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Car Review

Ford Focus ST review

£15,750 - £36,435
Published: 27 Apr 2023
A big-hearted engine in an otherwise sensible car. The perfect seven-tenths hot hatch

Good stuff

Fun when you need it, civilised and practical when not. Good performance and chassis balance

Bad stuff

Touchscreen-obsessed interior is a rare misstep from Ford


What is it?

The Ford hot hatch has been one of the reassuring constants in a world gone mad for decades. Ever since the first generation of Ford Focus back in 1998 there have been spicy versions to elevate the daily grind to a higher plane – that first car offered the hardcore RS, while the second-generation model slotted in a slightly softer ST version below that model. It remains quick, usable and fun – just maybe not priced as keenly as it once was.

It’s not going to last forever though – the current fourth-generation Focus was revealed back in 2018, facelifted in 2022 and won’t be replaced when it goes off-sale in 2025. To create space for another crossover, no doubt. Meanwhile, rivals include the Volkswagen Golf GTI (and its Skoda and Cupra cousins), as well as the BMW 128ti, Hyundai i30N and Honda Civic Type R

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It doesn't look overly special.

The ST is actually quite subtle, provided you avoid the Mean Green paint (the distinctive orange of previous generations is no longer an option). It's barely different from a regular 1.0-litre Focus ST-Line. The 19-inch wheels do help, and the lowered suspension too. But really the new Focus's panels are too billowy for the road-sucking stance and taut purposeful look we want in a hot hatch.

But that disguises all of the bespoke engineering work that has gone into developing the ST. It doesn’t feel like a spiced up Focus, but something with a bit more steel. There’s an electronically controlled limited-slip diff, for instance, not merely brake control of a slipping wheel (though it has that too). Adaptive damping is standard. The brake servo is energised by an electric pump, so can compensate for fade when you're going for it on a track, or down a mountain pass. Suspension is of course lowered (-10mm) and stiffened. The steering is quicker too.

What do I get to play with?

The 2.3-litre turbo engine offers a meaty 276bhp and 310lb ft of torque to lean on. You want the standard six-speed manual gearbox, not the seven-speed auto option (which has to make do with a mere 306lb ft of torque). 

And no sporty car these days can have any self-respect without a mode button, and here it's mounted on the steering wheel. Choices: Slippery, Normal, Sport and Track. It affects the usual stuff: throttle map, ESP threshold, sound enhancement. Add the Performance or Track packs and these unlock more damper bandwidth too. 

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Because the diff is electrically controlled, you also get more lock-up (and hence more torque steer) in the Sport and Track modes. The new servo also allows sharper brake response in the upper modes. 

What about the interior?

The virtue of a hot hatch like the Focus ST is that it is supposed to provide all of the everyday practicality of a family hatch, but with the extra fun of something a little sportier. The practicality is mostly intact – there’s decent room in the back, a good sized boot and the ST is a comfortable enough cruiser on a smooth motorway, even if passengers might feel a little green around town. 

It all makes Ford’s decision to copy Volkswagen’s missteps all the more baffling – the buttons have been ditched from the central part of the dashboard in favour of a strip along the bottom of the 13.2in touchscreen. It makes the Focus that bit more irritating to live with and a touch more dangerous on the move, and feels quite unnecessary. 

Our choice from the range

What's the verdict?

Great powertrain, good handling, irritating interior. We'd go Hyundai i30N or Civic Type R

The Focus ST has plenty going for it in the endangered world of the hot hatch. Loads of pace, loads of space, a soulful engine, pleasing manual gearbox and chassis that’s game for a laugh. We can’t help feeling the interior is a step backwards for safety and usability just because some designer was fantasising about working for Tesla, but the result isn’t quite as hateful as the latest VW, Seat and Skoda interiors, which is a blessing.

All told the Focus ST remains a quietly great all-rounder, but one that’s no longer a conspicuous bargain or the most rambunctious car in its class, which may mean it struggles to stand out from a talented crowd. 

The Rivals

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