Ford Focus ST-2

Ford's muscular ST-2 is a big favourite of ours, but does it have the allround finesse to ward off SEAT's Leon FR?

  • Pace, chassis, communicative steering, superb brakes, xenon lights, seats, engine and gearshift
  • Price, strict four-seater, turning circle, no off-clutch rest, only a year’s recovery, insurance

Having beaten VW’s Golf GTI by the narrowest of margins to be crowned Best Hot Hatch at Auto Express’s New Car Honours 2006 (Issue 915), the Focus ST is clearly a favourite of ours.

The design certainly helps; Ford’s stylists have done a great job sprucing up the standard hatch. A more aggressive front bumper and mesh grille give the nose a distinctive look, while at the rear the twin exhausts make the ST unmistakable.

Neat detailing such as the chrome side badges and Performance Blue paint add to the package, along with the 18-inch wheels (the Leon features 17-inch rims). What’s more, high tail-light clusters mean a wide, practical boot opening, and a class-leading capacity of 385 litres.

As a family car, it’s worth remembering that, due to the sculpted and supportive rear bench, the ST has room for only two in the back, with no provision for a third occupant. But the front seats hold you well and are very comfortable. They’re made by Recaro, and the fabric quality is great, but the driver’s chair doesn’t adjust quite low enough, compromising the otherwise superb seating posi­tion. The lack of a footrest is also annoying.

There’s little else to fault about the ST’s driving environment. Visibility is noticeably better than in the Leon, the dash is well laid out and the stereo easy to use. Our long-term car has the optional touch-screen sat-nav system, which is also simple to operate. As with the SEAT, if you look hard you can find a few cheap plastics in the Ford’s cabin, but in general there’s a quality ambience.

The chunky wheel is fantastic to hold, and the abundance of steering feedback means you feel engaged with what the car is doing. Ford made substantial changes to the already accomplished Focus chassis to create the ST, and the difference is clear. Firmer springs, bigger anti-roll bars, a 25mm lower ride height and extra stiffening all add up to excellent body control. While the weight of the engine is apparent, the ST has superb feel, grip and traction. The Ford is rewarding and agile, and there’s a crucial compliancy and comfort to its damping that few rivals can match. The ride isn’t unduly harsh and the car is impressively refined, so it can offer comfort as well as entertainment.

Strong brakes and a slick gearshift finish the package, while the 222bhp 2.5-litre has real char­acter. With peak torque at 1,600rpm, in-gear flexibility is superb; we achieved 0-60mph in 6.4 seconds. It’s responsive, muscular and good to use.

The raspy five-cylinder engine sounds great, but our car’s electric throttle had a few flat spots in its response, and we found the ST’s acceleration figures really dropped off in the hot conditions of this test. Still, the Ford offers a superb blend of performance, refinement and fun. Plus, a standard spec tally that includes xenon lights, a CD changer and a Quickclear heated windscreen goes some way towards balancing the Focus’s higher price.

Details

Price: £19,120Model tested: Ford Focus ST-2Chart position: 1WHY: The Ford comes as a three or five-door and in ST, ST-2 and ST-3 trims. In this test, we’re using our long-term five-door ST-2. It’s £2,125 more than the Leon, but offers an extra 25bhp. It was named Best Hot Hatch in 2006’s New Car Honours.

Residuals

After three years, the Ford is estimated to be worth marginally more than the FR, at £8,623. But it still depreciates faster, as that figure represents 45.1 per cent of its price when new.

Servicing

Three checks on these two cars cost roughly the same amount. But the Leon needs to visit the garage every 10,000 miles to the Ford’s 12,500 miles, while SEAT has a smaller dealer network, too.

Tax

Not only does it cost less to insure, but the FR is also cleaner. It’s six tax brackets below the ST; add the cheaper list price, and the SEAT is a far more tempting fleet buy. Higher-band owners save £675 annually.

Insurance

Cover is always a consideration with performance cars, and the FR has a big advantage here, as it sits in group 14 – three below the ST. So the Spanish machine is £227 a year cheaper to insure: a big saving.

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