What is it?
It's the welcome return of the Ford Focus ST, Ford's Volkwagen Golf GTI-rivalling hot hatch.
It has been two years since Ford last had an ST in the ranks, but this time around it's a slightly different beastie: there's no longer a five-pot engine under the bonnet, thanks to ever-tightening emissions regulations. But the Focus retains a couple of defining advantages over some of its rivals.
One, it starts at under £22,000 and two, it has 247bhp driving its front wheels. Its power comes from a 2.0-litre Ecoboost engine, while the fact that it is so keenly priced comes partly from the absence of fancy shenanigans in the front suspension and transmission of the sort that mark out its fastest non-rivals (such as double-axis strut front suspension and a mechanical limited-slip differential).
Instead, the ST has an electronic torque-steer compensator (whose motor feeds forces back into the electric power steering system to counter disruption), and not Ford's RevoKnuckle suspension. Likewise, instead of a limited slip differential, the ST it gets torque vectoring: an extension of the ESP system that will brake a lightly loaded inside wheel and effectively pass power to the outside.
If you want more hardware than that from a Focus, you'll have to pop down to your dealer and beg for an RS. (Try and talk them into doing a Fiesta as well, if you do.) There's no three-door version either, only this five-door hatch and the Focus ST estate.
What's it like?
Inside at least, very tidy. There are Recaro seats that, praise be, let you sit a lot lower than in the previous ST. The steering wheel, pleasingly round all-round, adjusts hugely for reach and rake, and there are three diddy additional dials for oil pressure, temperature and turbo boost atop the dash; all angled towards the driver. It's a cabin that stands comparison with anything in the class.
Next, the motor: the first thing that strikes me about it is that, although it has lost a cylinder on the old car, its noise is precious little worse for it. Ford has been tweaking the ST's sound heavily during the past few months in an effort to make it far more theatrical. And it has worked. There's a genuinely grunty, near five-pot induction growl to it. It's now a peachy drivetrain. The Golf GTI doesn't just give away a lot in power: for all the GTI's linearity of response and the positiveness of gearshift, it lacks the ST's charm, too.
But where the ST really gets different to the Golf, and the previous Focus ST, and the Focus RS and, well, just about any fast Ford before it, is that Ford really has ramped-up the steering response. It feels night-and-day different to the previous Focus ST, or Golf GTI. It's a quick rack, wanting only 1.8 turns from lock-to-lock, and as soon as you wind it away from its the straight ahead (to which it's highly willing to self centre), it weights up and quickens up very smartly.
The steering ratio increases the further you go from centre, so it quickens more once lock is applied, and that makes it feel terrifically agile. Chuck the ST into a corner and it very rapidly tucks in feeling, in its way, a bit like a Renaultsport Clio 200; which is not a bad benchmark. Feel? There is some, but it's subtle. Torque steer? The tiniest of tugs here and there; just enough to remind you the ST has 247bhp. It's an intuitive, albeit not totally natural feeling system.
The rest of the handling almost follows suit. The Focus is bigger than a Clio 200, obviously, but in its agility and willingness, there are similarities. In the dry the Focus feels like it's pivoting around its middle and would tip a back wheel into the air like a Clio. And if you give it a lift mid-corner, the ST is very happy to slip its rear wheels into action. There's plenty here for those who like a bit of lift-off oversteer.
The ST isn't as engaging as a Renaultsport Megane Cup, but Ford didn't want it to be: isn't so aggressive either. If you want a Focus with a harder core, you'll have to wait for an RS. Hence, although it rides firmly, the ST is supple too. There is roll and pitch, but they happen at a controlled rate and, I suspect, given the market Ford is going for, they hit the right note.
Should I buy one?
Sure. If you want a well-rounded hot hatchback, friendly in daily use but capable of entertaining on the right roads, the Focus ST stands comparison with the best, no question. The Golf still has a real charm to it, a natural feel to its steering that the Focus doesn't quite. But the ST's chassis counters with an agility and neutrality that that's superior to the Golf GTI's.
So, in the end there's little denying: the ST brings renewed vigour and unrivalled agility to the class, at a price nothing else can touch. The best fast Fords always do, and I think the ST might just be one of them.
Ford Focus ST 5dr
Price: £21,995; 0-60mph: 6.2sec; Top speed: 154mph; Economy: 39.2mpg (combined); CO2: 169g/km; Kerb weight: 1362kg; Engine: 4 cyls in line, 2000cc, turbo, petrol; Installation: Front, transverse, front-wheel drive; Power: 247bhp at 5000rpm; Torque: 250lb ft at 1750rpm; Power to weight: 181bhp per tonne; Specific output: 124bhp per litre; Gearbox: 6-spd manual