Ford Focus ST (2021) long-term test review | CAR Magazine

Ford Focus ST long-term test: the 11-month verdict

Published: 02 September 2021

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The Focus ST is quick, engaging, practical and even has a decent sound system. But although it’s a car I can recommend in a heartbeat, it’s not one I’d buy with my own cash. I’ll explain.

The ST is a fine all-round performer. On B-roads and greasy tarmac, it skates on the limit of grip – but feels constantly adjustable thanks to its traditionally quick rack and taut chassis. It’s highly communicative too; put it in Sport and it’s easy to get an idea of just how much you can push.

Even better is the Ford’s always-on turbo boost, which pushes the car forward in a way that feels much faster than its 0-62mph time of 5.7 seconds suggests. It’s like pulling an elastic band back and waiting for the ping. It’s got all the pop and fizz of a Fiesta ST – just at a higher speed.
Fireworks are always optional, though, as the Focus ST can be driven much like the standard car when it needs to be. Treat the right pedal more tentatively, and it’s comfortable and refined – and easy to mistake for a standard Focus.

The ST is equally solid inside. It doesn’t have the tech of more expensive competitors such as the MBUX-enabled Mercedes-AMG A45 S, nor the BTCC-spaceship vibes of the Honda Civic Type R, but it’s intuitive and useful. Ford’s Sync 3 system is bulletproof in operation with clear sat-nav instructions, and there’s an easy process for pairing your phone. My car also had an additional HUD, adaptive cruise, wireless charging and a B&O sound system.

But while the Focus ST performs well in all areas, it doesn’t seem to excel in any – and in a market that’s so congested and full of character, the Ford’s conservative looks and all-round goodness seem to leave it in the shadows. The drama and gimmicks of the Renault Megane RS, the focus of Type R and the sheer silliness of the Hyundai i30N all leave more of an impression – despite all of them being less-rounded cars.

The Focus ST does everything right, but it never gave me that feeling of excitement I got when approaching my Type R, the old Focus RS – or a new Fiesta ST for that matter. So, would I recommend one? After 6000 miles, the answer is a resounding yes. Would I buy one? Probably not.

By Curtis Moldrich

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 28.2mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 22.8p per mile
Miles this month 211
Total miles 5897

Month 10 living with a Ford Focus ST: performance for all

civic type r

When I first joined CAR I was handed the keys to a Civic Type R, and it’s still one of my favourite hot hatches three and a bit years on. I’ve just driven a current version – it’s still great – to compare it with my Ford Focus ST.

The first big difference comes as soon as you get in. The Type R’s low, sporty seats plug you directly into its highly capable chassis, and it makes my Ford’s driving position feel like an MPV’s. On the Focus ST, you sit on the chassis, while in the Honda you’re part of it.

Find some challenging roads, and the Honda has seemingly endless grip. Heavy steering in +R mode makes it feel like you’re scoring the road, and although the Civic’s brakes are powerful and fun to modulate, you find yourself using them less and less on entry.

The Ford, however, requires stronger, more frequent inputs to the wheel – and softer use of the throttle and brakes. Get it right, and the Focus ST seems to slide, constantly skating around the moment of lift-off oversteer.

Both cars can be sedated on request; in Comfort mode, either car can do a decent impression of the practical family hatchbacks they’re based on, and to a large extent still are. But switching the drive modes on the Honda in particular unearths Jekyll and Hyde levels of transformation.

In some ways, my week with the Type R has made me appreciate the Focus ST more. The Honda is almost too sorted. From its epic engine, to the new, reshaped and reweighted gearlever that makes it feel even more like a touring car for the road, it’s an utter weapon.

On the other hand you’ve got the Focus ST, which requires wrestling and pedal poise even at low speeds. It’s nowhere near as fast, but that tends not to matter. Like the Fiesta ST, it dances on the road rather than annihilating it, and driving it fast can feel more satisfying.

Which would I have? In Championship White the Civic is hard to beat as far as I’m concerned, and even though you can hardly ever use it it’s fun to experience snippets of the Type R’s addictive boost, crazy precision and sheer stickiness.

