The great news is that the Focus ST feels an enjoyable hot hatch for the road, but it’s not up with the Honda Civic Type R as a fully-focused machine for both road and track. Precise steering means it’s an easy car to keep centred in its lane on motorways, but, even more importantly for a hot hatch, it’s direct, accurate and even feelsome when you swap to twisting, sinewy back roads. That said, the weighting isn’t great, feeling inconsistent and not as predictable as a Honda Civic Type R’s.
Ultimately, one of the reasons the Focus ST isn’t up to the Type R’s level of brilliance is it lacks the balance, grip and poise of that car. Compared with other rivals, though, including the Hyundai i30N, you’ll discover greater agility and playfulness, making the Focus ST more fun. Yet it’s not as lively as the manic Renault Megane RS; it’ll tighten its line nicely into hairpins if you lift off the accelerator, but won’t swing its rear-end round like a shopping trolley like the Megane will.
Standard on the petrol-powered ST and optional on the diesel is an automatic adaptive suspension system. With it, you can definitely feel bumps as they pass beneath the car, but it’s a more comfortable and usable proposition than the ever-agitated Mégane RS. Sure, it’s a tad angsty when you hit a particularly sharp ridge, but isn’t always bucking like the Megane over any imperfection. The Type R, despite its hardcore status, is actually even more pliant, though.
If you order the optional Performance Pack (which we’ll cover in a bit), you can knock the adaptive suspension into Sport or Track mode. Both settings feel too firm for some of the UK's more brutally calloused roads, though. What about the non-adaptive suspension? This is all you can have on the estate models, and it’s by no means uncomfortable. Petrol versions ride slightly better than diesels, mind, which is down to the added weight of the diesel engine up front.
The limited-slip differential (LSD) works a treat; you can really feel it magnifying the traction available to the ST’s front, driven wheels. Even with plenty of steering lock applied out of tighter turns, you can get hard on the power without doing an impression of an injured Spitfire by leaving a trail of tyre smoke in your wake.
The Mégane’s LSD is more aggressive, manifesting itself in more torque steer – a phenomenon where the front wheels tug the steering wheel left and right in your hands as the tyres struggle to put down the power effectively. You get some of this in the Focus, too, but not enough to spoil the driving experience. The diesel doesn't get an LSD, but with less power, that’s not a great issue.
Speaking of power, the petrol Focus ST isn’t as fast as a Honda Civic Type R and nor does it rev out so enthusiastically, but it’s quick enough to live with either the Mégane RS or Hyundai i30 N in a straight line. Its augmented engine note includes some smile-inducing fireworks and theatrics from the exhaust, but it’s not the most vivacious of soundtracks.
The diesel is significantly slower and has a more abrupt power delivery; there’s a bigger surge at low revs, diminishing considerably past 3,500rpm. To mask its underwhelming diesel engine note, you also get even more fake noise pumped into the interior than the petrol version.
All versions come with a crisp, six-speed manual gearbox that’s a delight to use (we’re yet to assess the automatic, which is planned to go on sale by the end of 2019) and the Focus ST’s brakes provide a sound stopping power and a reassuring pedal feel.
The optional Performance Pack that we touched upon earlier adds adaptive suspension to the diesel ST and adds a Track mode to both versions. This mode gives you even more aggressive settings for the engine, steering weight, automatic gearbox (when fitted) and suspension. It also allows you to determine the stiffness of the suspension yourself, rather than having the car’s electronic brain tune it automatically.
The Performance Pack also brings a light that shows you when you need to change up a gear, and rev-matching to help you change down smoothly (with the manual gearbox only). There’s also launch control system to help you make the perfect getaway every time.