Ford’s Pronely and Trap; ST in Focus but it ain’t an RS
One of the most beneficial aspects of Ford Motor Company lies in its indomitable marketing department, writes Iain Robertson, although a laissez-faire attitude seems to have slipped into its psyche, which is not a good thing.
Thinking back to the days when I used to own both Mark One and Two RS versions of the Ford Escort, there was no soft option available. Of course, it was feasible to buy a ‘Sport’ designated model, which borrowed the RS’s more prominent wheel arch lips (on the Mark One) but was powered by a 1298cc Kent ‘pushrod’ engine that would scarcely pull the skin off a rice pudding. It also featured a standard spot-welded body shell and lacked the seam-welded RS alternative, which provided the structural rigidity befitting of an iconic family sporting saloon.
Ford was on a high during the late-1960s, right through to the late-1970s. The ‘Blue Oval’ powered the majority of winning F1 racing cars (through Cosworth Engineering), it was victorious in National Stock Cars (USA), it provided the base strength of single seater racing (through Formula Ford 1600) and it dominated in world rallying. The company was bouncing. When it launched RS, or Rallye Sport, it was in justifiably celebratory mood and any car company daring to ‘rob’ its RS designation received a suitable chiding, supported by the full weight of the company‘s international lawyers.
Unfortunately, through the 1980s, RS was applied to the truly awful Mark Three and, then, Mark Four versions of the Escort model. While desirable in big-winged, big-wheeled form, it seemed as though Ford no longer wished to share its competition elements in its road cars. While RS would continue to fly a flag, its retail relevance was losing traction.
In the mid-2000s, when Ford owned Volvo, a 225bhp version of the Swedish firm’s 5-cylinder 2.5-litre transverse engine would drive a freshly designated ST version of the Focus into former RS owners’ hands. A promise existed that a new RS would soon be available, even though the first version was certainly not the resounding success it ought to have been, suffering from serious dynamic issues (it did not handle well). However, the ST fared somewhat better.
Emitting a luscious guttural off-beat sound (mostly by directing the tonal quality of the exhaust system into the glove-box), the Special Tuning versions were born. However, Ford’s ownership of Volvo was short-lived and the engine supply aspect would dry up. By 2012, a 247bhp version of the 2.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost engine was introduced to the car and it starred in the flaccid film version of the once popular ‘The Sweeney’ TV show. Sadly, in the meantime, Ford’s long-standing chassis guru, Richard Parry-Jones, had retired, although the worldwide team he had trained so successfully has been able to manage his legacy most fruitfully, for the moment. The ‘new’ Focus ST was on its way to becoming a much-lauded lukewarm version of the three-door family hatchback, joined by five-door and estate car variants in short order.
However, the watering-down process, instigated largely by a broad market move towards the premium brands of Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz, has led Ford down, what I believe to be, a blind alley. You see, the latest versions of the Focus ST include 1.6 and 2.0-litre turbo-petrols, as well as a 2.0-litre turbo-diesel. Factor in the three trim levels (ST-s 1, 2 and 3) and also a Fiesta carrying the nomenclature and ST now has a fast-growing range of its own, available in all body-styles. To be fair to Ford, Volkswagen has travelled this same route (there was a period in the early-2000s, when the GTi, or GTD, tag was applied to more than three-quarters of all Golf models sold) but, fortunately, it could see that its ‘invention’ was being diluted somewhat and changed focus.
The subject of this test is the diesel version of the Focus ST. Boasting 182bhp puts it on par with the Skoda Octavia vRS in TDi form and, despite recent negative re-murmurings about diesel as a fuel choice, I believe that it suits the installation rather well. The DuraTorq unit delivers a punchy 295lbs ft of torque, which provides vibrant mid-range pull, to make the car eminently suitable as a tow vehicle, while ensuring that constant gear-stirring is not a distraction.
