You may recall my mention of a Focus ST on a track in the hands of a professional racing driver recently, an experience that left me stirred, but not shaken.
So when a bright red second-hand (used Fords are always second-hand, it’s only Bentley’s that are “previously cherished”) example rocked up at the dealership for a customer to try I had to borrow the keys and take it for a sprint up the road.
Now the Focus generally is a perfectly reasonable car. It does what it does, is comfortable, handles neatly, is reasonably equipped and looks nice enough. It may lack the obsessional surprise and delight tactility of some of its German rivals, but it inevitably sells for a bit less used or new (ignore the list price, there are deals) so everyone is happy. It’s not the second-best selling car in Britain (behind the Ford Fiesta) for nothing. I’ve been running one for a few days whilst I wait for my new company car to be delivered (ordered but not yet arrived) and it’s a pleasant and comfortable if unremarkable way of getting around. But it’s not the sort of thing you can obsess over, it doesn’t impart a warm glow (unlike the Polite Hatchback, especially with those heated seats), it simply does the job neatly and efficiently.
The ST, however, is something else. Driving the ST is like watching an old lady break dance well, there’s a delicious unfeasibility to it, a sense that it just shouldn’t be possible.
On the outside the car is a fairly standard if slightly Barry’d Focus. There’s some wings and big wheels and whatnot, but nothing Baz and Daz wouldn’t buy from Halfords and bolt to their 1.6 base model. Inside the only giveaways are a pair of deeply bolstered and supremely comfortable Recaro seats and a set of auxiliary gauges atop the dash (just like Ford used to fit on hot Cortina MK2′s back in the seventies, albeit there were no turbo boost guages in them days). Under the bonnet is where the big news lies, in the shape of a five cylinder two and a half litre turbo charged petrol engine imported from Volvo. This is the Red Bull that gives the Focus ST its wings, this is the hub, the powerhouse, the heart and soul.
Slip into the Recaro and you’re in a world of ordinariness. Sure, the seats are fab (and orange in the car I drove) but you’re sat on them so you can’t see ‘em. The extra dials give a nod to the performance cred, but that’s about all. Fire it up and it’s smoother than a normal Focus, but it doesn’t shout, you can barely hear the engine. Slot into gear and toddle off down the road and if you’ve driven a lot of Foci you’ll notice a slightly firmer ride bit it’s not hard, and never crashy. All in all it feels like a nice normal Focus with better seats, a bit smoother engine, and a fractionally firmer ride.
Right up until the point where you hit a fast road and nail it!
Big engines give you torque. Turbochargers give you torque. And torque is twist action, pull, grunt. It’s what gives you that unrelenting neck straining never ending catapult of acceleration that you feel in a fast jet aircraft on takeoff. The ST has a big engine and a turbo charger, hence there’s 236lb/ft of the stuff available from just 1,600rpm, giving great big velvety unburstable effortless wallop, any gear, any speed. Drop the hammer and the car just lunges, no lag, no waiting for the revs to build, floor it and the car charges like Ocean Finance. And all to the accompaniment of a fabulous sonorous warble that segues into a hard edged yowl as the tacho sweeps round the dial as smoothly as the second hand of a Rolex watch. It’s just epic! We’re talking proper junior supercar performance here, sixty miles an hour from a standing start takes just over six seconds (think about that, each 10mph increment takes about a second), and it’s a full fat 150mph flat out.
And the good news doesn’t end there. The Focus has always been best in class for ride and handling and the ST is no exception. The ride quality at speed is excellent, smooth and planted, steering precise and accurate, and cornering without wallow or roll.
It’s a car that urges you on, each snick snick gearchange bringing a fresh double cream slug of noise and power. It’s addictive.
But best of all is the sheer unlikeliness of what lies beneath the surface. It’s like buying an Amstrad hi fi and discovering the innards are Bang and Olufsen, like buying a ticket with Ryan Air and finding yourself in First Class, like ordering a Maccie D and finding a Goucho Grill steak between the buns. It just shouldn’t be this good.
For sure, there will always be a whiff of Essex about any fast Ford, a touch of Burberry, a dab of Addidas. But you can buy these things at three years old with sensible mileage for about ten grand. That has to make it the performance bargain of the century.
I’d de-Barry mine and stick a 1.6 Zetec badge on the back. And go BMW hunting…