New Ford Focus ST automatic 2021 review

Does an automatic gearbox make sense in the popular Ford Focus ST hot hatchback? We find out…

Overall Auto Express Rating

3.5 out of 5

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The Focus ST doesn’t make as much sense in automatic form. The new gearbox’s slight lethargy feels at odds with the rest of the set-up, which is hardcore and as full-on as pretty much any hot hatchback on sale. The auto version is also pricier, not quite as fast, less efficient and – crucially – not as involving to drive as the six-speed manual option, which remains the pick of the range in our opinion.

Thanks to their popularity with buyers, the development of hot hatchbacks has swung away from manual gearboxes and towards automatic units. In many cases they’re faster and more efficient than their manual counterparts, but that’s actually not the situation with Ford’s new automatic version of its sporty Focus ST.

A 276bhp 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine is linked to a seven-speed self-shifting gearbox that drives the front wheels. There’s no four-wheel-drive version, because that’s always been reserved for the Focus RS.

The transmission is fine as an automatic – lazy, but in the right way, because it smooths out shifts between gears. It’s maybe a little lethargic to respond to sharper inputs with the throttle, while it holds on to gears for a fraction too long as well, which is a frustrating trait.

It’s at its best when you take manual control with the plastic paddles or push the M button in the centre of the rotary gear selector. Go for Sport mode and under load the transmission snaps through changes better, with a more positive response. But the downshifts are still laboured compared with the Ford’s main rival, the Volkswagen Golf GTI, which is equipped with a snappier dual-clutch DSG transmission.

The auto just doesn’t suit the character of the Focus ST. Ride comfort is just on the acceptable side of focused, but the damping is firm and the car is very much skewed towards the hardcore end of the scale in this class, with resolute body control, very fast, weighty steering and a torquey, rabid engine that’s reigned in by a clever active limited-slip differential.

While the standard six-speed manual’s gearshift is light and involving, and adds another dimension to the overall driving experience, the automatic seems at odds with how the rest of the car is set up.

You’ll also pay £1,450 for the privilege of the automatic transmission, yet it’s slower and less economical than the manual. Plus it robs the Focus of a key form of driver engagement – something that is all so important in a hot hatch.

The 0-60mph sprint takes six seconds – 0.3 seconds behind its manual sibling – while the gearbox adds an extra 36kg to the kerbweight, even if this is a small amount. With 415Nm, the torque output is 5Nm down on the manual, too, while it produces CO2 emissions of 186g/km, compared with 183g/km for the manual.

This is less important, however, because both versions are over the threshold for the highest rate of Benefit-in-Kind (BiK) company car tax. Ford claims an identical 34.3mpg for the ST, regardless of the transmission choice.

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Since the ST was launched, the whole of the Focus range has received updates, with this ST featuring a 12.3-inch fully digital dashboard to go with a smart and slick eight-inch touchscreen infotainment system that works well and offers plenty of features and connectivity.

Otherwise, it’s business as usual, so the Recaro seats hug your figure superbly and provide plenty of support when you’re exploring the performance. There’s enough space in the rear, while the 375-litre boot is adequate for the class, but nothing more.

You can buy the Focus ST automatic as an estate as well, and we’d be keen to try that body style to see if the more pragmatic approach of the wagon is better suited to the more sedate nature the automatic box brings to the ST package.

But for now, the five-door automatic isn’t the sweet spot in the Focus ST line-up.

Model: Ford Focus ST automatic 
Price: £34,710
Engine: 2.3-litre 4cyl turbo
Power/torque: 276bhp/415Nm
Transmission: Seven-speed automatic, front-wheel drive  
0-60mph: 6.0 seconds
Top speed: 155mph
Economy: 34.3mpg
CO2: 186g/km
On sale: Now

Sean’s been writing about cars since 2010, having worked for outlets as diverse as PistonHeads, MSN Cars, Which? Cars, Race Tech – a specialist motorsport publication – and most recently Auto Express and sister titles Carbuyer and DrivingElectric

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