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The Focus ST once held its own against the Golf GTI, but does it have the edge on your second-hand shortlist?

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At its launch in 2012, the Ford Focus 2.0T ST-3 was around £1000 cheaper than the Volkswagen Golf GTI manual that arrived the following year. Used examples now cost up to £2000 less than the Volkswagen.

Which one has the edge? The Focus, with 247bhp, or the Golf, with 217bhp? In the opinion of Autocar’s road testers, the Ford was a four-and-a-half-star car while the Volkswagen scored four stars, and the team praised the fast Ford’s poised, interactive handling and responsive and flexible engine.

It was offered in multiple guises: five-door hatch and estate, a choice of 2.0-litre Ecoboost turbo petrol or, from 2015, 182bhp 2.0-litre TDCi diesel engines, and in three trims, called ST-1, -2 and -3. Here, we’re zeroing in on the petrol hatch.

Before anyone got their hands on the new ST, there were unflattering comparisons made between its turbocharged 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine and the 2.5-litre five-cylinder unit that powered its Mk2 predecessor. But once behind the wheel, critics were soon won over.

Apart from its slight reluctance to begin spinning at low revs, the engine impressed our testers with its performance as well as its noise, which is piped into the cabin. It’s also more economical than the 2.5, in Autocar’s hands returning 40mpg on a touring run.

Indeed, low running costs were one of Ford’s goals with the Mk3 ST. Others were to design a hot hatch for weekdays and not just weekends and persuade buyers to accept one designed for world markets rather than just for Europe. We judged the firm had succeeded on both counts.

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The ST rides 10mm lower than regular Focus models and has uprated dampers and anti-roll bars. It also has extremely quick and direct steering. Despite all 247bhp being directed through its front wheels, the ST doesn’t suffer unduly from torque steer. 

Certainly our testers had no complaints, but in the wrong hands and in the wrong conditions, it can be a handful.

Looks-wise, the ST is certainly no lairy Vauxhall Astra GTC VXR, but it does have a sporty bodykit with a rear wing and centrally located exhausts. For more visual drama, you need the facelifted Mk3.5 from 2015, with its even lower stance, bigger alloys, narrowed headlights, larger grille and sharper creases. Under the skin, it has sportier shocks and new front springs.

Inside, pre- and post-facelift cars build on the hot hatch theme with Recaro seats, a chunky wheel and a bank of gauges that includes boost pressure. It looks good, but a Golf GTI’s cabin is of a higher quality. At just 316 litres, the ST’s boot is quite small, too.

Very few ST-1 cars exist, so let’s move on to ST-2. This trim level brings 18in alloys, dual-zone climate control, a heated windscreen, coloured seat panels and an uprated version of Ford’s Sync 2 infotainment system.

With the 2015 facelift, Sync 2 was upgraded to Sync 3, offering better connectivity. ST-3 trim adds leather seat facings, bi-xenon lights, rear parking sensors and keyless entry, which is convenient but makes the car more stealable by relay theft – one reason why it’s in a higher insurance group than the GTI.

The Focus ST and Golf GTI appeal to different buyers, but if you want that bit extra engagement and a trifle more visual impact (Tangerine Scream, anyone?) a facelifted 2.0T ST is the way to go.

COMMON PROBLEMS

Is the Ford Focus ST reliable?

Generally, yes. But there are a number of things you should look out for before you buy, given that it is a fast Ford and has likely had a punchy life. Stolen, crashed and badly repaired cars with false identities, cars passed off as being a higher trim level, cars tuned to within an inch of their life: all these are traps awaiting the unwary buyer of a Focus ST.

But if these and the following common problems check out, and it has a decent service history (ideally a full one) then you should have a trusty steed.

Engine: Services are every 12,500 miles, and the engine has a timing chain rather than a belt. Check for exhaust smoke, coolant loss and low boost pressure. Fluctuating revs or stalling on pre-facelift cars may be a wiring loom fault. That triggered a recall in the US; here, some cars got new looms under warranty, while others were repaired.

Transmission: The six-speed manual gearbox is tough, so pay closer attention to the clutch and for it slipping in higher gears under hard acceleration from low engine revs. 

Tyres, Steering and suspension: Bushes, dampers and springs take a pounding, so drive a handful of cars to compare their ride and handling. Irregular tyre wear patterns may indicate steering and suspension geometry problems. 

Wheels and brakes: Check alloys for kerbing, brake discs for warping and pads for remaining life. Brake lines corrode badly. Optional 19in wheels look great. Some Rado Grey 18in alloys are losing their lacquer coat. 

Interior: The ST is no Golf GTI, so check for loose and broken trim and listen for sundry rattles. Visit Ford’s online owner resources pages to check the Sync 3 sat-nav mapping is up to date. Make sure all the features work. 

Body: Pay particular attention to panel gaps, paint, overspray, inconsistencies in shade and the condition of the lacquer. Rust is only likely to be present as a result of poor accident repairs, although it can occur on the rear wheel arch where the bumper rubs. On post-2015 facelift cars, the bonnet may need adjusting to sit properly. Check the boot for damp caused by water ingress via weak seals or tail-lights.

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Focus ST side

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

This car’s mission wasn't just to sell in the familiar, performance-savvy Western markets, but pretty much everywhere else, too. It was 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.

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

Relative to the Focus ST that went before it, the car lost a cylinder, switching from turbocharged five-pot to four, and dropped in capacity from 2.5-litres to just 2.0. But power grew by a healthy margin, as did torque, while one of the previous car’s few disappointments – fuel economy – was 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 was deliberately cast as a more usable, practical and accessible performance car than the car it replaced. There was also the addition of a 2.0-litre diesel engine which produces 182bhp and 295lb ft and is capable of 135mph, but can also achieve 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.

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.

INTERIOR

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 followed it to the letter.

It meant that the Ford Focus ST’s major cabin architecture followed that of the standard car. And that, in turn, meant that it was one of the best of its time and continues to exude an impression of quality and solidity that is the envy of most cars in the sector.

The ST-specific additions are welcome. The Recaro seats are plentifully adjustable and, thankfully, are sited considerably lower than those of the second-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 were two trim levels to choose from: ST-2 and ST-3. The entry-level model came with the ST bodykit, 18in alloy wheels, rear spoiler, sports suspension and partial leather Recaro seats, while inside owners got 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.

The range-topping ST-3 trim garnished 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.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Focus ST front three quarter tracking

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 and, in one direction, two-up and full of fuel, we matched it when we tested 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.

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 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.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Focus ST front tracking

Ford would argue – not unreasonably – that the 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.

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 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.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Focus ST front three quarter

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. It 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. On the used market, they can be had from just £4500.

The efficiency of Ford’s new four-cylinder motor is also a welcome trait. 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.

VERDICT

Ford Focus ST front three quarter static

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.

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.

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