Fun when you need it, civilised when not. Good performance/chassis balance in the petrol
Diesel isn't the same thing – very pleasant but not a hot hatch
What is it?
It's OK, people. In a world of turmoil, we're not quite seeing the upturning of everything we hold dear. One of the great constants is holding steadfast. The Ford hot hatch. Quick, accessible, useable, fun.
Here's the new generation of Focus ST. It's almost all-new, but cleaves faithfully to those values.
The heart of the range is a five-door hatch, now propelled by a rollicking 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine. Downsizing be damned, this one has actually been upsized. It starts life with a six-speed manual, although an optional seven-speed auto arrives a few months into its life. And you can have a diesel, and/or an estate. We'll explore why you might want to, and might not, later in this review.
Serious-minded engineering has gone on under the skin. But the skin itself doesn't quite advertise the fact. It's barely different from a regular one-litre Focus ST-Line. The optional 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 purpose we want in a hot hatch.
That engineering includes an actual electronically controlled limited-slip diff on the petrol version – not merely brake control of a slipping wheel (though it has that too). And adaptive damping is standard on the petrol hatch, optional on the diesel. Although it's unavailable in the estate, which has a different rear suspension design to free up a bigger boot.
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 and supported by 18- or 19-inch Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres. The steering is quicker too.
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/wet', 'normal', 'sport' and (if you've the optional Performance Pack) 'track'. It affects the usual stuff: throttle map, ESP threshold, sound enhancement.
Because the petrol's diff is electrically controlled, you also get more lock-up (and hence more torque-steer) in the sport and track mode. The new servo also allows sharper brake response in the upper modes. And although the dampers are adaptive in all the Focus ST hatchbacks, they don't have different programmes unless you get the Performance Pack, when you get a more keenly-damped car by ramping up the mode.
The 2.3-litre engine is related to the old Focus RS unit. But it gets updates for better response – not always entirely successful. Here it makes 276bhp, which puts it right in the meat of the hot hatch market. The torque figure is more striking, a slightly epic 310lb ft, reached at 1,800rpm. There remains no substitute for cubes.
That torque figure actually beats even the diesel version's 295lb ft. And if you're in the diesel you have to content yourself with 187bhp peak power. It's clear this is definitely the second-string powertrain, even if Ford pleads that this ST diesel is actually more powerful and twice as torquey as the original Focus ST170. By the way, in line with the spirit of the age, the diesel isn't called a diesel. It has no external badges, and the price list calls it EcoBlue.
Our choice from the range
What's the verdict?
Good hot hatches are great cars to own, and this shows why. Maybe a Golf is more satisfying inside, a Megane more urgent, an i30N more rumbustious, a Civic Type R plain madder. But this Focus rolls a load of long-term attraction into the package. And it's well-equipped, both in the things that make a good hatch, and the things that make a good hot one (diff, dampers, modes).
Its trouble, perhaps, is that it does the everyday things too well – it feels too normal most of the time. It looks too much like a Focus rep-car, and doesn't quite open the window of driving exhilaration until you're working it into a proper sweat.