The new Focus ST has the biggest engine in its class in the 2.3-litre, 280PS (206kW) EcoBoost four-cylinder; others may have more horsepower but in torque terms it punches harder than its closest rivals and has the cachet of being derived from the motor in the previous Focus RS. Like most of its rivals it’s still front-wheel-drive, though in the modern way it features fancy torque-shuffling technology described as an electronic limited-slip differential but actually distinct in mechanical terms. Without getting mired in engineering semantics it basically means the Focus can proactively send drive torque to the wheel that can benefit most, the i30 N and fancier Golf GTIs using equivalent technology. Ford will argue it’s a more sophisticated solution than the mechanical diffs used by the Megane R.S. 280 and Civic Type R and it comes paired with other on-trend technology like self-adjusting dampers, all of which can be adapted via the driver modes.
The EcoBoost motor isn’t as charismatic as the five-cylinder that made the ST of two generations ago such a hit. But such is the way of modern engines. It gets the job done, responding quickly to the accelerator and able to maintain boost in on-off throttle situations with a version of the anti-lag technology used by rally cars. In Normal mode it’s reasonably refined, with a pleasingly authentic rasp from the exhausts and a softer throttle; hit Sport and you get piped in noise and more decisive response. An extra £250 buys the Performance Pack with an additional Track Mode, launch control, rev-matching throttle blipping and another level of sharpness for the ultimate fast Focus experience. Most will consider this a no-brainer, given the cost.
Indeed, the transformation from the standard driving modes to Sport and Track is sufficiently dramatic as to make it feel like you’re getting two cars in one. And by sharpening damping, response from the ‘eLSD’ on the front axle, steering weight and throttle mapping the ST morphs from merely a fast Focus to a properly assertive one. Suspension that feels a touch brittle at town speeds reveals itself superlatively composed at B-road pace, the clever damping coping with cambers, surface changes and even hard-edged bumps and potholes with utter composure. Confidence in the front end gives you options galore too and, at least on dry roads, you never once feel the need for RS-style four-wheel-drive.
At just two turns lock to lock the steering is already super sharp; in the sportier modes the tweaks to the diff, dampers and weighting unleash additional feel and response, the power delivery aggressive enough in Track to have the wheel sniffing out cambers and wriggling in your hands under power in the way older fast Fords always used to. Back then you were stuck with it whether you liked it or not – the technology in the new Focus means you can calm it for everyday driving and only need tighten your grip on the wheel when the mood or situation takes you.
The ST launched with a six-speed manual gearbox, though a seven-speed automatic is now available. Enthusiasts will like the manual though, its short, chunky throw dialling you into the car. The rev-matching function is a neat feature and means you can perform seamless downshifts without having to tap dance around the pedals in Sport and Track modes. For anyone but self-important motoring journalists this will likely be considered a plus, though it seems strange there’s no option to switch it off if you are blessed with the footwork skills to want to do it yourself.