The Ford Focus ST has a new four-pot motor and a diesel added to the range, but does it have what it takes to gun for the Volkswagen Golf GTI and Golf GTD?

There have been fast Fords since time immemorial. Even Model Ts were modified for speed, but the Escort XR3 of 1980, the first front-drive, mid-size hot hatch that Ford offered, is the Focus ST’s direct forebear.

This is the third generation of Focus ST, but only the second that could be described as a proper hot hatch. Nevertheless, the ST has become as much of an icon for performance hatchback drivers in this – and the previous – decade as the XR was in the 1980s.

The Focus is five-door only, but it’s hard to imagine a three-door getting a much more rakish profile

This hot Ford Focus is the tricky third album for Ford. Not only does it have to live up to the much-loved Mk2 Focus ST, with its evocative 2.5-litre five-pot, but it lands bang in the middle of the ‘One Ford’ plan. That means it needs to work on the same suspension set-up in Adelaide, Alabama and Aberdeen. It’s a tough ask, even for a group of engineers as talented as Ford’s Special Vehicle Team.

On paper at least it has its work cut out to win the hearts and minds of dyed in the wool British hot hatch buyers. It ‘only’ packs a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine, rather than the streetfighter 2.5-litre five-pot from the old car. It is ‘only’ front-wheel drive, it’s only available as a five door, and it has its engine note piped into the cabin rather than letting it be absorbed through the firewall and via exhaust.

The 2.0-litre petrol engine develops 247bhp – significantly more than the old ST and interesting more than the facelifted Volkswagen Golf GTI – and the new car has vastly improved running costs, which is so important when targeting sales all around the world. The current ST is also available in estate guise and with a low emission diesel engine designed to compete alongside the Volkswagen Golf GTD. In 2015, the Focus got a facelift and that translated to the ST too, with the big Aston-esque honeycomb mesh grille and more aggressive style dominating, although the ST looks more like a less hardcore version of the formidable, all-paw Focus RS.

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As the previous ST – and the last Focus RS – proved, front-wheel drive is no barrier to a supremely entertaining steer. There’s no RevoKnuckle, but it’s capable of some fairly ferocious standing starts without diverting itself into a hedge. And as with the last car, Ford has clearly delineated the ST and RS; while the RS is a weekend warrior, the ST is a very fast but useable daily driver much in the same way Volkswagen positions its GTI and GTD models.

As such there’s no shortage of practicality. The Focus ST can also be specified as an estate, which offers an intriguing experience that a decent proportion of buyers are choosing to opt for, but is ends up in direct competition with the Seat Leon Cupra ST and the Skoda Octavia vRS estate.

We’ve a pretty good idea of how it all stacks up, but the Autocar road test is here, ever your faithful servant, ready to uncover the foibles and secrets as only the toughest in the business can manage.

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Ford Focus ST rear

It may not have an ‘RS’ badge on the bootlid, but be in no doubt that the new Ford Focus ST is a major strategic departure for Ford. It’s the firm’s first global performance car.

This car’s mission isn’t just to sell in the familiar, performance-savvy Western markets, but pretty much everywhere else, too. It is designed and developed to appeal to palates as different as those you’ll find in Hong Kong, Los Angeles and the all-important Chelmsford and Southend.

Ford’s pop-out door protectors are a great idea, but they make an odd noise like you’ve trapped something in the door every time you open or close them

What’s more, the mechanicals are the same everywhere, from engine to suspension tune.

Relative to the previous Focus ST, the car has lost a cylinder, switching from turbocharged five-pot to four, and has dropped in capacity from 2.5 litres to just 2.0. But power has grown by a healthy margin, as has torque, while one of the previous car’s few disappointments – fuel economy – has been addressed.

This ST is alleged to go 20 percent further on a gallon of unleaded than the previous one, and nearly 40mpg is promised on the combined cycle. In that vein, it’s more deliberately cast as a more usable, practical and accessible performance car than it was. There is also the addition of a 2.0-litre diesel engine which produces 182bhp and 295lb ft and is capable of 135mph, but is capable of 40+mpg and produces a mere 110g/km of CO2.

It’s available as a five-door hatchback and a five-door estate, but not as a less-versatile three-door this time around. And it’s affordable. More than £2500 cheaper, in fact, in entry-level form, than a Volkswagen Golf GTI, while the diesel ST weighs in almost £2k less than the GTD. Ford clearly hasn’t forgotten what made its door-handle specials so popular.

On the flipside of that particular coin, though, you’ll find little of the mechanical richness of some of the ST’s hot hatch rivals: no mechanical limited-slip differential or RevoKnuckle front suspension here. The chassis is fully independent, though, as you’d expect.

The car rides 10mm lower than a standard Ford Focus, has uprated dampers and anti-roll bars, and an extremely direct electromechanical power steering system which needs barely two full turns from lock to lock.