By Curtis Moldrich

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 27.7mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 23.9p per mile
Miles this month 532
Total miles 5686

Month 9 living with a Ford Focus: to hybrid or not?

focus st ltt front tracking

Does hybrid power really suit performance hatchbacks? I’ve just driven a VW Golf GTE plug-in hybrid to shed some light on the issue, while also comparing it to my own ST.

The GTE combines a 1.4-litre turbo petrol engine with an electric motor for 242bhp – just 30bhp less than the Ford. But its power delivery – torquey low down and breathless further up – feels more laborious than the ST’s instant pull at higher revs.

Meanwhile, the VW’s brakes are too busy scavenging energy to provide useful feedback. Add in the extra 135kg of hybrid kit the GTE has to lug around, and it isn’t fun to push in the twister bits.

Jumping back into the ST feels like returning to a single-seater in comparison. Lighter, sharper and with a power delivery that’s far better connected to my inputs, it’s more intuitive and easier to lean on.

Of course, the GTE’s strengths lie elsewhere – its 246mpg (with a lot of plugging in) smashes the ST’s 21mpg this month – but the Ford is so much purer and more analogue in comparison.

Did we really want that hybrid Focus RS after all?

By Curtis Moldrich

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 23.4mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 23.1p per mile
Miles this month 222
Total miles 5154

Month 8 living with a Ford Focus ST: feline fine

jinx cat

Jinx – the luxurious cat you see above – had to go to the vet, and his visit helped me appreciate an often-overlooked side to the Focus ST. To keep my feline cargo happy, I employed every technique I could to keep things buttery-smooth, from minimal corner speed and short-shifting to gentle braking and slow acceleration. It’s the most refined journey I’ve had in the ST and the longest I’ve gone without testing the adhesion of the front wheels.

In more relaxed journeys at more sedate paces, the Focus ST turns out to have very similar comfort levels to a non-ST Focus.

By Curtis Moldrich

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 28.8mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 18.6p per mile
Miles this month 533
Total miles 4932

Month 7 living with a Ford Focus ST: loud? It can blow the bloody doors off

It was only during my fourth trip to Tesco in as many days that the penny dropped. This sudden desire to make semi-spurious journeys wasn’t about enjoying the Focus ST’s fine handling; after all, the A1(M) isn’t exactly a driver’s road. No, what I was actually doing was taking the opportunity to play music really loudly.

Among the many things the pandemic has robbed us of we need to include loud, live music. Still, I’ve discovered some great music in recent months, and it turns out the Focus ST on a good stretch of motorway is currently the best place for me to listen to it.

The excellent in-car audio – the Bang & Olufsen Premium system – has involved years of developmental work, all designed to make listening to music in the Focus ST as close to a domestic B&O hi-fi system as physically possible, as I discovered when I spoke to Stefan Varga, senior acoustic engineer for Harman (which has owned B&O’s in-car audio operations since 2015).

He explained that work on the audio system began in the early stages of Ford’s development of the ST: ‘I decide what components do I need, where do I want to put the tweeters and the centre speaker and everything else to get a nice sound, a nice staging.’

With all that decided, the components are physically fitted to a prototype and then tuned; first in a lab and then with the car moving – that way the other elements of driving such as road noise and engine noise can be dialled out.

Then work moves to a test track. ‘We drive the car in different speeds, and we perform measurements. And then we use our tools that we have for tuning to compensate these kinds of things on the fly.’

Two further aspects set the Focus ST apart, and the first you can find in the boot: subwoofers are a big bonus for lower frequencies, and they’re also omni-directional – so you can place them almost anywhere in the car with minimal impact on performance. ‘We managed to make it round and fitted into the spare tyre,’ Varga tells me.

The second is the centre speaker. Sat just above the dash, angled to bounce sound off the windscreen, it helps stitch the left and right audio channels together, increasing the ST’s audio sweet spot – the area where all the frequencies and responses from each speaker interlock perfectly.

