The South African market is a hotbed of hot hatchback success. This country’s motorists love the genre, and manufacturers do a decent job of feeding this craving. There is no dearth of choice for buyers in this segment, which stretches across the price and performance spectrum.
From the bottom of the scale there are offerings such as the feisty Suzuki Swift Sport — and at the top of the hierarchy sits supercar slayers such as the Mercedes-AMG A45 and the forthcoming Audi RS3. And in the middle you will find products such as the Volkswagen Golf GTI, Mégane Renault Sport, Opel Astra OPC, Volvo V40 T5 and Ford Focus ST. The Ford has always had a value-for-money trump card in its sleeve, and undercuts its peers considerably. The plucky American was recently treated to an upgrade and IgnitionLive attended the launch of the newcomer in KwaZulu-Natal last week. The changes are subtle, but it still rules the roost from a pricing perspective — just take a look at the accompanying fact box. Exterior changes are minor, and only true ST aficionados are likely to spot the tweaks at a glance.
All the changes applied to the standard Focus earlier this year apply. So the headlights are sharper and more streamlined, the lower section of the front bumper has been revised, the rear lights are slimmer and design elements from the compact Fiesta ST have been added. There’s also a new colour, dubbed Stealth, a rich grey shade that changes hue in sunlight. The signature Tangerine Scream colour is still on the palette. You can also specify new 19-inch alloy wheels as part of an equipment package — and that is the full extent of the outer redesign. On the inside, thankfully, the button-festooned fascia has been cleaned up. Having said that, though, Ford still needs to master the art of the digital interface. Because the new system employed on high-grade ST3 models, first seen on the 2015 Fusion sedan, is horribly fiddly and complicated. But it is under the skin where the salient changes have been made, promising to address the dynamic shortcomings of the older model. Tweaks include stiffer suspension bushes, stiffer antiroll bars and a recalibrated steering system.
Now, what about the characteristic torque steer that attracted a great deal of flak to the Focus ST? Ford engineers sought to remedy this by revising their electronic differential system, which was supposed to increase the traction under hard acceleration and give the car better composure in the bends. An opportunity to assess these alterations came during a stint at the fairly new Dezzi Raceway circuit on the Kwa-Zulu Natal South Coast. The racetrack boasts a layout so sinuous, so technical and so close to the ocean that any mistake could easily have you riding the high tide. Forget Phakisa, Zwartkops — even Kyalami — Dezzi demands your undivided attention and waits spitefully for a momentary lapse in concentration. Every corner is blind, and making things even more interesting are the abrupt changes in elevation.
So Ford displayed plenty of confidence in the ST by choosing this track as the launch venue. The benefits of an upgraded suspension were felt on the track, rectifying the gripe that the old one might have been a tad soft — although our drive along pothole riddled roads in KwaZulu-Natal proved that the suspension could have been more comfortable. And as for the torque steer . . . it remains obtrusive in comparison with something like a Volkswagen Golf GTI. Accelerating in a straight line or on exiting a corner showed that the ST retains its tendency to squirm.
No matter how smart Ford’s electronic system may be, there is certainly no replacement for a mechanical differential. However, the RS model, which is expected in 2016, will be given a mechanical differential, as well as all-wheel drive traction. Power in the new ST remains unchanged, not that it lagged behind the competition or anything. Its linear acceleration abilities are still good enough to keep up with — or even thwart — many of its competitors. But one can’t help but feel that the ST might have been even swifter with better traction and perhaps a dual-clutch automatic transmission.
At present, there is only a six-speed manual gearbox, which is great for purists like you and me. But the sales success of models like the GTI equipped with DSG (a direct-shift gearbox) make a strong case for the merits of a two-pedal derivative. Ford defended itself by saying it wanted to satisfy true driving enthusiasts by only offering the row-your own choice. Specifications Remain superb. As before, there are two model grades: the ST1 and ST3. The only noticeable niceties the ST1 lacks are leather upholstery and the new Ford interface.
But it still boasts the intelligent Sync system, with voice control and other connectivity features. The only item on the options list is a package that comprises a sunroof and 19-inch gunmetal wheels for R6 540. The minor changes made to the new Focus ST are certainly to be welcomed, but it is still quite hard to ignore the ever-present threat from Volkswagen — even though the Germans might charge a bit more for stuff that really should be standard.
Power: 184kW at 5 500r pm
Torque: 360Nm between 2 000 and 4 500rpm
Top speed: 24 8 km/h
Fuel consumption: 8.8l/100km (claimed)
CO2: 159 g/k m
Price: R381 900 (ST1), R421 900 (ST3)