The Focus ST is up against some stiff competition in the hot hatch game, because almost every niche in the market has been plugged. The Golf GTi has established itself as the hatch of choice for anyone who prioritizes everyday comfort over trackday performance, while the RenaultSport Megane is rough and ready racer that will show cars two, or even three times the price a clean set of heels on your favourite twisty road.
Throw the Peugeot 308 GTi, Alfa Romeo Gulietta QV and Vauxhall Astra VXR into play, and you can see Ford doesn't exactly have things easy.
Thankfully, anything with an ST badge on the back has pedigree. From the Escort Cosworth to the fantastic little Fiesta ST, Ford seems to have a way of taking ordinary cars and making them special, without breaking the bank. So, does the Focus ST live up to its impressive lineage?
From the outside the new generation ST edges away from the over-the-top boy racer looks of its predecessor, swapping them for a neater, more grown up style. That said, there's still enough tinsel to keep the kids among us excited. There's 18 inch snowflake alloys, a funky center-mounted exhaust, a roof spoiler, and a front splitter that juts out like a spoiled child's bottom lip.
Compared to the Golf GTi's austere exterior, it looks purposeful and racy, even if it can't match the two-door Megane for visual drama.
Stepping into the cabin reveals another huge improvement. Gone is the fussy center stack and ugly steering wheel, replaced by Ford's SYNC 2 touchscreen and a beautiful new leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel. There's also a set of Recaro buckets that, like everything else that makes its way out of the Recaro factory, are absolutely fantastic. They're supportive and grab your ribcage like a teddybear with abandonment issues, although they could do with a bit more under thigh support for taller drivers.
Thankfully, the racy Recaros aren't writing checks the car's chassis can't cash. Ford has taken the criticism leveled at the last generation of the ST to heart and fitted the car with new front springs and engine mounts, as well as tweaking the steering and torque vectoring to make sure it delivers a slightly more mature driving experience than its unruly predecessor.
There's plenty of grip to be had from the front tires, and the car turns in sharply. If you're so inclined you can bring the back end into play by throwing it into a corner under power and then lifting off, but it never feels like it's going to try and send you flying backwards and screaming out of a corner. You've got to be really pushing things to make it understeer, and it's not fast Audi-style front-end push: instead, the car just gently lets you know that you're pushing the edge of what it can do.
The damping strikes a good balance between the full on, boy racer stiffness you need on the track and the compliance you need for everyday driving around town. It's not exactly a featherbed, but that's a small tradeoff to make when the car feels so composed when you start throwing it around.
You'll never be left wanting for more performance, either. Of course, there's 184 kW (247 hp) on tap from 5,000 rpm if you want to row the slick-shifting gearbox, but lazy drivers can just leave the car in third gear and surf the 345 Nm (254 ft-lb) that's available from just 2,000 rpm.
So the handling hits the sweet spot between fun and controlled, but most drivers won't spend their time exploring the Focus' handling balance. They're likely to be commuting, and running errands, and putting their kids' things in the boot. How does the Focus tackle the daily grind?
Around town it feels reasonably grown up, which is absolutely crucial if Ford is to poach members of the Golf club. The ride has been made stiffer than it was in the last ST, but it's still far softer than the Megane R.S we drove last year. Visibility is good, the clutch is light and the EcoBoost motor's 345 Nm of torque means you can leave it in third gear and just lean on the throttle to get around.
It's so flexible we actually found ourselves leaving it in third when you'd usually need second, and you can leave it in sixth gear on the freeway without worrying your left leg when it comes time to overtake.
Dropping it down a few gears gives you a wave of extra performance, but also introduces rampant torque steer into the mix. Punching the throttle in any of the first three gears sets the wheel wriggling and shaking about in your hands. Compared to the five-cylinder ST that came before it's positively refined and relaxed, but it will still catch you out if you're not paying attention.
To be honest, it's not the sort of thing we'd worry too much about. After all, in a world where enthusiasts are constantly complaining about the lack of involvement offered up by modern cars, it seems a bit hypocritical to whinge about a wheel that wriggles around in your hands under power.
The only real blight on the ST's around town credentials is its turning circle, which would be familiar to bus drivers and cruise ship captains. Because the Focus is, at its core, a city car, its wheelarches are only designed to hold skinny eco tires. Ford has fitted 235-section front tires to the ST, which are neither skinny, nor eco-minded.
It's not a huge issue if you live on a wide suburban street, but for people who live in cities or have to park in tight laneway garages it could be a huge turn off. It may be something you wouldn't notice on the test drive, but we'd love to have a camera on the happy new owner's face as they realize they're going to have to make a three point turn every night to get into the garage.
Those wide tires also create a fair bit of road noise on Australia's (admittedly often rubbish) roads. It might not be an issue on the billiard-table smooth roads around Ford Performance HQ in Belgium, but on the coarse chip highways around the back of Angelsea where we took the car it was a noticeable blight on the ST's newfound refinement.
These small black marks in the refinement shrink further when you consider the car's price. Sitting at AUD$42,000 (US$24,500) the ST undercuts the Golf GTi by at least AUD$4,000 (US$2,800) – and that's before you start ticking boxes on the VW's option list. It might not be quite as quiet as the VW, but it's punching well above its price point when it comes to performance, handling and standard equipment.
At that price, the Focus ST is a performance bargain. A good looking, sharp handling bargain that can take it up to the best in class.
Product page: Ford