Ford Focus ST interior

We wouldn’t be surprised to find that there’s a rule book when it comes to designing a hot hatchback’s interior. ‘To the engineering team: phone Recaro. Change the steering wheel. Add natty touches, some badges and a few extra dials.’ If such a thing exists, in the Focus ST, Ford has followed it to the letter.

It means that the Ford Focus ST’s major cabin architecture follows that of the standard car. And that, in turn, means that it’s one of the best in the small-medium car business and exudes an impression of quality and solidity that is the envy of most cars in the sector.

Driving position is quite high but otherwise hard to fault

The ST-specific additions are welcome. The Recaro seats are plentifully adjustable and, thankfully, are sited considerably lower than those of the previous-generation car. However, they remain, to our bums, higher and less adjustable than a Golf GTI’s, although they do have the measure of the Renault Mégane Cup’s.

The leather-bound steering wheel rim is a little fatter and more sculpted than that of a regular Ford Focus, while the gearlever gets an ‘ST’ badge but otherwise continues to perform its task in the same unobtrusive way as that of any of its siblings.

There are two trim levels to choose from: ST-2 and ST-3. The entry-level models come with the ST bodykit, 18in alloy wheels, rear spoiler, sports suspension and partial leather Recaro seats, while inside owners have the delight of Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system complete with DAB radio, sat nav and an 8.0in touchscreen display, dual-zone climate control, heated windscreen and auto lights and wipers, while the range-topping ST-3 trim garnishes the Focus with adaptive bi-xenon headlights, rear parking sensors, cruise control, a rear view camera and electrically adjustable leather Recaro seats.

Things are not all perfect, of course; such an interior has not yet been created. Some will bemoan the fact that there are rear doors at all. The steering wheel-operated entertainment/trip systems we have used a great deal but still don’t find all that intuitive.

And while most of the material choices in the cabin are hard to fault, if you climb straight from a Ford Focus and into a Golf there is something about the Volkswagen’s simplicity and feel that implies durability, regardless of whether that is actually the case or not.

The 2015 facelift brought a host of alterations to the ST range, the most noticeable changes were made to the exterior where an aggressive bodykit, bigger alloys and large honeycomb mesh grille dominate, but inside various changes have been made, including the removal of numerous fiddly buttons. The facelift also brought about a sizeable update of the infotainment system in the shape of Sync 3 brings a host of new connectivity updates including better integration of smartphones to the infotainment with the addition of Apple Carplay, Android Auto and Mirrorlink.


2.0-litre Ford Focus petrol engine

When it comes to powerful front-drive cars such as the Ford Focus ST, 0-60mph times only tell you so much. In fact, they tell you more about the size of the front tyres, the gear ratios, the efficiency of the traction control system and the durability of the clutch than they do about the power and its delivery.

A 6.2sec 0-60mph time is claimed for the Ford Focus ST and, in one direction, two-up and full of fuel, we matched it. Our two-way average of 6.3sec is a rather more reasonable reflection of where the ST is, however, given that a full-bore start in a car with 247bhp inevitably creates some strain on the drivetrain, and repeating it does it no favours.

The ST's electronic torque vectoring system mimics a limited-slip diff by braking a spinning wheel

It’s mildly interesting, too, that the 0-62mph time is 6.5sec. There’s a gearchange just after 60mph (our calculated 64mph maximum speed in second doesn’t allow for tyre deflection), from second to third.

If you just want to enjoy the ST’s powertrain, aurally and in gearchange quality, the best that the ST has to offer comes from short-shifting slightly, and to hell with the loss of a couple of tenths against the clock. The change is then more positive than at its limit; the noise peaks at its best before the 6750rpm red line, too.

But what a noise it is. Ford pumps induction noise through a tube to the back of the dashboard, where it resonates nicely and creates the sort of hollow ‘brap’ that was the trademark of the old five-pot ST. It sounds quite organic and heterogeneous; certainly, we’d rather listen to this than the assimilated, digitised V8 that BMW plays through the speakers of the BMW M5 and M6.

There’s nothing wrong with the ST’s power delivery, either, barring a slight reluctance to begin spinning at low revs, which is not unexpected from a 2.0-litre engine that makes this much oomph. Whether it requires a limited-slip differential or clever front suspension system to deliver it to the road is a moot point we shall come to in the next section.

The 2.0-litre diesel is less tuneful and significantly more docile. The TDCi ST is so quiet that its barely audible except for tyre roar and pumped in exhaust noise when you push on. The engine itself is always willing to pull and gives wave after wave of effortless torque as you go through the ratios. Such is the nature of the engine, it never feels like a slouch and feels more urgent than the equivalent Golf GTD.


Ford Focus ST cornering

Ford would argue – not unreasonably – that the Ford Focus ST is not quite the same sort of car as a Renault Mégane Cup or Vauxhall Astra VXR.

