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Ford Focus ST - First Drive

An outstanding effort that easily matches or exceeds the standard set by its predecessor. David Wilkins delivers one of the earliest reviews

Engine: 2.0-litre four-cylinder turbo-charged petrol
Transmission: six-speed manual
Power: 250PS at 5,500 rpm
Torque: 340Nm at 1,750 rpm
Fuel consumption (combined cycle): 39.2mpg
CO2 emissions: 169g/km
Top speed: 154mph
Acceleration (0-62 mph): 6.5 seconds
Price: from £21,995 (estate from £23,095)

At last, the ST high-performance version of the third-generation Ford Focus has arrived, and on the face of it, the new car faces a bit of an uphill struggle. First, the latest ST has to re-establish itself in the market after a break of over two years since its predecessor bowed out – and the old model is a hard act to follow; with its magnificently characterful Volvo-derived five-cylinder engine, it provided a particularly attractive blend of sporty refinement that has rarely been seen in affordable cars with mainstream badges before or since. Now the Volvo engine has gone, replaced by something that on paper looks a lot more ordinary - Ford's own turbocharged two-litre petrol four.

On top of that, the new ST is being billed as the “first global performance Ford” and will have to appeal to customers not just in the old one's traditional EU markets but also in new territories such as Russia and North America. In fact, as part of its maker's “One Ford” policy, which is designed drastically to simplify Ford's model range and operations, the ST will be produced in near identical forms in Saarlouis in Germany and Michigan in the US. On the face of it, the need to cater for such a wide variety of customers seems like a recipe for a dumbed-down, undistinguished, lowest common denominator car unlikely appeal to sophisticated European enthusiasts. And as if all that weren't enough, the Focus range already contains one mega-star, the headline-hogging three-cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost version that's been wowing professional testers and ordinary punters alike with its extraordinary mix of performance, refinement and economy. The new ST, no matter how good, is going to struggle for airtime in the face of the adulation that car has been receiving.

Well there's no need to worry about any of that, because the new ST turns out to be an outstanding effort that easily matches or exceeds the standard set by the old one, and the attention-grabbing 1.0 EcoBoost is just going to have to get used to sharing the limelight from now on.

First performance, which is, after all, the point of a car like the ST. With a top speed of 154mph and a 0 to 62mph time of 6.5 seconds, the new car is certainly quick, but at the same time it returns 39.2mpg (combined cycle) and 169g/km in official tests, an improvement of 20 per cent compared with its thirsty predecessor. The impressive on-paper figures can't really tell you much about the qualitative aspects of the new ST's performance, though – the way it sounds, the way it delivers its shove. Those were areas in which the old car excelled, thanks to that warbling five-cylinder engine and a wonderfully cushioned drive-train. The new car's turbo-charged four delivers a generous 250 horsepower but the big surprise is that Ford has succeeded in giving it almost as much character as the old one. A lot of effort has gone into tuning the exhaust, while a “sound symposer”directly relays engine noise into the cabin in order to provide a sportier experience. In practice, that means a nice gravelly undertone to the ST's engine note but only under hard acceleration or at high revs. The rest of the time, it's extremely refined and quiet, as Ford has exploited the engine's strong torque to provide long gearing.

But impressive as the latest ST's drive-train is, it's this car's chassis behaviour that really sets new standards. Every Focus ever made has been a magnificently fluid handler, but the latest ST operates on a completely different level. Its outstanding body control and damping show why Ford was able to topple Peugeot all those years ago as the maker of the best handling mainstream cars - and why nobody has seriously threatened its position since. The variable ratio steering, which takes on a more direct ratio away from the straight-ahead, works well too. Best of all, the new ST combines its cornering prowess with superb ride comfort; in fact, it must be one of the best riding cars of its size or price – a staggering achievement.

Unlike the crude fast Fords of old, the new ST doesn't really shout too much about its abilities. There are no garish body-side decals and no big show-off spoilers, although there are some more subtle body mods. Instead, it stands out in less obvious ways – there's a choice of unusually vivid colours, including “tangerine scream”, a sort of metallic orange that recalls a popular launch shade for the old ST, and a distinctive “double hexagon” exhaust tailpipe also marks out the ST from other Focuses. In the UK, there will be three trim levels. The basic ST (which costs £ 21,995 in five-door hatchback form) has features such as 18 inch-alloy wheels, Recaro seats, keyless start, an alarm, a DAB radio, and Bluetooth. The ST-2 (from £23,495) adds partial leather trim, rain sensitive wipers, and a self-dimming mirror, as well as a few other bits and bobs. The £25,495 ST-3 gets just about everything you could ever need, including leather trim, heated front seats, bi-xenon headlamps and LED daylight-running lights. Unlike the last ST, this one will be available not just as a five-door hatchback but also as an estate, for a premium of £1,1000; there should be plenty of orders for cars of both body styles before UK deliveries start in September.