Key to the exercise, repeated countless times over the years, is the subject’s simplicity. Intrusive stability programmes are often dialled down or made redundant at the press of a button, there’s always a six-speed manual gearbox and a hungry, rev-happy engine in front.
They’re everything to everyone, but to be an all-time great the car must possess something special, a trait which makes it stand out from the others like the Civic Type R’s gearbox or the Megane Trophy’s trick four-wheel steer system.
It’s why I feared for Ford’s new Focus ST from the off, simply because it’s always been a ‘nearly’ car, one with many talents but lacking that cutting edge which makes it a true contender for the hot hatch crown.
You think back to the original hot Focus – the ST170 of 2002 – and think of its woefully underpowered 2.0-litre engine, its bulk and its subsequent shocking fuel economy. Then came the 2.5-litre, five-cylinder replacement which sounded fantastic but was too podgy, too soft to trouble its harder-edged rivals. More modern versions have passed us by, chiefly because they’ve gone down that same path and been understudies to their RS-badged bigger brothers.
However, the new ST – continuing the same fine form of its smaller Fiesta counterpart – is now worth a serious look at. Although its optional, look-at-me colour – Tangerine Scream – has been carried over from its predecessor, you’ll find little other similarities because the wick has been turned up on every aspect. It looks great, both inside with its Recaro seats and outside with its gorgeous alloy wheels, but the way in which it drives is the stand-out feature.
Prod the starter button and the 2.3-litre engine bursts into a purposeful idle. There are two things you’ll notice firstly and they are the perfect driving position – always a Ford strong point – and the brilliant action of the six-speed manual gearbox which is immediately better than the Megane Trophy’s and only a whisker away from the Civic Type R’s best-in-the-business transmission.
Around town the ST is damped extremely well, but its harder edge shows when you select the ’S’ button – for ‘sport’ – on the thick-rimmed steering wheel when you’re on a trickier stretch of road. Do this and the exhaust offers more crackles on the overrun, the steering’s weight firms up and the suspension feels much more taut.
Funnily enough this is right where STs of old would unravel, but now it’s a different story. You barrel down on a road in complete confidence that your inputs will be acted on, you can trust its big brakes and you’re sure the chassis won’t have the structural rigidity of a blancmange as soon as it’s shown some corners. It has an excellent powertrain, with the engine’s 273bhp feeling plenty strong enough throughout the rev range and the six-speed manual being precise, slick and a great addition.
So, does it cut it when it’s compared with the Type R and Trophy? There are two arguments because while it’s much easier to live with than both thanks to its more civilised ride, it doesn’t have the same scalpel-sharp, unforgiving character but what it does represent is a best-of-both-worlds alternative.
There’s nothing bad about the ST; the same cannot be said about the Type R with its questionable looks or the Trophy with its rock-hard ride which will annoy everyone but your chiropractor. Focus STs have always had the aura that a great car was lurking in there somewhere, but it’s now come of age.
On any road it shines at any speed – if you want a practical hot hatch that’s capable of performing mundane commutes in comfort and comes alive at the mere sniff of a challenging road, it’s now the hot hatch to have.