Ford Focus ST

It's a colourful, affordable and impressive feat of engineering from Team RS, but the Focus ST is too well-behaved to usurp the Golf GTI as the hottest hatchback, says John Simister

Price: £17,495
Engine: 2,522cc, five cylinders, 20 valves, turbocharger, 225bhp at 6,000rpm, 236lb ft at 1,600-4,000rpm
Transmission: six-speed gearbox, front-wheel drive
Performance: 150mph, 0 to 60mph in 6.5 seconds, 30.4mpg official average CO2: 224g/km

The most remarkable thing about the Focus ST? It's a tie between the lurid, metallic Performance Orange that is Ford's launch colour of choice, and the low price for the pace, kit and cylinder-count on offer. Here is a Focus that sounds like a Volvo T5 with a big-bore exhaust (or, rather, two of them), a Focus whose easy, velvet-gloved fistful of pulling power should make it the coolest, most effortless of hot hatchbacks.

The idea of an oversize engine in a compact car is appealing. And it's not an anti-ecological extravagance. This Focus can reach 150mph, touches 60mph from standstill in 6.5 seconds, yet returns more than 30 miles for every gallon of fuel - a fast car you don't have to feel guilty about.

Power for the ST - 225 turbocharged bhp, backed up by an even 236lb ft of torque all the way from 1,600rpm to 4,000rpm - comes from another part of Ford's worldwide empire, Volvo. Hence that deep, harmonic, throbby five-cylinder beat that's so hard to reconcile with the Focus. Team RS, the special engineering group responsible for fast Fords, has livened up the engine's personality, with variable timing for the two camshafts, plus a lighter flywheel and a recalibrated throttle to improve response.

There are plenty of other changes to suit this Golf GTI rival. (The Focus has an extra 25bhp and costs £2,500 less.) The body sits 15mm lower on 30 per cent stiffer springs and recalibrated dampers. There's a brace between the front suspension struts, as in a rally car, and the front subframe is made of thicker steel. The rear anti-roll bar is stiffer, which creates greater weight transfer across the rear wheels to counteract the heavier nose, and the steering wheel requires 8 per cent less movement for a given directional change. The brakes are bigger, too.

This is standard souping-up, made easier because the regular Focus is arguably the best-handling hatchback you can buy. And the visuals are sexed-up to suit, resulting in a car as striking and attitudinal as a standard Focus is bland.

The obvious changes are the bigger front grille, which sits above an enlarged lower air intake, itself flanked by aluminium-outlined foglight housings. That motif is repeated at the back, where the bumper has grown cartoon whoosh-lines where it flows into the wheel arch. Inside, huggy Recaro seats can have the bolsters trimmed to match the paintwork, the steering wheel has a thicker rim, the pedals are of rubber-studded aluminium, and a three-dial pack on the dashboard displays the engine oil's pressure and temperature and the amount of turbocharger boost. The headlining is black - very Golf GTI.

But raw ingredients don't always cook to perfection. The ST also has a fuzzy identity as a car deliberately not too extreme.

That said, this ST is less of a shrinking violet than the last one, even if it is a long way from the raw tactility and untamed demeanour of 2002's last- generation Focus RS. So it's with no clear expectations that I slip into the new ST and fire up its five-cylinder engine. It sounds good: deep and crisp and potently uneven. The driving position can be rendered perfect with separate seat adjustments for height and tilt (the optional leather chairs let you adjust cushion length), and the aluminium-ringed dials quantify performance parameters.

But I'm just 400 yards down the road and the ST's personality is revealing itself. The steering is glutinous for all its precision and alacrity, and I'm aware of considerable nose weight (the whole ST weighs more than 1,300kg). It's different from the light, immediate responsiveness of the smaller Fiesta ST; this feels bigger, more Mondeo ST-like. That's not a good thing.

Now I'm overtaking on a brief straight, and the ST is pulling off its party trick. No need to change down, stay in fourth gear and feel the turbocharged torque haul the Focus in one lunge right through the engine's speed repertoire. And the engine responds crisply for a turbo unit, with instant effect and hardly any of that "elastic" feeling such engines sometimes have. Not like it feels in Volvo's T5 cars.

The vocal repertoire is similarly broad, culminating in a hard-edged, staccato beat at the 7,000rpm limit. The sonority is helped by a "sound symposer", a resonant tube with a vibrating diaphragm that is aimed at the underbonnet bulkhead so the ST's occupants can gain maximum aural benefit. The sound is novel for a compact hatchback. Fiat's Stilo Abarth is the only five-cylinder rival.

So the Focus is as effortlessly fast as its Astra VXR rival is manically so. A smooth, six-speed gearchange helps, and then there's the way it flows through every bend with big grip and perfect poise, a jittering over ripply road surfaces its only failing. Jost Capito, the director of Team RS, says the ST is designed to handle well and stay controllable without an ESP stability system, which is why ESP is not standard. Not once in a spirited drive did I get the ESP on my test car to activate itself.

But here lies the conundrum. I'd like the Focus ST to handle more sharply, to be keener to tighten its cornering line as you decelerate, like a hot hatch should. This would make it feel lighter, keener, more agile.

The next day, I try the ST on Bernie Ecclestone's F1 test track at Le Castellet in the South of France. The way it stays stable in the scary right-hander at the straight's end, nailed to the track at more than 100mph, is breathtaking. The Focus goes where pointed, feels foolproof even with ESP switched off. But it also feels subservient, not a partner to share the thrills. It's too polite, not keen enough to play in the way the Fiesta, or a Golf GTI, will play. It's too disciplined, lacking in the torque-induced steering-wheel tugging that troubles the Astra.

This hot hatchback, impressive engineering feat that it is, needs to hang loose a little. "We could make it like that," says Capito, "but not for the road." Come on, Ford. Trust us.

The rivals

ALFA 147 GTA £23,205

A 3.2-litre, 250bhp, fabulous-sounding V6 explains the 147's higher price. The front wheels handle this power surprisingly well, but handling feels a bit nose-heavy, like the Focus's. Stylishly Italian looks don't include the revised nose of lesser 147s.

VAUXHALL ASTRA VXR £18,995

Terrific idea - handling developed by Lotus, 240bhp turbo-engine, racy styling - but the VXR is too fractious to enjoy on most roads, as the front wheels pull this way and that. Hyperactive "Sport" setting makes the accelerator act like a catapult.

VOLKSWAGEN GOLF GTI £19,995

Here's a car that matches your mood like no other. Its 200bhp turbo-engine offers ample, usable pace, and the steering and handling draw the driver into the action, but it can be calm if you want it to be. Looks good, feels good - but expensive.

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