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Ford Focus ST estate driven in Russia

  1. Considering he just cheated Death by Massive Truck, the man that’s crawling out of his concertina’d Lada seems unperturbed. After rising to his feet, he brushes off his tracksuit trousers, pads his jacket pockets and retrieves a ringing mobile phone. The trucker, who rear-ended the Riva after a woefully misjudged attempt to exit a slip road, spots that he’s answered it and leafs through a magazine.

    This, I conclude, is the worst RTA I’ve ever seen. It replaces the Mitsubishi/Honda T-bone incident of about an hour ago, which replaced the Lada/lamp post interface of 10 minutes before that. I look around at the other drivers with the sort of expression that invites staggered astonishment, but nobody seems that bothered. In the car nearest to the accident, a man is merrily tapping along to some techno, and the woman in a nearby Q7 is brushing her hair.

    Words: Matthew Jones
    Pics: Justin Leighton

    This feature first appeared in Top Gear magazine

  2. This, as you may have guessed, is not the usual congratulatory drive of our Hot Hatch of the Year. Firstly, because that’s not our style. Secondly, because we’re in Moscow. This is a city with roads like corduroy, and if the traffic doesn’t kill you, it’ll certainly make you late for dinner. Driving styles range from the incompetent to the murderous, cars range from the sublime to the Soviet, and it’s the single most baffling town to navigate in the world (honourable mention - Lecce, Italy). It’s the ultimate test of our previous conclusion that the Focus ST Estate is a car for every mood, every journey and every road.

    The ST’s a Ford World car, too. Simple concept, this: instead of building loads of different products tailored to regional tastes, there’s one product for lots of markets. That means it’s available here in Russia, and, as a charitable aside, I’m introducing this Colorado Red one - one of the 200-odd that’ll come here officially - to its new home.

  3. But despite the fact that Ford’s blue oval is an enduring symbol of capitalism, the manufacturer isn’t new to Russia. It was the first foreign company to set up full production, signing an agreement with the Soviet Union in May 1929. The deal was that the Soviets would buy $13 million of cars, but Ford had to stay put until ‘38 and supervise construction of a plant in Nizhny Novgorod, 249 miles east of Moscow.

    The first car - a Model A-alike - rolled off the production line on 1 January 1932 wearing a complement of NAZ (for Nizhegorodsky Avtomobilny Zavod) and Ford badges. Eighty years later, and the odd fundamental regime change in between, production in St Petersburg is up to 125,000 units annually. And output’s set to triple over the next six years, with the Focus - Russia’s best-selling home-built car made by a non-domestic manufacturer - leading the charge.

  4. Even though ST production remains in Germany, this car is a symbol of a new, affluent Russia: a country whose occupants don’t just want a new estate car, but might like it to have bucket seats and go fast.

    The photographer and I are not going fast. We’re watching nobody really care about a massive accident on the M4, one of seven major motorways leaving Moscow. We’ve gone looking for old Russia, where the roads are empty, men are men and goats are nervous. Just six miles away from the highway, and the vestiges of civilisation have completely vanished.

  5. Save for the ST’s toothy exhaust note, the silence is total. I spot a dog standing in the middle of a field, completely stationary, staring meaningfully into a birch forest. It’s very odd.

    For our arses’ sake, I’ve tethered cruising speed to about 50mph, and that’s pushing things a bit - if I were in a more focused, stiffly sprung and lower hot hatch like the Megane RS, I’d have to take a third off our speed. For something so willing through corners, the ST rides impeccably.

  6. OK, so it’s missing its predecessor’s more expensive suspension arrangement (binned for cost reasons), there’s a fair bit more roll than you’d ideally like (the opposite end of the ride equation) and a fair amount of torque-steer on offer. But its failings give it a playful sort of character, which is a welcome antidote to countryside this stark.

    We jolt onto some fresh tarmac. Until this point - and through no fault of our own - I’ve largely driven slowly, but pebble-smooth road is an infrequent treat, and one that must be taken advantage of. It’s here that I’m reminded that the ST estate is a rather fast car.

  7. Like the hatch, it’s got a 2.0-litre turbocharged four-pot, and despite a relatively svelte 24kg of extra mass (and 174 litres more boot), 0-62mph takes an identical 6.5 seconds. The turbo makes itself useful from 1,500rpm, and boost builds progressively to its 6,800rpm limit, hissing past the odd derelict house, truck and working girl on the roadside.