That it is down a touch on power is not necessarily its point (once you’re at 250bhp, in our book, you’re there or thereabouts). Rather, Ford insists that the ST should be a bit more like a Golf GTI – more everyday usable, in other words.

Great that the 'ESP off' really does mean off

To that end, the ST gets reasonably supple suspension. Certainly, around town, while you’d probably notice that it’s firm, you wouldn’t ever consider it harsh. Yet up the speed and on challenging roads the body stays commendably flat, with excellent body control over crests and bumps.

Look for tenths of degrees of difference here and there and you’d note that a Mégane trades some suppleness for superior control of its body movements.

The Golf is more pliant and linear, but less able to settle immediately over lumps. The Focus, then, is where Ford wants it to be, which is not a bad place at all.

The more controversial aspects of its dynamics centre around its steering and mechanical add-ons, or lack thereof. To our hands, the electrically assisted power steering, which gets, like Porsche’s, a slower rack at the straight-ahead that quickens as you apply lock, lacks some of the analogue feedback of a Golf’s, and instead sends messages that are effective but less rewarding and intuitive.

It’s quick enough, though, and very accurate. And while the ST goes without a mechanical limited-slip differential or torque steer-reducing RevoKnuckle suspension, in the dry it gets its power down well enough and resists most corruption. The wonder of EPAS is that it’s infinitely tweakable, and we think Ford has got the balance about right. It’s mostly refined, with the odd reminder that you are, after all, driving a 247bhp front-drive car.


Ford Focus ST

Ford has a long history of affordable performance cars – from early Escorts and Cortinas onwards, so it’s not surprising that affordability is key to the ST’s case here. The Ford Focus ST carries an eye-catching price indeed for a car with almost 250bhp on tap, let alone one with the dynamic talents we’ve just described.

Entry-level cars do without niceties such as leather, xenons and climate control, but for those who just want a great driver’s car for less, the ST will be cherished.

We’d probably leave cruise control and the Driver Assistance Pack alone

It’s a pity, then, that it is value you’ll only really benefit from if you’re a collector and you never plan to sell, because our sources suggest that the secondhand market will be as cruel to this ST as it was to the last one.

The saving you’ll likely make over a Golf GTI on purchase, the experts say, will be more than outweighed by the 15 percent relative residual value deficit you’ll suffer over a three-year ownership period. The ST estate is likely to remain a niche – and undeniably appealing – variant so its likely that residuals will be marginally stronger.

The efficiency of Ford’s new four-cylinder motor should, at least, ease some of that pain. On a touring run we were delighted to see it nudge past 40mpg, while most owners will also better the 30mpg we averaged. Claimed CO2 emissions of 169g/km are enticingly low for those seeking affordable road tax, although it’s nowhere near low enough to encourage company car drivers out of their diesel-engined motors.

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Ford Focus ST duo

We’re used to fast Fords that transcend normal limitations, so to find one bound by them is a bit disappointing. But the Ford Focus ST has shortcomings on the circuit that can’t be overlooked.

It may ‘only’ be an ST, but owners will still take their cars on track-days and hill climbs, and should be able to do so without worrying about how much punishment their car can take.

The Focus ST’s shortcomings on the circuit can’t be overlooked

That concern is the main fly in the ointment preventing that extra half star. Maybe that’s a result of it being a car built for global markets, rather than simply for the hardcore hot hatch fans in the UK, Germany and a handful of other countries. But considering the handicap that creating a car for all could have been, the Focus ST is a superb effort.

A Mégane Cup is a more capable circuit car, and slightly more exciting on the road. But the Ford counters that with greater usability, fine value, lots of charm and handling thrills that are almost as vivid.

To many, the new Focus ST will be no less a hot hatch for being intended for the road. As a fast front-driver to use every day, we’d rate it higher than any.

And then there’s the added bonus of the flexibility offered by the Focus ST estate. It delivers that little bit more practicality, and is largely without equal in its class.

Despite the ST’s road-focused softness, it leaves plenty of room for the Focus RS. Maybe just a bit too much.

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Matt Prior

Matt Prior
Title: Editor-at-large

Matt is Autocar’s lead features writer and presenter, is the main face of Autocar’s YouTube channel, presents the My Week In Cars podcast and has written his weekly column, Tester’s Notes, since 2013.

Matt is an automotive engineer who has been writing and talking about cars since 1997. He joined Autocar in 2005 as deputy road test editor, prior to which he was road test editor and world rally editor for Channel 4’s automotive website, 4Car. 

Into all things engineering and automotive from any era, Matt is as comfortable regularly contributing to sibling titles Move Electric and Classic & Sports Car as he is writing for Autocar. He has a racing licence, and some malfunctioning classic cars and motorbikes. 

Ford Focus ST 2012-2018 First drives