First drive: Ford Focus ST

The Europeans, the lucky dogs, have enjoyed two previous generations of Ford’s hopped-up Focus ST. Now that the North American Focus is underpinned by the European chassis, Canada will finally get to drive the all-new third-generation ST.

Aside from a bolder grille, body kit and larger rear spoiler, the ST’s main stylistic cue is the double hexagon formed by the oversized tailpipes that exit in the middle of the rear valance. It is a fairly mild dose of machismo that serves to keep the ST somewhat of a sleeper — the electric Tangerine Scream paint job, however, is a bit of a giveaway!

Inside, the ST will be familiar to Focus owners — the control layout and versatility are the same as in the regular five-door hatchback. The key changes include two of the best Recaro seats money can buy, a steering wheel that puts some real heft in the driver’s hands and a trio of gauges atop the centre stack. These show, in true racing form, engine oil temperature and pressure along with the turbo’s boost pressure. In Canada, the ST will arrive loaded — a Tech package, which includes MyFord Touch with an eight-inch screen, a Sony sound system, satellite radio and dual-zone automatic climate control and a navigation system are the lone add-ons.

The ST employs a hyper version of Ford’s 2.0-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder engine. In this instance, the massaging bumps the output to 252 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque. This gives the ST a wicked turn of speed, and it does so almost without regard for the engine’s rev rate. When driven flat out, it has a deliciously flat torque curve that sees the engine pull as though possessed. However, it is equally willing to perform when it’s short-shifted and worked in the lower part of the rev range. Now, that’s flexibility.

A big part of the willingness is down to an overboost mode. When the driver digs deep into the throttle, the turbocharger blows a little harder and delivers 270 lb-ft of torque for a full 20 seconds. The reality is that even though it is only there for a relatively short duration, it is always there when the driver needs it.

One of the ST’s key additions is the sound Symposer that runs from the intake manifold to a spot behind the instrument panel. Between the two extremities, there’s a diaphragm and a control flap. When the flap opens under moderately hard acceleration, the intake roar is dumped directly into the cabin, which gives the ST a resonance worthy of the engine’s output. It is, in reality, just as well that this sound conduit works because there’s very little in the way of exhaust noise in the cabin. Sans Symposer, the ST just would not make the right noises.

The ST will be offered with a six-speed manual transmission only. While the gearbox is easy to row at the speeds required and the clutch is light and bites in the right place, the shortcoming is the length of the shifter’s throw — it could do with being shorter and sharper to the feel. Quibble aside, the powertrain whips the ST to 100 kilometres an hour in 6.5 seconds and it accomplishes the 80-to-120-km/h passing move in a blistering 4.2 seconds.

When it comes to handling, the ST is just as good, and in many instances, better than anything in the segment. The ST’s revamped suspension drops the ride height by 10 millimetres and firms it up appreciably without killing ride comfort. Factor in a variable-rate steering setup that delivers a very fast turn-in response without feeling twitchy and the ST obeys driver input exceptionally well. The fact it will arrive with the same P235/40R18 tires used in Europe serves to accentuate the car’s tenacious corning capability. Prospective owners will be urged to purchase proper winter tires if the ST is to be driven year-round. Kudos to Ford’s engineers for making the right decision — simply stated, retuning the suspension to handle all-season tires would have taken the edge off a very sharp setup.

What is remarkable about the whole setup is that, in spite of the engine’s prodigious torque, there is no torque steer. In the ST’s case, this vice is countered by the steering. When launched with authority, the driver does feel a momentary torque tug at the wheel just before the steering dials in its countering action to keep the ST pointed in the right direction. In the bad, old days, torque steer was tamed by deadening the feedback through the steering wheel — the ST’s steering is just about perfect to the feel and it’s devoid of numbness. Even at speed, when there is still more than enough power to induce wheelspin, the ST still pulls in a straight line thanks to the steering’s work behind the scenes. It is a job very well done!

Finally, to underscore the sportier nature of the ST, the electronic stability control system has three modes. Normal is fairly liberal and allows a little slip before stepping in. The Sport mode lets things get quite bent out of shape before gathering things up. Finally, for those track days, there is a true Off mode.

Having worked on and driven many of Ford’s earlier RS products in a former life, I had some idea of what to expect of the ST. Even with this in mind, it still managed to impress the heck out of me. It is very quick and extremely well dialled in, which gave it an unexpected but mandatory fun quotient. The Focus ST, which is priced at $29,995, is set for launch late this summer.

Photograph by: Graeme Fletcher, for National Post