Naturally, diesel provides real world fuel economy benefits and, while its Official Combined return is given as a generous 67.3mpg, tackling my 50-mile eco test route returned a genuine 59.7mpg, although a re-run to test the car’s broader performance potential slashed that figure to 36.3mpg, which highlights the downside of turbo-charging, when indulging in the speed and handling characteristics of the car. It emits 110g/km of CO2 through its exhaust, which makes it tax-efficient. To be frank, the ST is a supremely capable machine, although there are elements of its dynamic envelope, about which I feel mildly disturbed.
Before entering the minutiae, it is worth highlighting the delicious power delivery of the engine and the slickness of its 6-speed manual gearbox. In typical diesel form, the lower ratios are quite closely stacked and they run out of engine revs, which is not a major hardship with a mountain of torque on tap that allows even a press-on driver to derive tremendous enjoyment from the car. Although unconfirmed, its top speed is said to be 135mph and it can despatch the 0-60mph benchmark in a well-rounded 8.0 seconds.
Although the Focus outline is one of the UK’s most prolific shapes, the estate car is one of the most practical. The partially hide-covered and colour-coded (to exterior paint) Recaro rear seats fold forwards to increase an already generous load deck that will exceed 90% of users’ exacting requirements. If you need more, the black roof rails can support the optional top-box and bike-carriers. Fully-trimmed and with useful storage slots for smaller items, the boot features an extendible and removable load cover.
Access to the cabin reveals the interesting and protective, mechanical door edge system (which inhibits paint chips; +£85) and generous fore and aft and height adjustment of the driver’s seat enables a wide range of different statures to obtain a commanding but comfortably supported seat position. The much-improved ‘soft-touch’ dashboard moulding centres on the ‘touch-screen’ interface of Ford’s SYNC stereo, nav and on-board computer system (+£500), beneath which are the dual-zone climate controls. This car features a heated steering wheel rim (+£95), rearview camera (+£165), the Blind Spot Info System built into the door mirrors (+£525), a Driver Assistance Pack (with semi-autonomous city braking, lane departure warning, lane keeping aid, traffic sign recognition, driver alert and auto high-beam; +£450), a £525 fee for the blue paint job and keyless fob (keyless entry and pushbutton stop/start; +£350), to bump up its on the road price tag from £25,345 to £28,040.
Naturally, as the up-market sporting variant, a full aerodynamic body kit, including tail spoiler, is fitted as standard, along with attractive, 18-inch diameter Y-spoke alloy wheels, clad in low-profile tyres. There also are several in-car reminders of the ST designation, not that you need them, while driving, as the car reminds you constantly that it is the sporty variant. Its suspension is firmly damped but not uncomfortably so, which means that the ride quality is tolerable and even mid-corner bumps and road surface imperfections tend to be seen and heard but not necessarily felt at the helm.
Yet, there are some niggling aspects to the Focus not least in its rear wash-wipe rocker switch built into the end of the right-hand column stalk. To use a separate rocker is not as natural as just flicking the stalk away from the driver to effect the necessary functions. Partly due to the fat wheels and tyres, the steering lock is restricted, which means that it feels direct but only within certain parameters, which can be frustrating, especially when attempting to park the car, or to reverse it into tight spaces. I am also not a fan of the semi-autonomous steering, which can be affected by a tug mid-bend, as the car’s ‘camera’ picks up a white line at the roadside. While the lane-check function can be switched off, the power steering still does not transmit a true impression to the driver of what is happening at the front wheels. If anything, it can feel remote, as if ‘driving by wire’, which is not what I would expect of a car with a sporting pretension.
Conclusion: Ford is the consummate mass-market carmaker. Most of its cars are satisfyingly driveable and its estates serve most buyers’ needs to perfection. While appreciating that a new Focus RS is due imminently, if ST is to fill the mould as a ‘less focussed’ alternative, surely it can manage that task somewhat better than it does? The Focus ST is well-priced, well equipped, well built and even eminently enjoyable most of the time but its driving edge (let alone offering a plethora of models) feels a little blurred, as though the company is trying too hard to meet safety and security legislation. I truly wanted to like the ST but, on occasions, I felt frustrated by it. Were Ford to produce a twin-clutch, automated transmission for the ST (not even an option at this stage), it would be a significantly better car to drive.