Ford has purged its non-truck catalog of American cars, meaning that the 2019 Focus ST won’t be sold stateside. That’s a tragedy, in concept, because the idea of this car’s pretty great. The execution may not be a hardcore turbomeganutterhatch, but there are still some reasons to take a look at the thing.
When a new Ford Focus comes out there’s usually a collective cry, one that echoes in comments sections and forum threads all over the internet: “When’s the RS coming?” Well, it’s not here yet so stop asking, and Ford is remaining tight-lipped on whether it’s going to be a thing at all. What is here though, is its little brother.
(Full disclosure: Ford wanted me to have a spin in the new Focus ST so bad I was flown to the south of France, put up in a fancy hotel, fed, and watered, to ensure that I’d be able to tell you about it.)
The last-generation Focus ST was always the car that lurked in the back of group tests and “what should I buy” threads for enthusiasts. It seemed to be constantly chasing the Golf GTI’s coattails, trying to snaffle a bit of that everyday nutcase magic that the Germans consistently get so right. Now there’s a new one with more power, more toys, and more potential than those that preceded it. Lest we forget, the base Focus is excellent, and when Ford gave the dinky Fiesta the ST treatment people, rightly, lost their shit over it.
This is a Ford Focus with a bottle rocket up its arse. The car for the person who needs something sensible but also fancies themselves a bit of outright speed and silliness from time to time. The Focus is a brilliant package–it’s spacious, comfortable, comes with some excellent tech, and it looks pretty great. The ST’s job is to take all of that and make it in to a speed machine that’ll also carry your shopping.
Let’s start with the motor: under its delightfully curvy snout is a 276 horsepower, 310 lb-ft 2.3-liter EcoBoost four cylinder. Ford reckons it’ll get from 0-62 mph in 5.7 seconds and go on to 155 mph if you’re brave enough. Ford also says it’ll manage 38 mpg highway and 22 city, which is pretty frugal. It weighs in at 3,325 pounds; not exactly featherweight, but hardly a porker, especially by modern standards. If you want one, and you can’t have it in the U.S. sorry, Ford will charge you just shy of $40,500 for the hatch and bang on $40,650 for the wagon (prices converted from GBP for your reference and accurate to exchange rate at time of writing).
It looks pretty cool. The ST’s cosmetic enhancements (wheels, badges, spoiler, etc) don’t stick out like a sore thumb. To the untrained eye, it’s a regular Ford going around its regular Ford business. But actually it’s something a bit... more. Conversely, a Honda Civic Type R is all up in your face about how sporty and angry and aggressive it is. It looks like it’ll steal your wallet if you look at it funny. The Focus ST is friendlier, more modest about its abilities. Oh, and it suits “Orange Fury” paint on the metalwork.
Launch. Control. Yeah, launch control isn’t a new thing for cars in general, but it’s pretty cool on the Focus ST. Pop the car in “Track” and every time the car is brought to a standstill a little “Launch Control” command pops up on the instrument display. Simply press “OK” on the ‘wheel, pin the gas and drop the clutch to fire yourself in to the distance. It’ll leave a pretty antisocial set of number elevens on the ground as well.
Shifting your own gears should always be a joy, and they are here. The six-speed manual gearbox is great to use. The throw’s decently short, and makes you feel like you’re actually doing something with the stick. Cars like the VW Golf GTI are too slot-and-go to make the experience engaging, in my opinion.
Wireless charging often feels like a thing from the future and in the Focus ST’s case I wish it would stay there. The phone tray is built for enormophones, so popping something smaller in there (in this case an iPhone X) leaves plenty of room for it to wobble around. This often means the phone loses connection and the car flashes a huge warning up on the infotainment screen that obscures your view of the nav and asks you to press something to make the message clear. It’s distracting and irritating.
Then there’s second gear. For something like the Focus ST, second and third should be your best friends for tight and twisty playtimes but they just aren’t. Second gear runs out way too early, while third is too long. Swapping between the two is easy, and one (naturally) leads to the other very nicely, but the moment you get to the meat of third’s delicious turbo torque you’re going at silly speeds and have likely run out of road. It can make the twisties more frustrating than fun. Joining a highway, however, will be easy–fire up through second and find your cruising speed in third, then bang it in to sixth to cruise.
Ford’s base Focus is sweet to steer on the day-to-day. In town it’s easy to see out of (bar the mailbox-sized rear window), it’s quiet on a highway cruise. The ST is no different. OK, there’s a ton more power to play with, but use it responsibly and you could be driving any Focus in the line up.
The cabin is littered with handy spaces to put your daily detritus. The door bins are huge, the space under the infotainment is big enough for your phablet, the trunk will swallow all the things, it’s practical. It’s sensible. Were it not for a pair of rorty pipes on the back, of course.
In the car’s normal setting it’s easy to control, as you’d expect from a Focus. The electrically assisted steering on the ST is smooth and not too heavy, so any driver can get in and bumble around with ease.
