When you’ve been raised on Performance Fords it’s a tall order to take the keys to a new, exciting release and remain even-handed. Hooligans cars all, from the Fiesta XR2, through the Cosworth era and beyond, they ranged from fun and fast to raw and savage. Proper hooligans cars, one and all.
Naturally, when the opportunity arose for a thorough evaluation of the new Focus ST Estate, my mouth watered uncontrollably, but I have to confess to this being one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever written.
You see, when it comes to Fast Fords, a lot has changed in the last thirty years. This is, as you know, Fords first global performance car, today experienced in “bring the dog with you” Longroof configuration. If you flip my photos from right to left, they’ll resemble the ST as it would come no matter where on the globe you buy it.
It’s a Focus, first and foremost. Inside you have the standard third century Ford of Europe blueprint, complete with swooping centre console. Atop this is a deeply hooded screen for the infotainment system; despite the days anomalously awesome sunshine at no point did I find glare reflections ruining the display and its animated graphics. The dials and minor controls are attractively treated, it looks like the design clinics have spent a lot of hands-on hours on this car.
The controls for sound and guidance look a bit like the mail-order catalogue stereo your younger brother might have had during the 90’s. But it’s an effective enough setup and nicely sidesteps the issue that I always have with touchscreens; their annoying tendency to collect horrible fingerprints and goo, and the lack of feedback and interactive involvement when using them. At least with a dial there’s instant register that something has happened, rather than the uncertain prodding that sometimes accompanies the touchscreen, especially when driving in dark conditions or on bumpy roads.
The Recaro-labelled seats may look like something that Darth Vader would wear during a scuba-diving holiday, but they fitted me like a glove, and I’m a really peculiar shape. After a little adjustment I was able to swing my flippers into a decent driving position; the suitably embellished steering wheel and metallic-topped gearknob fell straight into my hands and I was quickly ready to get on with the business of driving.
With power being derived from a two-litre, four cylinder in-line engine of routine layout, it comes as no surprise that no particular character is exhibited at moderate speeds. All is quiet, all is calm. The gears slot home with the Ford accuracy that goes with the territory, the pedals are well weighted and reliably precise, and nicely positioned for nimble footwork. There is very little to raise your pulse or stimulate trepidation, apart from the three ST-exclusive dials at the top of that mountainous centre-console. Two of those dials; oil pressure and coolant temperature, are very dull. The third one isn’t: Turbo Boost.
And it’s naturally that one, the one in the middle, that I’m keenest on monitoring. Millbrook has a two mile long high-speed bowl, and that was to be my first driving destination in the ST, to see just how quickly it could be made to merge in my patented “pull out fast in front of a big truck” test.
There were countless Porsches and a Jag F-Type being hooned in the name of journalistic thoroughness when I got there, and before pulling out I let them pass and glide into the distance. I then dropped the hammer in a “textbook” (for me) drag launch, and very soon the 911s started to be reeled in. With safety in mind the Bowl had a 100mph speed limit imposed today, and I very nearly managed to comply with it. Trouble is, in the ST, with 250hp doing its thing, when accelerating through the gears you just want to keep on going.
Official figures quote that sixty arrives in 6.2 seconds, but cold figures against the stopwatch hardly seem to convey just how much performance and flexibility the ST offers. Even in the tall 6th gear, at a high two-figure cruise, there is enough roll-on acceleration to mean something decent; drop down a cog or two at any speed and it’s there aren’t a great many cars that could embarrass the ST too badly.
So, it’s fast. Very fast, in fact, but lots of cars can do that. My next port of call is the Hill circuit, a strenuous test of handling, composure and the drivers resistance to travel-sickness.
Judging from the Fiesta ST which was following me, that disappeared backwards on the straights but caught up a little on the corners, I was driving the ST pretty hard. Not wearing any safety gear and not wanting to bend a car on my inaugural visit to Millbrook I was exercising a little extra care, so I was probably at about 90% of my personal capability as a wheelman. At those speeds, and on these roads, it didn’t feel like the ST was even breaking into a sweat.
