How do you like your hot hatch? Buttoned-down or collar up? Dan picks a side…
By Dan Prosser / Saturday, October 17, 2020
Continental's 5000-acre proving ground on the fringes of the entirely forgettable town of Uvalde, Texas, dates back to 1959. It was originally owned by American firm General Tire, but ownership of the facility transferred to Continental when the German company acquired General Tire from its parent, GenCorp, in 1987. Since then, Continental has developed the site into a highly-sophisticated tyre development facility with, as I discovered in 2016, one of the most entertaining dry handling courses anywhere in the world.
It's 12-metres wide and around two miles long. The asphalt surface is so smooth and unblemished you want to rub your face against it. There are gradient changes, at least two properly ballsy corners and a fast, flowing sequence of bends that see you jink left and right with only the slightest steering inputs. Given the very high ambient temperatures that can rise to 40 degrees Celsius in July, the track has been configured to be as kind as possible to a car's brakes, meaning there's just one very heavy braking event around the entire lap.
It was on this dry handling track that I really loved driving a Ford Focus ST for the very first time. It was a third-generation model, but the facelifted one with the more predatory headlights. Until then I'd found earlier versions of the second-tier Focus hot hatch a bit unsatisfying – just a bit lazy and numb, rather than alert and responsive. At Uvalde, though, the ST was adjustable on the throttle, sharp and precise in the way it steered, planted at high speeds and overflowing with traction before it had got to them.
But that handling track may have been flattering. I had already tried a similar car on a frozen Welsh hillside road a few months previously, and in those very different conditions the Focus ST was a long way from its best. For one thing, it didn't put its power down cleanly where rival front-wheel drive hot hatches did; for another, it wasn't anything like as engaging to thread between the hedgerows as its competitor from Renault Sport.
The Ford seemed constricted, as though that platform's true performance potential would instead be realised by a faster and costlier model. The Focus RS, in other words. There will be no Rallye Sport version of the current, fourth-generation Focus though, meaning as far as high-performance variants go, this 280hp, front-wheel drive Focus ST is it. In a sense, it's a pity we've been denied a truly gun-slinging Focus hot hatch this time around, but there is an upside: the ST version need no longer be held back.
The result? The fastest ST yet, but also the most sophisticated. Take the electronically-controlled but very much mechanical limited-slip differential that sits between the front wheels and feeds all that power and torque, a fulsome 310lb ft of the stuff, to even a wet road surface like it's nothing, plus adaptive dampers as standard. The latest ST is at its best when tipped into a quick corner with real commitment, because it's then that you appreciate the agility in the chassis, agility that's twinned with poise and stability quite masterfully. It feels like a bigger faster Fiesta ST – in hot hatch terms, there may be no higher complement than that.
It gets better the faster you go. On the road at least, you never seem to run it out of grip, or body control, or alertness. Even if you didn't already know Ford Performance had junked the idea of building an RS, you'd step out and think, 'Well, what would be the point?'
The 2.3-litre turbo engine is strong and responsive. It even sounds pretty good in an obviously-augmented, pops-and-bangs kind of way. But I do have my reservations. For one thing, the steering felt to me almost entirely devoid of any sense of connection, particularly in the wet. There's an off-putting springy, rubbery sensation about it. That's not so much of an issue in the dry, but on a greasy road I found I couldn't figure out how hard the front tyres would bite on turn-in. Perhaps that comes with time.
Another issue is the lack of a configurable driving mode, which always seems like such an oversight. You can have sharper throttle response and the more vocal soundtrack, but only with dampers that are just a shade too firm for the kinds of back roads UK drivers find themselves on most often. Oh, and then there's the cabin, which is so oppressively bland I wonder if Ford's development budget for the ST ran out with that diff.
Question is, then, do those few shortcomings undermine all the stuff that's really very impressive about the Focus ST, or can you overlook them? The best way to find out is to test it back-to-back with the most capable rival hot hatch there is, which means a phone call to the Honda press office. The Civic Type R was, for my money, already the best front-driven, circa-300hp hot hatch on sale. It's just been updated with a slightly tweaked look, an Alcantara-trimmed steering wheel, some very minor chassis revisions and the kind of teardrop-shaped metal gear knob that should have been fitted all along (this is a Type R Honda, after all).
I won't spoil the outcome here, but whichever direction you go in you really cannot lose. The news from a little while back that Ford wouldn't give us a fourth Focus RS seemed like a real kick in the teeth at the time. Now I couldn't care less.
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