The Focus ST is somewhere I can listen to things louder than would be socially acceptable at home – and with the bonus of an ever-changing vista, too.

By Curtis Moldrich

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 28.2mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 19.3p per mile
Miles this month 583
Total miles 4439

Month 6 living with a Ford Focus ST: Puma rivalry

focus st puma

The Ford Puma ST is a slightly larger, slightly more practical version of the Fiesta ST it shares a platform with – and that puts it in a space parallel to my Focus ST. Driving the two back-to-back proved quite an eye-opener.

With 197bhp and a 0-62mph time of 6.7sec, the Puma gives up 79bhp and one second to the Focus on paper, but in corners the story is more complex. The higher-performance Focus is more squat, with less bodyroll, but the Puma ST’s supreme feedback and lack of total grip makes it great to hustle round bends, like the Fiesta, even if it is 100kg heavier than the supermini. The Focus ST can be fun and pliable too, but it all happens at higher, less accessible speeds.

Read our Puma ST review

The interior of the Puma ST is arguably better, with the Recaro seats feeling more supportive than those in the Focus. Its storage space of 456 litres (with the rear seatbacks upright) is well above the Focus’s 375.

So, the Puma ST is the one you take for practicality, while the Focus ST gets the edge in terms of ultimate performance. Except in daily use the two are closer in driver enjoyment than you’d think.

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbo four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 31.0mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 18.5p per mile
Miles this month 576
Total miles 3856

Month 5 living with a Focus ST: a caffiene emergency

Ford Focus ST interior

I recently had the chance to drive two other Ford STs, the Puma ST and Focus ST auto. The only catch? Both cars were three hours away in Midhurst, meaning this was going to be a long day when you factor in the time spent actually driving them.

The problem with a long day isn’t my Focus ST, it’s me. On the way back, a driver fatigue message popped up between the dials, suggesting I take a break.

The warning system involves a front-facing camera that looks at road markings, and then compares them to driver inputs. If the two don’t match up as well as usual, it suggests a break.

So at the next service station I procured a pumpkin spice frappucino with oat milk and vegan cream. Any excuse.

Logbook: Ford Focus ST

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbo four-cyl, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 28.8mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 22.9p per mile
Miles this month 568
Total miles 3280

Month 4 living with a Ford Focus ST: is it too sensible?

Ford Focus ST rear cornering

Over the last few months, the Focus ST has proven itself to be a capable all-rounder. It can lug people around in relative comfort, has tonnes of boot space and strong performance, too. This month, however, its practical bias 
is starting to grate.

There isn’t one glaring problem with the Focus ST – after all, it’s proving to be a great car. Instead, it’s a collection of small things that seem to be making me hanker for the new Focus RS that Ford has confirmed it won’t build.

When you fire-up the Focus ST, it starts in Normal mode by default – whereas the Honda Civic Type R starts in Sport. It’s a small difference, but it means the Honda gives you stiffened suspension and rev-matching straight away – in the Ford you flick an extra switch.

It’s a statement of intent from the Honda as well as the Ford; my ST has toys but is sensible by default, whereas the Type R is a toy, but can be more grown-up. Aside from being a little safe, Ford’s approach also has a major drawback: if you’re used to driving in Sport with rev-matching enabled, it’s easy to start the car up in Normal mode and forget. Cue at least one rather jolty gearchange at the beginning of the journey.

There are a few other issues. Although you can change the ST’s personality a little by flicking between modes, it never reaches the ‘BTCC car on the road’ levels of aggressiveness the Type R or the RS could. And this isn’t a question of power – even if the Focus ST does fall short of the 300bhp-plus offered by the Type R and old RS – it’s more in its ethos and handling.

The Focus ST has the same super-twitchy steering as the Fiesta ST and the RS, but it lacks the hunkered-down, ultra-weighty feel the Type R has when in R mode. It’s an inherent drawback of the ST’s balance of comfort and grip, prioritised over surgical precision.

Perhaps it’s time to see what aftermarket parts can expand the ST’s already large performance window and skew it towards the RS end of the spectrum.