    Just as the good tarmac runs out, a brilliantly Soviet town begins. A statue of Vladimir Lenin welcomes us, arm raised, straining coarsely for an audience. Behind the effigy there’s an overgrown but fantastically lavish square, colossal sports hall and a cluster of tower blocks. But with the exception of a faraway, vividly dressed man - which turns out to be some plastic bags blown against a lamp post - it’s completely, utterly lifeless.

  8. This is communism in provocative quantities, and our lairy little fast Ford feels deeply inappropriate here. That said, it’s the only place I’ve seen another hot hatch. And, by that, I mean a gently derelict Opel Kadett E with wonky GSi stickers.

    I plot a circuitous route back to the city, taking as many roads as I can that aren’t on the nav, the most impressive of which is punctuated with an eagle-headed archway flanked by a guard post. About a mile later, I conclude that both serve as a warning of the offensively potholed, rutted and tramlined strip of asphalt that barely qualifies as a road.

  9. Even the ST can’t handle this, so I about-turn and retreat to the slightly less offensively potholed, rutted and tramlined strip of asphalt of about a mile before. Little wonder that SUVs are the biggest-sellers over here.

    The ST still makes sense in Russia. There are enough good surfaces to exploit its overwhelming… rightness. On ruralish roads closer to the city, with sweeping corners, I hold onto the steering wheel and throw it into bends as hard as I dare.

  10. Despite knobbly winter tyres, this front-drive, 247bhp estatey hatch with no mechanical diff simply won’t understeer. This isn’t an official metric, but in mildly moist conditions it’ll corner until the passenger window gets smeared with a photographer’s face.

    Moscow slowly rises from the ground, and the traffic congeals. A small accident happens just next to a lorry wearing faded Waitrose livery, but I’ve developed the native ambivalence. The traffic’s annoying. But the ST isn’t. The Recaro buckets hug, and though it’s an expensive treat, there’s an impressive depth to the top-spec infotainment.

  11. As quick as it thickens, the traffic dissipates. I start making real progress and onto a little reunion - I’ve found some mature expats (this is still built in Cologne, remember) that have gone a bit… native. Twelve years ago, Sergey Kourkin and Ekaterina Kirillova started collecting Russia’s classic American cars, most of which were ordered by high-ranking politicians for, as far as I can tell, a bit of a laugh.

    They broke down, but resourceful mechanics simply ripped out the errant engines and replaced them with tiny Soviet ones (55bhp Mustang, anyone?). There are 100 heavily antiqued examples here, 20 of which are Fords, all collected in the spurious name of preservation. We linger at the junkyard for a happy hour, but it’s getting late, and we need to get back to suburban Moscow for some more wheeled sight-seeing.

  12. However much I drive it, and however much I’m standing in a car park with some people from the Russian Hot Hatch Club, I get the nagging feeling that owning the ST and its kind here requires some dedication. So it’s with some surprise that I find myself being berated for having “wrong car - nobody will know you can race” by a surly man hovering around a Seat Leon.

    In fact, only one of the RHHC seems to like the wagon - a man called Nick who’s the owner of the second-best car here, the Megane RS. “It is a grey mouse. That’s what we call a fast car that looks slow in Russia. You can take all your things to your weekend house, then go racing.” Quite.

  13. That’s enough to earn him a passenger ride. “I like talking to policemen, so don’t drive slowly.” I don’t. “It sounds very, very good - maybe nicer than most others.” Obviously, the absence of its predecessor’s extra cylinder isn’t too much of a hardship; the fact it pipes exhaust noises into the cabin probably helps a bit, too.

    Relieved that the Focus doesn’t invite street racing, I drive onto the middle of the three ring roads that circle the city, which is a facsimile of Tokyo’s Wangan. Russia’s laissez-faire approach to intellectual property usually causes Westerners great consternation, but this is fantastic. Three lanes of flowing, fresh tarmac meander through villages of steel and glass, while Russianness pops into frame at the most unusual angles - a Lada with a topless man on the roof, a deserted Soviet sea-plane, a horse watching some roadworks.

  14. Here at least, the ST feels at home. It’s a beautifully set up car, and when conditions allow, it’s nothing but breathy, progressive acceleration, comfortable but pin-sharp steering, and incorrigible handling. And the estate gathers up the best bits of so many niches. It’s not perfect - neither as naturally talented as a Megane RS, nor as reassuringly German as a Golf GTI - but it’ll do everything without feeling compromised.

    After whistling through Red Square, the Kremlin and past some Iced Gems on sticks, I dump it in Moscow city. Just as I’m reflecting on how the ST estate really is a car for every mood, journey and road, I hear an almighty crash, then witness the worst RTA I’ve ever seen. Time to leave our Hot Hatch of the Year to fend for itself…

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