The six-speed stick shift is also pretty easy to play with. It’s not slot-and-go like a VW, but not so notchy you’d think it’s broken. Its clutch is a little on the springy side, which can lead to a few stalls here and there if you’re not used to it.
Ford’s fitted brake booster tech to the Focus ST to give it a little more edge when you’re hammering it. A fine idea, sure, but around town they’re a touch too grabby and lead to some jerky stops. Again, you’ll likely get used to it in time.
While the car can make a delightfully farty four-pot noise, it’s rather sedate at normal speeds. You won’t piss off the neighbors if you get home late.
On the highway it’s smooth and quiet, easily capable of overtaking anything that gets in your way, and stable at speed. You could quite happily tour a continent in it and not end up hating yourself on the other end.
If you’re just going to use this as a sensible car, you can’t go too far wrong.
Ah, the ST’s home ground–driving like parts of you are on fire. This is where the ST should absolutely excel, yet the reality is a mixed bag.
Despite its 276 HP it doesn’t actually feel that fast. Considering the power you’d expect to be pushed back in your seat as you nail it, but you don’t. Sure, the numbers build up on the digital speedo, but you don’t feel it. In fact, at stupid speeds it feels serene despite the engine note blaring at you. Also, pinning it in a straight line gives way to a little bit of the FWD hot hatch favorite: torque steer. Not enough to bother you at all, but it’s still there.
In sport and track modes throttle response is sharpened, the “enhanced” noise gets more aggressive, and the steering becomes heavier. Track also gives the brakes a smidge more bite, and turns down (but not off) the traction control.
Ford knows its target audience. On start up the Focus ST defaults to its standard set up, but press the dedicated “S” button on the wheel and it’ll leap straight to sport. A “mode” button allows you switch between normal, Sport, Track, and slippery as well, but the quick access to a noisy, shouty experience is a good move.
Sport mode does give the ST more edge, allowing you drive it a little harder and a little faster should you wish. It doesn’t ramp the ride up so much that your spine will punish you for just using it to potter around town as well. The steering becomes more weighty here, but feels a little like a force feedback ’wheel for a PS4 at times, rather than smooth and progressive. Building straight line speed isn’t a problem at all, though like I said, you don’t feel it all that much.
In the corners, sport mode will guide you round quite happily, you feel the eLSD doing its job and pushing the car around while you’re going at decent pace. The eLSD can send 100 percent of the available torque to either front wheel, which is pretty handy. As with any FWD hot hatch, though, go in too hard and it’ll push on to understeer. A Honda Civic Type-R, however, can go harder.
Track mode gives you more freedom, and does unleash more of the car’s potential, allowing it to move around a little more on the road and stiffening it up. The ride is pretty harsh, but it means you can get around corners a little quicker, so it’s best reserved for the end of a really terrible day.
Its six-speed ’box, is ace to use, but the ratios seem a bit odd when you’re giving it a shoeing. Second runs out of puff way too early thanks to turbo torque rocketing you through, and third, once it’s picked up the torque curve, gets you going a little too fast for back road driving. The result is a constant up and down shift battle to find the car’s happy medium. At least it’ll blip the gas for you on downshifts so you don’t completely screw the clutch.
Braking is positive and progressive. The brake booster tech, enhanced further in track mode, scrubs off speed smoothly and quickly. At no point did it feel like the brakes were beginning to fade during our very hilly, twisty test route.
Here’s the rub–if you drive it balls to the wall the ST can cover ground at quite some pace. You can’t treat it as harshly as a Hyundai i30N, but an i30N isn’t as useable on the day to day. For roads you know well, you can exploit it easily and it’ll become something of a weapon, though a mildly blunted one compared to some of the competition. Its chassis is capable, ability is huge, and power is plentiful, but it doesn’t feel quite up there. Just don’t go in expecting a Focus RS and you’ll dig it.
For your $40,500ish you get a fair bit of standard kit–Sync 3, some pretty fly Recaros, and a whole host of driver convenience tech. There’s a ton of luggage space to play with, and it’s not too thirsty. It’s a car that anyone can drive and have a giggle in, so it’s a pretty good deal.
Following on not only from the Mk III Focus RS, but the utterly brilliant Fiesta ST (one of the best new cars of 2018) as well, the new Focus ST has a tough job on its hands. It’s entering a competitive sector, with the soft and squidgy all rounder VW Golf GTI at one end of the spectrum, and the hardcore Hyundai i30N at the other.
While the new Focus ST has a decent breadth of ability it’s more suited to occasional blasts than out and out aggressive mentalness. For day to day it’s perfect–spacious, easy to drive, full of tech–but for driving with a lead foot and a flagrant disregard for anything other than fun? There are better hot hatches out there. That said, there will be an army of fast Ford fans who’ll love it simply because it exists.