IF YOU have about $40,000 and you like driving really fast in a relatively small vehicle and going around corners quickly, you are seriously spoilt for choice in Australia.
There are loads of front-wheel drive performance variants on offer here in that price bracket, including the reliably excellent Volkswagen Golf GTI, Renault’s bonkers Megane RS, even Mercedes-Benz’s A250 Sport.
And there are more on the way, with Honda’s Civic Type R arriving either later this year or early 2016, while Mazda is rumoured to be resurrecting its MPS sports sub-brand in the next 12 months which would be a logical fit to return to the 3 range.
There is also the segment’s top-seller, the legendary Subaru WRX, but that’s an all-wheel drive. But people will of course cross shop.
Ford shook things up in 2012 with its likeable, fun and quick, but flawed Focus ST, and the American car-maker has just lobbed a heavily revised version that rings in the mid-life facelift for the rest of the Focus range that is coming in quarter three.
Pricing is up by $700 over the old version to $38,990, and gains a bit of extra fruit including bi-Xenon headlights, idle-stop – which has helped cut fuel use by 0.1L/100km to 7.3L/100km – and Ford’s SYNC2 connectivity system.
Ushering in the new-look Focus, the ST looks much sharper than before, thanks to the higher placement of the big trapezoidal grille, new slimline headlights, slightly restyled alloy wheels that now house red callipers, bulging bonnet and neater rear end.
Speaking of, there is no Focus badge anywhere on the car’s exterior, just an ST on the grille and on the tailgate.
Those improvements made in the cabin make for a much more appealing interior. As with the recent new-gen Mondeo, Ford has (finally) ditched the shockingly fussy centre stack that had more buttons than were necessary, for a simpler look that includes the 8.0-inch touchscreen linked to the SYNC2 system. Much better, Ford.
The old four-spoke steering wheel has been replaced by a chunky little three-spoke leather number with a bunch of controls (audio, cruise etc.) and a lovely flat bottom.
Figure-hugging Recaro sports seats cap off the niceties in the cabin. They feature leather panels and stitching that matches the exterior colour of the ST – speaking of, new hues include Stealth grey and Deep Impact Blue. The grey is stunning and reminiscent of a similar colour used by Audi for some of its RS variants.
Elsewhere in cabin, everything is as it was. There is a surprising amount of headroom in the back seat, and legroom for that matter, there is ample storage and cargo space (316 litres), and having five doors undoubtedly offers more practicality than its three-door rivals.
While not much else has changed inside, the improvements make a huge difference, with the ST’s cabin now offering a more polished, premium feel.
People don’t buy hot hatches for colour-matched stitching on the seats though. They usually want to go fast and look good doing it.
Press the start button and the ST gives a lovely burble, but the noise you hear when revving hard is actually being pumped into the cabin via Ford’s ‘active sound symposer’, and once you know that it feels a little inauthentic. It still sounds terrific, though.
Powering the German-built go-kart is the carryover 2.0-litre EcoBoost turbo-petrol unit delivering 184kW of power at 5500rpm and 360Nm of torque from 2000-4500rpm for an official combined fuel consumption figure of 7.3 litres per 100 kilometres.
The 1434kg hatch can race from 0-100km/h in 6.5 seconds, and on our first drive from Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs to the Yarra Valley, we have little reason to doubt the claim.
Acceleration is quick, without being brutal, but it should satisfy hot hatch fans that prefer to be first out of the gate at a traffic light.
Ford has fitted the ST with something Ford calls its Enhanced Transitional Stability (ETS) system as part of its Dynamic Stability Control (DSC) system which intervenes when tit sense a skid or loss of control.
When accelerating hard it intervenes to minimise torque steer, which should be a good thing. But in doing that, the driver feels the steering being controlled by the system, and while it certainly doesn’t feel unsafe, it just feels odd. It could take some getting used to, but if you really hate torque steer then you will likely be fine with it.
The steering has been recalibrated, according to Ford, and is sharp, with the ST going in the direction you point it without missing a beat.
The slick six-speed manual gearbox is the only transmission on offer here, and it is good enough to convince anyone after a self-shifter that there is absolutely no need for an auto in this car. It is not a silky smooth and engaging as other Euro hot hatches, but it’s difficult to complain about.
Some of the twistier roads in the Yarra Valley were perfect for putting the ST through its paces, and it did not disappoint. The Focus is nimble, darts around corners at speed with ease and is flat through bends with no body-roll evident.
As with some of its front-drive rivals, it has a bit of a busy ride, but the damper settings on the revised suspension set-up (MacPherson strut up front, independent rear axle) made for a much calmer ride that expected. It’s no S-Class when it comes to soaking up bumps, but it offers a less jarring ride than a few other hot hatches.
The work done to improve noise, vibration and harshness levels is a job well done too, with little outside road noise penetrating the cabin, save for that pumped-in engine note. The ST rides on 18-inch alloys.
Ford has done well to make improvements to some of the areas that required attention in the previous model.
The Focus ST is as clinical in its approach as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, as it is as hard and bonkers as the Subaru WRX, it offers sexy looks and decent levels of standard kit in a fun-to-drive package at a competitive price.
If a feisty, engaging small performance car is your thing, the Focus ST deserves to be in your drive way.
By TIM NICHOLSON GoAuto.com.au