Doctor on the Road: Ford Focus ST
This nimble hot-hatch from Ford, one of a dying breed, took our motoring correspondent tester Dr Tony Rimmer back to the days when he was an SHO.
Can you remember the first car you bought? For many of us, it would have been an old banger; something to get us from hospital to hospital during our medical student days.
However, despite the lack of sophistication on offer, I bet you still have fond memories associated with your first car. Can you also remember the first brand-new car that you bought?
Perhaps you never have bought a new car, but for those of us who have, there is something very special about being the first and only owner of your perfect and shiny pride and joy.
In my case, being a petrol head at heart and having recently become married, I wanted to celebrate my SHO status with the purchase of a hot-hatchback. We had a puppy who needed space too.
Sadly, I was unable to justify the extra £300 expense of a Golf GTI, but I did buy Ford’s equivalent: the Escort XR3i. I was so glad that I did.
Over the next several years, it served our growing family well with its great combination of practicality and sportiness. It was a sad day when it was stolen by thieves – as many were – never to be seen again.
So what about the present day? The Golf GTI is still on offer in Mark 8 form, but is there an equivalent contender from Ford?
Challenge the Golf?
Well, the Escort models morphed into the Focus range in 1998 and we currently have the fourth generation on sale. The XR3i equivalent is the ST model and I have been driving one for a week to see if any of its predecessors’ DNA remains in place and if it can challenge the current Golf GTI.
The ST is based on the very practical five-door Focus body, but there the similarity ends. A bespoke and adjustable suspension system and light 19-inch alloys makes the most of the sporty chassis.
Power comes courtesy of a 2.3litre turbo-petrol engine that produces a GTI- equaling 276bhp – my XR3i only had 105bhp – and drives the front wheels. More powerful brakes and a six-speed manual gearbox complete the package.
STs are offered, and often bought, in distinctive bright colours and my test car was finished in Azura Blue, which is certainly striking.
The additional vents and wings also mark the car out as something special and they are more subdued than those on the extrovert Honda Civic Type-R. The Focus is a good-looking modern car and the lower stance of the ST only improves its appearance.
Slip into the standard partial-leather Recaro sports seats and you immediately feel that this is a serious driver’s car.
The steering wheel, pedals and gearstick are perfectly placed. Equipment is very generous with all the electronic aids, sound and navigation systems that you wish for.
To specify a GTI to this level would cost a lot more. Like all Focuses, it is also a supremely practical car; we journeyed with two small children in their isofixed seats, a medium-sized dog and still had adequate luggage space in the boot.
However, you don’t buy an ST for its practicality; you buy it for the performance and driving experience. Does it deliver?
Well, Fords have always looked after the keen driver, even their base models tend to be fun, so it is really no surprise that this sporty Focus is rewarding for the keen driver on the UK’s fast A and B roads.
The steering is sharp, the gearbox is a joy to use and brakes are strong. Handling through the curves is equal to the GTI and even better if the surfaces are smooth. This would make a great occasional track-day car.
The ride, although firm, is resilient and the only feature that interferes with progress is the torque-steer on full power – albeit entertaining in an old-school sort of way.
The manual gearbox makes you feel more connected to the driving experience; smooth changes at the right time are up to you, not an automated robotic system.
I had great fun on my own on some favourite roads and savoured the nimbleness of this properly sorted and nimble hot-hatch. It brought back memories of my XR3i.
The Focus ST is another exemplar of a dying breed; a light and sporty internal combustion- engined manual sports hatchback that entertains and satisfies the keen driver.
Yes, it is a bit noisy and the ride is a bit stiff, but this type of car will soon disappear for ever, so if you have any petrol in your veins or arteries, then it is worth your consideration.
Dr Tony Rimmer (right) is a former NHS GP practising in Guildford, Surrey