The Freelander heads to Eastnor for a real test of its off-road ability
Ford Focus ST review (2006-2008)
The Focus ST grips. It is doing so, hard, in a long third gear corner – excitement but no drama. Then the driver snap-shuts the throttle. Weight hurtles frontwards as the tail unloads. Exit hedge left? No. A sniff of opposite lock and all is calm.
Unlike your correspondent’s heart.
Matthias Tonn is both Chief Programme Engineer for Focus ST and our pilot, demonstrating the car’s balance. “We don’t drive at the extremes when on track, but we do drive as we shouldn’t – lift off and brake in corners, too fast into bends – as people will. The car must cope”. He enters a second-gear corner hard in third. The ST understeers but not terminally and Matthias gathers things without drama. However, startled we may have been, but caught unawares we were not. The previous day we’d driven the ST as every hot hatch should be. Its pace was almost a given – a 225bhp 2.5-litre turbocharged Volvo five-pot, kept boiling by a six-speed gearbox, couldn’t fail to do the business. 0-60mph in 6.5sec, 150mph, PDQ.
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But the engine did still surprise, with its aurals. Refined in the Volvo, Ford admits it’s been hard to ‘engineer in’ sound. But a special symposer on the inlet manifold filters through the noise of a rushing five-cylinder turbo to the cabin under load. It works brilliantly. Audi Quattro springs to mind – it’s no wonder Ford is proud and protective of this new invention. The engine also has bulging torque from 1,600rpm, which on the road helps it offer a tremendously muscular feel at all revs. Performance is effortless, accessible – in abundance but delivered in a more measured way than, say, an Astra VXR. Drop a window, drive it hard and the force-fed rush from the exhausts sounds just like the Mitsubishi Evo VIII 260 it’s keeping honest.
A lack of torque steer was also unexpected. All that power and torque though just the front wheels? We remembered the (less-powerful) Focus RS and the muscle needed to fight its writhing steering wheel under acceleration – and lesser but nevertheless dramatic histrionics in the Astra VXR waiting for us back home. But the Focus is a pussycat in comparison, certainly on the dry roads of the test route. A touch of wheel fight in extremes but otherwise the ESP unobtrusively modulates the power so it’s delivered without fuss. Moreover, turning it off doesn’t see Mr. Continental planning an extra week in Sicily. Travelling fast in the ST is easy. But then, travelling quickly and driving quickly are two very different things...
On the road
But one worry lingered from the moment the ST was announced. Would the standard Focus’ delightful finesse be retained? After all, stiffening the suspension plus fitting wheels large and wide enough to cope with 225bhp – 80bhp up on the car’s previous top output – is potentially a spoiler. Would it have to be beefed up so much as to distance the driver from the fun, bulk things up so much as to leave little filtered through to the cabin?Engaging the crisp first gear and easing balletically away under the influence of a direct, modulatable throttle gave us hope, as did steering with no ‘rubber’ sensations about the straight ahead, which pointed us into unfamiliar bends with accuracy and little needs for multiple inputs of guesswork.
And, praise be, once up to speed, the Focus seduced us. Turn-in is immediate yet, with minimal and well-modulated roll, reminiscent of a racer in its precision. With no approximation needed with the well-weighted, fast steering, the beautifully-balanced ST can be driven with real finesse at the high speeds it’s capable of, with the driver dialled into the action without being beaten up by inputs they can do without – such as a squirming steering wheel or kickback over bumps. Bad messages filtered, good news let through, like the world’s most effective firewall. Find a sequence and the rapidity yet fluidity of direction changes, the sheer finesse of the ST’s actions, will leave you wondering whether to give Williams a call.
Powerful brakes can feel soft when used hard, but ordinarily slow you with yet more well-modulated, intuitive control. The whirr of brake force distribution through the pedal can be unnerving when braking in corners, until you realise it’s aiding stability in such a measured way. And despite your suspicions of the 18-inch wheels, they do not serve to destroy the ride. Here, thanks to clever dampers, is where the Focus again beats all-comers; it’s taught but not harsh, limiting body motion on straight roads but not nauseatingly so, riding over bumps in town with tight control but minimal head-joggling stiffness. It’s composed even over roads littered with crater-like dimples, thanks to ample wheel travel, and is a shining example of Ford’s fanatical levels of suspension tuning.
Turn up the wick, enter race-driver mode and the chassis, with its advanced independent rear suspension, is throttle-adjustable and playful, but safe under the auspices of ESP (standard on ST2 and ST3 variants). Good job high-backed Recaros, still set slightly too high, clamp you firmly into place, lucky the steering wheel (whose weight can be adjusted three ways via the on-board computer) is so chunky and easy to hold. In general, the cabin is a good place to be, with black rooflining giving, in Ford’s words, a ‘cockpit feel’. Joy of joys, it also has extra dials – oil temp, pressure and turbo boost – set into the normally ill-fitting dash-top cubby (which now fits perfectly). Lit in un-Ford-like red and while, they really add to the specialised feel, more so than a scattering of aluminium-look plastic elsewhere.
The Focus ST is a pleasure, whose measured but so-effective approach is reflected in the just-enough styling. Only the alloy-look bumper inserts seem misplaced but there are no such flaws in the drive. And what price for such artistic prowess? From £17,495, or £18,495 for the ST2 complete with must-have ESP, Xenon headlights and Sony stereo. Not only does it, on first evidence, beat its rivals, it’s more of a bargain than them, too. Matthias shows us a few more ST tricks and, back at base after a leg-stretch, insists we go out on our own and “have some fun”. But the car is gone! So he goes out of his way to secure us an identical one. A few minutes later and we’re doing just as he says. Top man, top car.
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