Ford Focus ST: logbook

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 28.8mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 20.6p per mile
Miles this month 582
Total miles 2712

Month 3 living with a Ford Focus ST: fast Ford meets faster Ford

Focus ST Clive Sutton Mustang

This month saw a chance for the Focus ST to meet a very distant cousin, a Clive Sutton-modified CS800 Ford Mustang. On the surface there are couple of similarities: both cars fall under the brand’s Performance umbrella, and both glow with Ford’s outlandish Orange Fury paint – but that’s about it. While the Focus ST is beginning to prove itself as a practical all-rounder, the Mustang is a single-minded sledgehammer.

The figures tell most of the story, the Mustang packing an 808bhp supercharged V8 under its carbonfibre bonnet. Sutton’s people claim the power is usable but unless you’re going to the moon, driving this car is mainly about tiptoeing. Even in the best possible conditions, unleashing a fraction of the Mustang’s potential feels like lighting a Saturn V rocket.

The gearbox is built to withstand serious forces, so changing gear requires a strong arm. In any other car, yanking a cueball-shaped gearknob would feel unrefined – here it makes perfect sense.

After a few days taming the Mustang, jumping in the Focus ST again feels oddly reassuring. Where the modified muscle car is like a football boot, the Focus ST is your favourite pair of Air Max 1s: snug, familiar, comfortable – and easy to go fast in.

Time in the Mustang has made the ST’s strengths shine a little brighter. Its steering is light but accurate and its effortless gearchanges are a world away from the visceral rev-matching you have to do in the ‘Stang. The Focus is the car you can immediately drive harder and more confidently – even if it’s not as fast on paper.

But the Mustang – even in stock form – shows Ford Performance is still capable of producing powerful, entertaining cars. While the ST is now the fastest Ford hatch, the V8 Mustang still keeps the Blue Oval in the mix. It’s not the high-tech, all-wheel-drive hybrid the RS would’ve been, but its brute, analogue power holds a different kind of charm.

Ford Focus ST: logbook

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 29.5mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 18.0p per mile
Miles this month 900
Total miles 2130

Month 2 living with a Ford Focus ST: now with more bite

Focus ST LTT engine light

That was quick. Just four days after the carefully sanitised Focus ST arrived, it was on its way back to Ford HQ with an engine warning light glowing on the dash.

The error had reared its head without warning after just a few hundred miles. Apart from a slight whiff of brakes after one drive, there was nothing unusual to report in the days I had it.

I’d barely begun to scratch the surface of the warmed-up Focus, having done most of my few miles on the motorway. There, the ST was able to show its more civilised side, with the head-up display, adaptive cruise and blindspot warnings making the journey positively painless.

On slip roads, however, I got a taste of the Focus ST’s other aspect – and it’s certainly promising. Its mix of direct steering and minimal-lag, light-switch acceleration is something I’m looking forward to experiencing on more challenging roads.

After a day at the garage, the diagnosis was in, and it had nothing to do with my driving – but it wasn’t a car fault, either.

‘It looks like something had bitten through a cable on the exhaust sensor.’ Weird.

By Curtis Moldrich

Ford Focus ST: logbook

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 29.5mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 19.8p per mile
Miles this month 884
Total miles 1230

Month 1 living with a Ford Focus ST: hello and welcome

Focus ST LTT static

News of the Focus RS’s demise hit hot-hatch enthusiasts like myself pretty hard. For the last few years, I’ve enjoyed jumping in and out of anti-social weapons like the Honda Civic Type R, Renault Megane RS and Hyundai i30 N – and the Focus RS might’ve been the most brutal of the lot. Like the Type R and now the Mercedes-AMG A45, it knocked on a performance threshold usually occupied by supercars and weighty super saloons – and the forthcoming RS was set to push the boundaries even further.

Tipped to feature four-wheel-drive with a helping hybrid hand, and capable of more than 400bhp like the A45, it was going to be beast. Until it was cancelled. So, with the RS in the history books, it’s now time to look at my new long-term test car, and the newly crowned king of fast Fords, if only by default: the Focus ST.