This is a front-wheel drive family estate car, albeit with a lot of power. Being driven hard on a challenging circuit in hot weather; not once did the brakes show signs of fade, not once did I hear any protest from tyres. I would need a much bigger circuit, with lots of run-off, to come close to finding the limits of this chassis. I would also go as far as to say that any man in a pub who claims to have reached the limits of the ST on the A1032 between Clacton and Kirby Cross is a total liar.
The grip is close to beyond belief and allows you to commit to far higher corner entry speeds than either your passengers or luggage should be asked to tolerate. A slight strangeness to the electric power steering set-up causes the steering wheel to writhe in your hands a bit between sharp steering inputs, the feel being similar to that caused by the clever differential in the old Focus RS. When that little twitch happens you think “something’s going on”, but that something appears to be positive, based on the fact that you make it round the corner without incident. There’s plenty of weight to the steering but it’s difficult to know if it hasn’t just been dialled in artificially. There’s plenty of accuracy, but it does miss out on delicateness, there’s no sense of being on a knife-edge.
If anything, it makes things too easy. Anybody, with any level of talent, could jump in this car and drive it fast, very fast, from point a to point b, without having to know what they’re doing. There’s so much grip and so much power, you could do something really stupid and still get away with it. And that kind of spoils the fun. In fact, to stretch the point a bit, if a car could have infinite grip and infinite power, and could therefore do absolutely anything; where would be the fun if you have no limits?
What the ST actually needs, in order to be more fun, is to be a bit worse. What I’d really like to see is smaller tyres, more sidewall flex and less grip. So you can begin to feel the limits and use a bit of driver skill to stay within them. Although I’d be tempted to keep the power. Power good.
Even as it is, though, the ST does anything you can ask it to. Whether that entails travelling at high speed while loaded with family paraphernalia (those in the back get their own Recaros, too), scything through treacherous back-road corners or dawdling economically along (Ford promises an overall consumption of 39.2mpg mperial). No matter how objective I try to be, there’ s not really any way the ST can be savagely criticised.
Lots of ST reviews are saying stuff about track-days and how the Golf GTi or Renault Megane Renaultsport have its measure on a circuit. Honestly, chances are you’re going to have the exact same amount of fun in any of these cars, unless you’re a reviewer and live in that bizarre fantasy world where everything has to be organised into a pecking order. But, really, if you’re that concerned about race-track split seconds, you’re looking at totally the wrong category of car. If you’re that serious you’re going to want an Atom or a serious Caterham or something. And, at any rate, that shortfall on the track is what makes it surprisingly comfortable on the highway, and means there’s virtually no tarmac environment this car doesn’t suit, and suit well.
When major faults and flaws are notable only by their absence, and a car is as well executed as this; in build, concept, feel and effectiveness; you have to resort to opinions and being really petty and subjective to find things to crow about.
So here we go. I suppose one thing that isn’t beyond criticism is the price, which at £30k seems scandalous until you remember that there’s nothing that this car doesn’t do well, The styling lacks loveliness, but achieving that is no easy task when you’re starting off with a family load-lugger. I’ve never much liked the grille treatment of the current Focus; but at least here it’s simplified and you can say that it suits the aggressive nature of the car. Also, I still don’t like nor see the point of keyless-go; and I miss the characteristic warble of the five-cylinder engine in the old ST, although Ford have done great things to make the EcoBoost sound as fine as it does.
The truth is that the Focus ST is a bloody good car, and one that becomes almost implausible in estate car form. Rather than following the usual balls-out hot-hatchback route Ford have created a consummate all-round high-speed transportation system. Also, calling your very turbocharged engine EcoBoost is a sure fire way to ensure that Greenpeace will love your 154mph car. But what the ST lacks can’t be measured with a camera, a stopwatch or a microscope. The only thing it lacks, and this is being subjective again; is charm. What it needs is a few rough edges to make it truly memorable.