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Ford Focus ST (2013) long-term test review

By the CAR road test team

Long Term Tests

27 November 2013 09:00

Month seven running a Ford Focus ST: how does the Focus ST handle a track day-thrashing?

I’ve been to a couple of track days before, and I know how a neatly driven hot hatch can embarrass a clumsy supercar, so a recent track day at Rockingham was going to be a big test for the powerful Focus ST: I was certain it would be fast enough, but would it be fun?

Rockingham puts on about 20 track days a year, and it costs £195 for the day (passengers and garage hire are extra). By 8.30am the paddock was full of rare beasts, like an Ariel Atom, a 911 GT2 and a Radical; plus, of course, the usual stripped-out M3s and abused Type Rs, all with Nordschleife stickers on the back. In this company, the Focus looked purposeful, but far from flash.

The track opened at 9.30am and it was a free-for-all until dusk. Not that the ST lasted that long. It started well – wring the Ford’s neck in a straight line and it really is fast enough to keep up with more exotic machinery. Turning into a corner feels great, the steering is direct, and your approach angle is completely adjustable with the electronics off – chuck it in, jab the brake, and it’ll oversteer like a rear-wheel-drive car. But now your problems start: the Focus just cannot accelerate out of a corner. It’s like driving on ice – the front wheels spin, the nose washes wide, the steering loses all its feel. The only thing you can do is lift off, saw at the wheel, and wait till you’re pointing in a straight line again. After about ten minutes of this the tyres are toast and brakes are boiling over. Back in the paddock I felt like a cruel jockey who’s flogged his horse to death.

Fortunately, Ben had brought the Subaru. What a difference. The BRZ immediately shows what’s wrong with the Ford – its flat-four engine is nowhere near as sweet, or as gutsy, but the moment you tip it in and catch the slide, and playfully drift your way through a bend, you feel the Subaru was designed to do this. The pure steering, the low centre of gravity, the way it switches direction – the Focus loves the straights, but the Subaru loves the corners.

I went out a couple more times in the Ford, but realised I didn’t have the heart any more – not after the BRZ. So don’t buy a Focus ST thinking it’s an ultra, thrashable track demon, because it’s more frustrating than fun.

By Mark Walton


Month six running a Ford Focus ST: Mark decides the Focus ST just isn't for him

People who follow this monthly report keep asking me, ‘so, do you still hate it?’ The answer is yes – but that doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate the Focus ST’s many strengths. Mostly that means its raw speed. With 247bhp on tap, the acceleration can be brutal, startling even, like a firework going off close by. It’s fast enough in third and fourth to be a ruthless overtaking car, attracting plenty of honks and flashed lights as you dispatch three or four slower cars in one lunge.

Problem is, I can’t afford to drive it like that. The CAR team has been gently ribbing me over my lead foot driving habits recently, and my often dismal mpg figures. I’ve been struggling to keep the Focus in the 26mpg bracket, and this month – indulging in the Ford’s power too much – that’s dropped to 25.

At that rate, a tank of fuel is gone in 300 miles and it costs £70 to refill. Which makes me slow down, and tickle the throttle with my big toe, short-shifting up to sixth... which makes me wonder, ‘What’s the point of that 247bhp?’ Which, in turn makes me think, ‘Hmm, on reflection, I do still hate this car.’

By Mark Walton


Month five running a Ford Focus ST: fast Ford versus terrific Toyota – is rear-drive best?

What’s more important to you: handling or straight-line speed? That question is at the heart of this comparison, between our long-term Focus ST and a Toyota GT86 I borrowed for a week. There’s been a lot of dissent about the Toyota – is it God’s gift to oversteer, or a whiny Japanese coupe that can’t overtake? Well, it rained the week I had it, and I went out every evening, just for the pure joy of tail-sliding out of every corner I could find. I absolutely loved it. But then I’m into handling, not speed, so if I had £25k to spend, the decision would be easy – yes, the GT86 is smaller inside, less practical; true, the engine makes an unappetising groan when you wring its neck; and you really do have to flog it, always, without mercy. But the feeling of balance, the purity of the steering, the thrill of drifting your way through a motorway off-ramp (in the wet, at least) is pure heaven.

