, yet realistically useable too.
What do the rest of the team think?
This generation of the Focus ST is a cracker, no doubt, even if it's far from the perfect family-friendly hot hatch. ST bits aside, the interior is dull and completely overshadowed by the latest Volkswagen Group additions, for example. The exterior works well, though. As does that anti-lag equipped engine. Honestly, on seriously challenging mountain roads, it didn't feel much slower than I remember the Focus RS was in the same conditions. And, in the dry at least, the combination of the fancy differential and high-end Michelin tyres helps it find silly amounts of traction. I really really really wish Ford would let you tweak the driving settings a little more, though. Ideally, you'd be able to choose a softer damper mode in conjunction with the Race setting for everything else. Still, it's a car that those that love driving will love to drive.
Shane O'Donoghue - Editor