These are golden years on Planet Hot Hatch. The Megane RS and Golf GTI are maturing to a fine vintage, the new Astra VXR has just dropped... and today we can give you the definitive verdict on the new Ford Focus ST.
And we mean truly definitive. The sort of verdict you can only deliver if you've, say, taken the Focus ST on 3,300-mile monster cross-continent mission, our most ambitious/stupid road trip ever.
You can read all about that voyage in the July issue of TopGear magazine, out on June 20, but here's the potted verdict: the new Focus ST is astonishing. Sublime. Minty-fresh magnificent. It's the sort of car you can drive 20 hours a day for a week (really), and still want to jump back into for a thrash around the block.
It's lost a cylinder, but you won't miss it. The old ST's 2.5-litre five-pot is replaced by a less exotic 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo, a beefed-up version of Ford's familiar Ecoboost unit. So there's less warble but, on the plus side, more power - up from 221bhp to 247bhp - with economy and emissions improving to nearly 40mpg and just 169g/km of CO2. The power hike is good for a 0-60mph of just 6.2 seconds, and a slug of mid-range power vicious enough to dispatch sports cars of twice the price.
Unlike the new Astra VXR, the Focus manages without a mechanical differential, relying instead on a smart torque-vectoring system that uses traction control software to brake a spinning wheel. The result, slightly improbably, is the most phenomenal grip. I have no idea how a front-drive hot hatch without an LSD resists understeer, but the ST does, burying its nose ever deeper into corners no matter how hard you push, refusing to wash wide even when your passenger is begging for mercy as the centrifuge smears them across the side window.
The ST's steering, in particular, is fantastic: a variable-ratio system that quickens at the extremities of lock. That means it's nice and stable around centre - great for easy motorway cruising - but brilliantly eager into a sharp bend.
Yes, there's a wriggle of torque steer when you really boot the throttle in first or second gear. But it's entirely manageable - remember Ford (just about) managed to channel 350bhp through the front wheels of the Focus RS500, so 247bhp is a doddle - and hey, don't you want a bit of torque steer from your hot hatch, a reminder you're dealing with a proper sledgehammer-thump of power?
The new ST retains the old car's magical pliancy, the ability to deal even the nastiest ruts and ridges without resorting to clang nor squidge. Some hot hatches are set so hard that you'd need a bootful of replacement spines to tackle a mammoth road trip, but the ST feels far more... elastic: organic rather than brittle. We feared Ford might have lost its chassis magic with the uncharacteristically inert MkIII Focus, but we're delighted to report it's still there. This is a car touched by genius.
Criticisms? Not many. The lack of a three-door ST - Ford hasn't even shown a three-door standard Focus yet, so a hot version is way off - will deter some buyers, but on a cross-continent road trip you want all the doors and space you can get.
The new ST is even a bit of a bargain, something we've not been able to say about many recent Fords. Prices start at £21,995, against £25,650 for the Golf GTI and £26,995 for the Astra VXR. The Vauxhall might be a couple of tenths quicker around the track, but for everyday, every-road driving, this must the best hot hatch on sale. In fact, it might be the best do-everything fast car in the world...