By comparison, our similarly priced ST feels imprecise: the steering is sharp when you turn in, but get back on the power and it fights you, squirming in your hand, weaving you off course. It has a great engine: 247bhp (to the Toyota’s 197) and, even more importantly, 250lb ft of readily available torque (compared to the GT’s pathetic 151lb ft – at 6400rpm!). That’s the reason many drivers would climb out of the Toyota after a thrash, and walk away in disdain – it just doesn’t go or sound like a sports coupe should, whereas the Ford is as red hot as any hot hatch has ever been. Ford claims 0-62mph in 6.5 seconds, which would leave the Toyota for dead in the real world (0-62 in 7.6 seconds). Plus the ST sounds great.

So our Ford should win – but for me, it doesn’t. I felt positively gleeful driving the GT86 – the low seating position; the short gearchange; the big rev counter with the shift light. Overtake me if you want to in the Ford, but look in your rear-view mirror, and I’d be the one grinning in the Toyota.

By Mark Walton


Month four running a Ford Focus ST: why does Mark hate the fast Focus?

Bit of a conundrum this: after several weeks of being handed round the CAR office to almost universal praise, the Focus ST is now in my charge, and I hate it. Yes, hate. You need to find a lot of things wrong with a car before you’re allowed to use the ‘h’ word, but I have a list that could make up a special 20-page supplement.

First, the steering: others have mentioned the vicious torque steer as though it’s an endearing little quirk, but I find it destroys the driving experience. The problem, of course, is the 247bhp trying to rip the front wheels off, and Ford’s reliance on an electronic torque-steer compensator rather than a proper mechanical diff. The electronics just don’t work, and on a bumpy or slippery surface the Focus swerves under acceleration like a suicidal bronco trying to buck off its rider. The steering is sharp, but you can’t place the ST precisely under throttle, and I find myself backing off rather than fighting it the whole time.

Then there’s the abysmal 25mpg fuel economy; the downright dangerous headlights (dipped beam stares at the ground about a metre in front of the nose); and the naff interior. I love the Recaro seats, but the other details are straight out of the 1970s – the extra dials on the top of the dash are extra cheesy. You could say it’s not been a terrific start to the relationship.

By Mark Walton


Month three running a Ford Focus ST: should the ST have four-wheel drive?

Interesting one, , this: Ford won’t sell you the punchiest diesel Kuga SUV in front-wheel-drive guise, instead ensuring that its 251lb ft of torque flows through all four tyres. But our Focus ST channels 265lb ft through the front wheels alone, with none of the trick limited-slip diff or specialised suspension struts employed by the similarly torquey and front-drivey Renaultsport Megane. The difference is telling: the Kuga and Megane RS put their power down with minimum fuss but, on slippery winter roads, the ST is a bit rampant, spinning up its wheels and tugging the steering wheel around – even when you’re accelerating hard in third gear in a straight line. You just hit a spike of torque and briefly bonfire the front rubber, causing the traction-control light to strobe. And, yes, I’ve checked, the front tyres.

Now, I love the ST and its punchy engine, but it’s all too much for the torque-vectoring tech that Ford uses to channel the torque to the tyre with most grip, mimicking a slip diff without the weight or expense. I’d be intrigued to try an ST with an aftermarket diff, or with the brilliant new four-wheel drive system that Ford recently debuted on the Kuga. Also new on the front-drive Kuga is a torque-steer neutralising gadget, which could work wonders here. It’s a shame for all that power to go to waste.

By Ben Barry


Month two running a Ford Focus ST: considering the steering of our Focus long-termer

If thethe test of a true hot hatch is that there’s never a dull moment, then we’re onto something here. Driving the Focus ST in a hurry leaves you feeling breathless like a Star Wars X-wing pilot after a final-reel run-in with the Death Star.

Gotta say it’s addictive. The steering’s so direct it’s as much as you can do to avoid neat apices morphing into kerbtastrophes, but once you’ve adjusted to the hair-trigger turn-in the package really flows. The four-cylinder turbo engine sounds great and hurls its 247bhp at the front wheels so hard they struggle to keep up – the resulting torque steer exaggerating the Jedi vibe.

