This year’s Britain's Best Driver's Car test was grounded by a twin-test sideshow that we’ve been anticipating all year. The issue of Ford Focus ST vs Toyota GT86 was set to be a duel of affordable virtuosos with real sporting pedigrees, and already in possession of glowing road test recommendations. These were cars at the apex of entertainment and attainability, of the sort that have taken past panels of Autocar judges by storm. But they arrived here via philosophies so different that choosing between them was never likely to be the work of a moment.
Ford’s new Focus ST isn’t just usefully cheaper than the Toyota GT86; it’s also quite a lot quicker and has all the usability advantages that you’d expect of a five-door family hatch compared with a smaller two-door notchback. And then there’s the trademark fast Ford handling, which was never likely to be found wanting on sheer excitement.
Throughout the duration of BBDC judging day, and even in the presence of cars with much more focus and raw performance, neither the Ford nor the Toyota stood ticking cool in the Bedford pitlane for longer than 10 minutes. Lotuses were overlooked and Porsches put firmly on the back burner as long as this one teasing question loomed over proceedings.
Bedfordshire’s excellent rural roads were the obvious place to begin looking for answers, and the Focus took to them like a 400m runner on his home track. It doesn’t tear down straights quite like Usain Bolt’s four-wheeled double – whatever that may be – but it’s in the same stadium. That turbocharged engine, quick to respond with its 250lb ft, allows it to eat short straights with serious pace.
The chassis tune is typically ‘Ford’, so strong-willed, but soft-edged. It’s compliant enough to keep four tyres in contact with the ground, even when you hit a mid-corner bump that you hadn’t seen coming. But it’s firm enough to check body roll before it disturbs grip levels, not to overwork the front end under braking, and to inspire more than the confidence generally needed to take a typical B-road apart, corner by corner.
What it isn’t, however, is a scruff of the neck, chuck it in and sort it out kind of car; beyond a certain point, the harder you drive the Focus ST, the less impressive it gets. At its most rewarding – about eight-tenths of your maximum commitment levels – the Ford has super-quick steering that allows you to carve smooth, neutral lines through turns, provided you don’t rush your inputs. Leave the ESP on and traction is strong. But there’s plenty of torque steer, still not as much steering feedback as from the best front-drivers, and one very apparent omission in the case of an open front differential. All of which can make your corner exit ragged with the ESP switched out and if you’re too keen with the controls.
The circuit brought out no shortage of amusing off-throttle adjustability in the Ford but, that apart, it served only to confirm a key suspicion: that this is above all else a road car. It is as practical and as usable as any other five-door and perfect for everyday entertainment, but not quite capable of the most vivid thrills.
The Toyota GT86 is more of your John Regis than Usain Bolt: not slow, but not fast, at least not in the strictest terms. Keep it wound up, flat four strumming belligerently away between 5000rpm and 7500rpm and, just as the Focus is fun enough, the GT86 is fast enough. Fast enough, just about, to feel like it belongs on a circuit as much as it does on the A361. Fast enough, just about, to reward you for wringing every last drop of available speed out of it, which is something you can do more often than you might think, even on the UK’s roads.
Yet there’s so much more to the GT86 than the buzz of velocity. More than enough, even, to make you wonder how much better several of the other cars in our test might have been if they weren’t so devoted to the false idols of grip and stability. Truth be told, we could have had a Subaru BRZ in the Toyota's place, but in previous back-to-back tests we've marginally preferred the Toyota's slightly different suspension set-up. It has felt a touch more alive. A touch more adjustable.
Against the rest of the competition here? Perfect poise, instant and utterly progressive handling responses, spellbinding controllability – these are the delights that capture your imagination in the Toyota, lap after lap and B-road after B-road, never dimming as they might in a heavier car with deteriorating tyres, never failing to present themselves when you ask, and never likely to get boring, ever.
One tester had it about right when he summed up the Toyota’s handling repertoire: “It’s rear-biased to the extent that you think a back tyre may be flat – but that’s okay. The car wants you to have a good time – at high speeds, at low speeds, whenever and wherever you like. I like having a good time. I’ll play."