Atop the summit: The Focus ST meets its fast Ford ancestors

Ford has a rich lineage of underdogs. Time for a family reunion
by Ollie Marriage | Sep 8, 2019

“It’ll prove a more interesting test than I thought.”

The water temperature’s what I’m most concerned about.

Turns out that’s wrong. What I ought to be worrying about is fuel expansion and vaporization. But there’s not a needle for that, so I watch the rising water gauge like a hawk, ignorant of the fact that fuel is pumping out through the filler cap at roughly the rate it normally goes in.

We take a lot for granted these days, but 37 years ago, when the Escort XR3i was new, driving up to the summit of an Alpine pass was to be approached with trepidation. I forget that. It’s 35ºC at the base of the Col du Galibier today, the Escort makes it to within 200 vertical meters of the 2,642m summit before the misfiring begins and I stutter into a convenient layby.

Had I been having fun? Conventionally, no. One hundred and three horsepower, a full turn of unassisted lock required at every one of the innumerable hairpins and a point-blank refusal to idle made it at once slow, sweaty, and awkward. The others arrive to commiserate, a stream of increasingly youthful, increasingly potent machinery.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Because, we thought, what better way to welcome a new Focus ST than to position it not against its rivals (we’ll do that shortly) but against what’s gone before—to see where it’s come from, and where it’s heading. It’ll prove a more interesting test than I thought. So what’s here? The XR3i has already introduced itself, so next up is a 2002 Focus ST170. That’s 20 years younger, the considerable gap explained away by the fact the MkIV and MkV Escorts (1986–1997) were shockers. I’ll give the Escort Cossie a pass.

I doubt the Focus would have been as good to drive if the later Escorts hadn’t been so bad. The ST170 was Ford proving itself. It used a tuned version of the 2.0 Duratec that revved to 7,250rpm and delivered 170hp. New, they were £15,995 (around P1 million). This 102,000-mile (around 162,000km) example just cost its owner £750 (roughly P47,000). Depending on who you believe, the XR3i is worth between three and 10 times as much. If the same spiraling value tornado picks up the ST170, its owner will be quids in.

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The 2006 ST is still on a downward trajectory: about the same money as an XR3i, but going the wrong way. This one is as sweet as they get, a 25,000-miler (around 40,000km) with the Mountune kit boosting the 2.5-liter turbo 5cyl from 225hp to 256hp. Manual ’box, 3dr and Recaro seats, it’s a chunky hunk of motor.

And then there’s the new one. The engine has lost a cylinder, it’s available as a 5dr (or an estate), most of the styling upgrades come with ST-Line versions of the standard car. It’s a less overt and bullish ST, a reflection of its role. Because although it has a limited-slip diff, adaptive suspension and an optional £250 Performance Pack with Track mode, launch control, rev-matching and so on, this is a hot hatch aligned more with the VW Golf GTI than the Honda Civic Type R. The only reason other people are paying it any attention is the shade its painted. Gendarmes blue about sums it up. Still, a car worth making a fuss about.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

Here our quartet is, rising to the challenge of the Galibier with varying degrees of enthusiasm. After a cooling pause, the XR3i is ready for a final assault on the summit. Unlike its driver, it fails to spontaneously combust as soon as it gets underway (I’d left a black car locked with the windows up for an hour), and happily sets off to tackle the last couple of miles. The top of a crisp tube has been pressed into action to stop the throttle cable retreating too far. It’s game, but also soft and spindly, thin of A-pillar, narrow of tire, slender of suspension arm. Aged enough that I want to treat it with courtesy—and already proven fallible.

Beyond that, and even allowing for the passage of time, it’s not exactly sporty. I can see why contemporary reports said this didn’t feel as crisp as a MkII Golf GTI. But the engine revs cleanly, smoothly, hinting that all would be well even if I did choose to explore the 6,500rpm upper reaches. The motor’s eager, without delivering much in terms of speed. But who wants more speed when the drops are sheer, the barriers absent and the steering has more turns than a galleon’s helm? But, hey, it’s got the body roll to go with it.

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Let’s get into the new car. I drove it up from Nice this morning, a 442km  dual carriageway trip that proved it can schlep through heat, return 14.9km/L, sound good in tunnels, be super-stable and ride with quiet, absorbent dexterity. There’s a subtle button on the steering wheel that shortcuts straight to Sport mode, changing the maps for the steering, sound, suspension, diff, traction, and engine. You can’t adjust any of this stuff independently, which irritates me for only one reason: rev-matching. I like a bit of heel and toeing, but the car insists on rev-blipping the downshifts for you. Fair enough—it does it better. But it doesn’t do it in Normal mode, and neither can I, because the pedal spacing is all wrong. Minor, isn’t it? And about the sum total of issues I have with the new ST.

PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

The Col du Galibier is one of my favourite passes, not because of its Tour de France history, nor even the spectacular scenery, but for the sheer variety of corners. It climbs out of Valloire along straights and sweepers, throws in a technical third-gear sequence, gains altitude around a few hairpins, then you’re in the high moraine section, where it does a lot of everything, before a final pinball up to the summit. Not one corner outfoxes the new ST. It feels sharper than a Golf GTI, which I expected—but has better damping and body control than the last-gen Focus RS, which I certainly didn’t.

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Ford also claims it has better stopping power than the RS, and greater mid-range performance, too. Maybe it does—it certainly feels healthily rapid, even if the 2.3-liter motor needs 3,000rpm before it fully lights up. But it’s the composure that impresses me—the new ST feels lower, wider, flatter, doesn’t lean or pogo. It’s an accurate car. There’s some Fiesta ST DNA here in its agility, although rather than the back end getting light, here the sensation is of an eager pivot into corners. The steering is quick (less than half the twirling the XR3i needed), and the diff is brilliantly subtle—no torque steer, just traction.

For a variety of reasons, none of the others can keep up. But as ever, speed is not the right measure. Amusement—that’s what counts. Time for the ST170 and its steering. Oily, smooth, nicely geared, and with lovely feedback, it’s the best thing about the whole car, further evidence that although the new car’s electric set-up is good, it’s bettered by a 17-year-old hydraulic system. The control blade rear suspension is good too, delivering control and agility, but it’s undermined here by tired damping.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

I’m not sure second gear is quite where it’s meant to be, either. The lever doesn’t slot back into its notch so much as park itself at the entrance, and was this engine always this coarse above 5,000rpm? Torque is in short supply, so the operating window is about 1,000rpm wide. But in its clean manners, there’s a clear lineage through to the new car that I wouldn’t have expected, given what came in between.

The 2006 ST is an engine car. Hollow 5cyl warble, the torque uncorks at 2,000rpm, a punchy, rampant, edge-of-wheelspin mid-range and a chassis that struggles to keep a lid on it. I never had any fear of the edges in the ST170. I do now. But where poke dominates, there’s fun to be had, and while the chassis isn’t as talented as its predecessor’s, with more heave and roll into corners, this ST, now 13 years old, knows how to have a good time.

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It’s the class clown, the bar prop, beer and cigarette in hand, carefree attitude. It’s garrulous and entertaining, and so what if sophistication is in short supply? It’s more thickly suspended, the kind of car where you just lob a quarter turn of lock on at the start of any corner, then sort it out after that. Big, deep seats, generous padding, and a generous heart. You can see where room was left for an RS version.

With the new car, I’m not sure you can. Ford no longer sells the Focus in America, so how can it justify the investment needed to fund an RS, let alone one with 4WD, trick Drift modes, and all the rest? This new ST, in its power and dynamic ability, is halfway to being an RS already (and not far off the price), but has the bandwidth to be a convincing Golf GTI rival, too. If there is to be a new RS, I suspect it’ll be harder, sharper, stripped, and specialized, more akin to the RenaultSport Megane Trophy-R—and likely front-drive only.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni

We shot when it was quiet, after the cyclists, touring vans, car clubs, and motorbikes have descended in pursuit of beer and pizza, and then again before they re-emerge the next morning. Several hours where we have the Galibier to ourselves. That’s just special. We have all four parked on the road at dawn, sitting proudly among the Alps. I try to think what I’ve seen in the past 24 hours that I’d rather have driven across here. An original Alpine A110 in Elf livery is my only answer.

When we finish a few hours later, and for no particular reason, I get back in the XR3i to drive down to the transporter parked in a highway aire. I’m following the new ST. It looks neat, clean, taut, carrying speed without effort. Meanwhile, in the Escort, the body’s a-rockin’, the wheel’s a-twirlin’, the engine’s a-knockin’, the armpits a-drippin’, and the brakes a-fadin’. I can smell them through the open windows. Uphill, it was stressful; downhill, it’s… hilarious. Feels keen, eager, sporty. I give it everything all the time and the water temp stays static, the half tank of remaining fuel on the inside. Naturally, it’s the best drive I have.

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Not once do I better 60mph (97kph)—well, until I wheelspin away from the final péage, overtaking not just the bemused new ST, but all of them, last to first, so we arrive back in age order. Now the XR3i feels like a fitting first effort, the only other sporting Ford here besides the new car with the correct balance of power and grip. A classic now, though. In 37 years’ time, we might just be saying the same of the new ST.

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This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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PHOTO: Mark Riccioni
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