Slow down, however, and the cracks open. The turning circle is so woeful I misjudged my own driveway, and went on to greater crimes against parking in a once familiar multi-storey. There are fewer turns lock-to-lock than on the 50p-a-ride Postman Pat van outside Tescos. A proper drawback.

Final thought for the optional pop-out door protectors: save yourself £50 by actually leaving a loose Biro in every door bin.

By Greg Fountain


 

Month one running a Ford Focus ST - why we're running Ford's hottest hatch on the CAR fleet

Recognise this fast Ford? It’s the same Focus ST that took on Pagani, Lotus et al in our recent end-of-year performance car extravaganza (CAR magazine, December 2012). That was a baptism of fire for our new long-termer, which had an understandably tough time against the purebred sports cars as they cruelly but perhaps predictably exposed its humdrum hatchback underpinnings.

But now, away from the long shadow of Huayras and Exiges, it’s impressing the CAR office. We love the punchy 247bhp 2.0-litre turbocharged engine, its rorty soundtrack, and a chassis that’s well-suited to the bumpy, twisty country roads that make up most of our daily commutes. And those humdrum hatchback underpinnings mean it’s practical, able to carry rotting Christmas trees to the dump and kids back to school. It’s a proper hot hatch, and a very good one at that.

Can it continue to shine? There’s no doubt it’s dynamically impressive, but when we’ve previously pitched the Focus ST against a VW Golf GTI (CAR, August 2012) and other key rivals (CAR, November 2012) we found it wanting elsewhere. For starters, it hasn’t exactly got the classless subtlety of a Volkswagen, has it? The detailing is crass, everything a bit big and blocky, like the designers weren’t allowed intricate, expensive shapes. And although our car’s Spirit Blue paint is more understated than the yellow Tangerine Scream seen on most ST press cars, the general consensus from the team is that the Focus looks a bit boring without a lairy paintjob. So it’s damned either way.

No matter, you’re thinking, because prices start at just £21,995, you get Recaro seats, air-con, keyless start, a DAB radio, Bluetooth and USB connectivity as standard, and that makes the Ford Focus ST a cracking bargain against £26k RenaultSport Meganes and £27k Astra VXRs.

Yet most customers actually opt for the more expensive ST-2 and ST-3 trims. ST-2 STs, which come with part-leather trim, dual-zone climate control, a Sony radio, auto wipers and lights, and Ford’s patented Quickclear windscreen, are £23,495. And our car is an ST-3, so it’s also got bi-xenon lights, keyless entry, electric mirrors, rear parking sensors and heated, full-leather Recaros. Which means I never need to take the key out of my pocket, my screen clears quickly on icy mornings, and my bum need never be cold. But it’s £25,495.

On top of which there are some options… That Spirit Blue paint is £525, a gaggle of driver aids are £850, pop-out door protectors are £50, sat-nav, an upgraded stereo and a rear-view camera are £750 all-in, privacy glass is £150, and finally, grey wheels, red brake calipers and illuminated kick-plates are sardonically bundled together as an ‘ST Style Pack’ for £275. Total: £28,095.
That’s a lot cheaper than a similarly specced Vauxhall Astra VXR, but a long way from that headline-grabbing entry level price – and less than £2k shy of BMW’s 316bhp M135i.

Worth it? Not on initial encounters with the interior, which is a bit of mess, a seemingly random mix of angles and ideas and one factor that counts against the ST (and indeed any Focus) on every group test. Yet after a couple of weeks I’m warming to it. Change the clock? A doddle. Store my favourite radio stations? The work of seconds. Fold the back seats and take stuff to the local tip? Simple. No hassle, no fuss – and then a whole lot of fun to hoon to work each morning.

So it’s a burgeoning relationship, and so far it’s going well, though it’s early days. Let’s hope things stay that way: a few years back I ran a Focus RS and its hard ride, dreadful interior, attention-seeking styling and colossal thirst constantly frustrated. The ST is much more rounded – and off to a much better start.

By Ben Pulman