To truly understand the Focus ST badge, it’s first worth purging your mind of the RS, and instead looking at the Fiesta ST. One of the most enjoyable new cars to drive, Ford’s iconic supermini brings enough power to light the front wheels, and combines it with a lively chassis, telepathic steering and rally-esque soundtrack. Think of the Focus ST as its big brother, and you’re pretty much there.

It follows the same formula, too; the Focus ST gets a four-cylinder, 2.3-litre EcoBoost with 276bhp and 310lb ft of torque, and after a quick drive it’s clear the Focus ST’s steering is just as fingertip-direct as its smaller significant. Wind the window down, and the Fast Ford trifecta is completed with a fruity, popping engine note. Tick.

Best hot-hatch

So, it might not be an RS but it’s still a hot hatch, and there’s no confusing it with the Focus Estate I’ve spent most of the lockdown in. Finished in Orange Fury, the Focus ST glows in the dark – and in the sun – and there’s a neat rear spoiler and ST-specific front-end, but there’s little else to offend the eyes. Red calipers and two exhausts at the rear – moved to either side to make space for a tow bar – make the ST more eye-catching, but this is no Type R.

Inside, the ST is more like the regular Focus Estate Tim Pollard had until recently; plastic inserts have been replaced with carbonfibre(ish) ones, and the steering wheel features the same button layout. We’ve also spec’d my three most wanted features: wireless charging for smartphones, adaptive cruising for motorway journeys and a head-up display.

Focus ST LTT side pan

The latter will be the most useful for the time being, because this car is lightning quick – and much faster than the 0-62mph in 5.6 seconds and 276bhp figures would have you believe. In addition to the chassis, which we’ll cover another time, the ST uses anti-lag to give acceleration a relentless and soon addictive feel.

A low-inertia twin-scroll turbocharger converts waste gases to energy faster, while separate exhaust channels for cylinders 1/ 4 and 2/3 minimise pulse interference for a consistent flow of energy. Most importantly, anti-lag tech holds the throttle open for up to three seconds after it’s disengaged by the driver. This keeps your powder dry and your boost primed, so when you do want the power again, it’s right there where you left it. It’s this immediacy that sets the ST apart from the still impressive 1.5-litre EcoBoost in the Pollard Estate, and the reason why the ST’s in-gear acceleration is comparable to the outgoing RS’s.

Without the looming shadow of a forthcoming RS, the Focus ST now shines like an orange tic-tac, but whether or not it’s enough to fly the flag for Ford is another matter. The new Merc A45 pushes the hot-hatch envelope, with the A35 in a rearguard position, and now Honda is launching a trio of Type R variants to fight back. And in a world of Trophy Rs and Type S trims, is the traditionally warm-labelled Focus ST enough to keep Ford on the hot-hatch map? We’ll find out in the next few months.

Options on our Focus ST

Head-up display: £400
A head-up display is useful in any car, but it’ll come into its own in the deceptively fast Focus ST. It’ll allow me to keep my eyes on the road, and my driving licence in my wallet.

Blind Spot information system: £400
The Focus comes with adaptive cruise control and lane-keeping as standard, so we’ve added the optional blind spot information system to make motorway driving even easier.

Wireless charging £100
A wireless charging pad does exactly what you’d expect, and its positioning means I’ll almost always use it without thinking. Android Auto and Apple CarPlay both require a wired connection, though.

Performance pack £250
Essential for this car, it adds a little zip to the ST formula. Shift lights, rev-matching and a stubby manual ‘box help you get the most out of the Focus ST’s potential.

By Curtis Moldrich

Ford Focus ST: logbook

Price £32,510 (£34,460 as tested)
Performance 2261cc turbocharged four-cylinder, 276bhp, 5.7sec 0-62mph, 155mph
Efficiency 35.8mpg (official), 30.5mpg (tested), 179g/km CO2
Energy cost 15.6p per mile
Miles this month 268
Total miles 346

By Curtis Moldrich

CAR's Digital Editor, F1 and sim-racing enthusiast. Partial to clever tech and sports bikes