Ford Focus ST review: performance still at the heart of family friendly hot hatch hero
As Ford prepares to discontinue the Focus, the latest ST honours the hot hatch ideal as a thrilling family car
In a move that prompted exasperated sighs from anyone who cares about cars, earlier this year Ford announced a new version of the Puma ST with a less powerful 1.0-litre engine and an automatic gearbox. It’s not just bad for the image of the Puma ST but it’s also a sad dilution of the ST brand.
Thankfully - for the moment at least - there are still cars like the Focus ST to honour the true spirit of the badge with big engines, lots of power and a manual gearbox.
In the Focus, that’s a 2.3-litre, turbocharged four-cylinder with 276bhp and a quick, precise six-speed gearbox. You can have the Focus ST with an auto gearbox but you shouldn’t. This is a car to engage with and take control of, not one to leave it all to the machine.
Power delivery from the EcoBoost engine is linear and muscular. The huge torque the engine produces (310lb ft) means there’s nothing to mention in the way of lag as the turbo spins up and the engine powers towards its red line. The torque makes for easy progress but it’s still more fun to let the engine rev and use all of the horsepower.
Ever since the first generation, the Focus - and especially its performance variants - has been praised for the way it engages the driver and this final ST is the same, with an agile chassis and razor-sharp steering. While perhaps not quite as feelsome or communicative as it once was, it’s still quick, direct and accurate. The standard-fit limited slip diff helps the Focus haul itself out of corners with a vigour and enthusiasm that will make you grin and in cars with the optional Performance Pack the adaptive dampers allow you to stiffen the ride for more precise body control.
The pay-off for that is a ride that veers into the uncomfortably sharp, so it’s just as well you can soften things down again in normal mode. In regular cars there are three drive modes - normal, slippery and ST - and the Performance Pack adds an extra track mode that dials back the traction and stability control further. Cleverly, you can activate and deactivate full Sport mode via the dedicated S button on the steering wheel. There’s a separate button for the other drive modes but this, annoyingly, just brings up a menu on the touchscreen.
Which brings us to the interior, which was updated at the end of last year. Squeeze yourself into the deeply bolstered sports seats (and it is a squeeze for larger drivers) and you’re greeting with the latest top-spec Focus interior, with a 12.3-inch digital instrument cluster, 13.2-inch Sync 4 touchscreen and a frustrating lack of proper physical controls for stuff like the drive modes, the heating and pretty much anything.
The previous interior was showing its age and the shiny new screens and decluttered console address that but at the expense of some user friendliness. That grumble aside, the interior is still big enough for a family of four and there’s decent space in the 375-litre boot so it remains a usable family car as well as being fun to drive.
There is something to be said for a stealthy black or dark blue finish to give a performance model a Q-car vibe but there’s also something to be said for the gloriously showy Mean Green of our test model. Especially in a world of drab grey and silver, it marks the ST out as something different and special.
That paint is an £825 extra and was part of a selection of options that pushed our £37,000 car up to £40k. Every new car has experienced price creep in recent years but the Focus has gone from a car that once cost £25k to one that starts north of £36,000. Still, the 316bhp Honda Civic Type R is now £47,000 so such things are relative.
And you do get a decent amount for your money, including the LSD, dynamic matrix LED lights, heated seats and steering wheel, wireless charging and those fancy digital screens. The £3,000 of options on our test car included that paint, a head-up display, a driver assist pack with adaptive cruise and, most importantly, the Performance Pack with the adjustable damping and track mode - £850 well spent.
The new Civic Type R is perhaps a sharper track day tool and the Hyundai i30 N is better value but the Focus ST still properly fulfils the hot hatch brief. It’ll do the family car stuff - school run or weekly shop - with ease and without complaint but it also has the precision and engagement to have some fun when the opportunity arises. It’ll be a sad day when cars like the Focus are no more and we’re left with the 1.0-litre Pumas as bearers of the ST brand.