Ford Focus ST-3
By Dan Strong
Fans of fast Fords rejoice - 2006 is here, and with it comes one of the most eagerly anticipated performance cars ever to wear the blue oval badge. The brilliant new Focus ST hits showrooms this month. Sporting deep bumpers, huge alloy wheels and a discreet rear wing, the muscular family machine is bound to turn heads.
But does the model that impressed us at its European launch in November (issue 882) perform as well on UK roads? Auto Express tried one of the first right-hand-drive examples to find out.
Styling aside, there's no doubt that getting behind the wheel of the latest Focus is a special event. With a distinctive leather key fob, ST-branded chairs and brushed aluminium detailing, the newcomer misses no opportunity to provide reminders of its sporting credentials. Priced from £17,495, it looks good value, too - although if you want traction control and air-conditioning, you'll need to pay £1,000 more for a mid-spec ST-2 model. Our top-of-the-range ST-3 comes in at £19,495.
Fire up the engine, and the sound of the 2.5-litre 222bhp five-cylinder unit has a depth and menace that hints at the pace on offer. But out on the road, power delivery is extremely even, with torque delivered from low down in the rev range. For a turbocharged engine, throttle response is surprisingly sharp, and performance is helped by the carefully selected gear ratios.
Ford's official figures give the ST a top speed of 150mph and a 0-60mph sprint time of 6.5 seconds - the car certainly feels like one of the hardest-accelerating
machines in its class. On greasy winter roads, it doesn't take much to force the traction control light to blink a warning, particularly in lower gears. Yet the subtle interruption of power flow to the front wheels - provided by the ESP stability control - has little effect on the evenness of the performance.
Gearchanges are slick and, as long as you don't rush the Volvo-sourced six-speed box, smooth, too. The brakes are powerful, and despite the standard low-profile tyres, perform consistently over rough and uneven surfaces.
What criticisms we do have stem from the fact that the ST can't quite mask its humble hatchback origins. Our biggest complaint concerns the slightly rubbery feel, not only of the gearchange and brakes, but the chassis as well. It means there's a looseness to the set-up which isn't present in competitors such as the VW Golf GTI.
And despite the impressive power delivery, we can't help thinking refinement could be better, particularly with the engine at idle. The weight and size of the 2.5-litre powerplant causes the hatch to shake when stationary.
That's not to say the Focus isn't an accomplished driver's car, though. The steering is precise, and the car changes direction effortlessly. There's plenty of grip on offer, but even when the Ford does begin to slide, it still feels reassuringly under control.
Apart from performance, there are other reasons for considering the ST: its competitive price and no-nonsense cabin are sure to appeal to fast car enthusiasts, as well as buyers with families.
The Focus ST can wear its fast Ford badges with pride. Not only is it an exciting car to drive, it's practical to live with, too. However, anyone looking for a true successor to the hard-edged and no-compromise Focus RS may feel disappointed. The ST is more powerful and technically superior to the original fast Focus, but lacks its predecessor's distinct character.
At a Glance
* The ST's racy looks continue inside, with dials in centre of dash displaying engine temperature, turbo boost and oil pressure. The sports seats and chrome-ringed instruments also set it apart from lesser models in the Focus range.
* Engine: 2.5-litre 5cyl
* Power: 222bhp
* 0-60mph: 6.5 seconds
* Price: £19,495