Ford Focus ST Estate: long-term test review

Ford Focus ST Estate: long-term test review

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Its brief encounter with a real Ford classic only proves what a great all-rounder our Focus ST Estate is. It’s seriously fast, yet practical and comfortable enough to cope with everyday life. We’ll miss it when it goes.

Time is nearly up for our Ford Focus ST Estate – and it’s no overstatement to say that we already know it’s going to be badly missed when it goes. We chose to run this car because we wanted to see if it could successfully marry the abilities of a large family car with those of a hot hatchback – and it has delivered in spades, on both counts.

As a celebration of that mix of speed and practicality, and because it sounded like huge fun, we decided to introduce the ST to a much older fast Ford ‘load-lugger’ (in the spiritual sense, at least). And that’s how we ended up at a windswept airfield near Peterborough, days before the UK’s lockdown, driving our Focus alongside one of the legends of Ford’s heritage fleet: Supervan 3.

The first edition of this rapid Transit was introduced in 1971 as a promotional tool, with a Mk1 Transit body strapped to a GT40 Le Mans racer chassis. With a claimed top speed of 150mph, it certainly grabbed headlines when it made its public appearances.

Time caught up with the van, though, and by the end of the decade it was out of kilter with Ford’s existing Transit range. So the original Supervan was retired – to where, nobody’s really sure, because it vanished at some point in the eighties, perhaps to be ripped apart in search of GT40 bits.

Supervan 2 arrived in 1984, supported by the underpinnings of Ford’s ill-fated Le Mans car project, the C100, and with a V8 engine producing 590bhp. This vehicle then morphed into Supervan 3, superhero-style, to reflect changes to the Transit’s styling. It has since dumped the high-maintenance motorsport engine for a supercharged 2.9-litre V6 Cosworth unit producing 295bhp and 384Nm of torque. It’s still good for 150mph and it looks a million dollars in vintage Ford Motorsport livery, with its ultra-low side skirts and deep front splitter.

In case you think this whole idea is a mismatch, our Focus’s performance figures aren’t a million miles away from those of Supervan 3. Its 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine makes 276bhp and has 420Nm of torque. It’ll even trump the van’s top speed, at 155mph. And while it lacks the promo vehicle’s stripes, our orange paintwork is bright, even on a dull morning.

Our car is ready and waiting for its moment in the lens (I’ve kept the engine running to hide from a biting wind) but even so, the moment Ford technician Ivan Bartholomeusz fires up Supervan 3, it’s clear which is the alpha vehicle here. The straight exhaust of the 2.9-litre motor is painful if you’re anywhere within six feet of it.

More surprising is how this volume doesn’t even die away as Supervan follows me down the runway. With snapper Otis Clay grabbing some low-down tracking shots, the noise coming from behind the ST is quite extraordinary, even at the reduced speeds required for this type of photography and with plenty of road rumble from the Focus’s tyres on a hard concrete surface.

This makes me realise, in fact, that there is one area of the Focus where I reckon it could try harder: noise. There’s a Track mode, I know, which turns up the volume of the synthesised exhaust note coming into the cabin very effectively. But this is a vehicle with rally car-style anti-lag systems, and I reckon that in the most extreme setting – by which point it’s safe to assume you’ve unloaded those boxes of antique china from the boot, and are ready for some thrills – it ought to pop, bang and crackle just a little bit more.

To round the shoot off, Bartholomeusz gives me a passenger run in Supervan down the same stretch of runway. And this is when I realise how many compromises have been made to make Supervan possible at all. The fibreglass bodywork is made to scale, and the cabin has been downsized to the point where anyone of my height (and girth) struggles to get aboard at all. The steering wheel is massively offset. And the noise is deafening. I love a motorsport engine note, but a couple of times during the run, I find myself gesturing to Ivan to ease off just a little, for the sake of my eardrums.

It’s fabulous fun, of course – and it’s great to have given Ford a reason to get one of its veterans moving again. But as I climb back into the ST, I’m comforted by the heated seats and steering wheel, the relative calm of the car’s normal driving mode and the well judged damping over Britain’s roads.

Then there’s the knowledge that were I to feel the need to pop into IKEA on the way home to buy a wardrobe, I could. Whereas Supervan, for all its Transit connections, has zero usable load space at all. And that makes the ST estate the king among Ford load-luggers, in my book.

Our hot hatch Ford Focus ST estate car is providing fun and function in equal measure

We're just over halfway through our term with the Ford Focus ST Estate now, and it struck me that we’ve eulogised about its practicality more than its on-road 

That’s not to say that the Focus isn’t up to coping with family life. Quite the opposite, in fact; I’ve already become dangerously accustomed to just opening the wagon’s boot and hurling all sorts of clutter in there for days out. My son’s bicycle (and assorted clobber), bags full of wellies, the odd coolbag – you name it, the ST estate swallows it.We're just over halfway through our term with the Ford Focus ST Estate now, and it struck me that we’ve eulogised about its practicality more than its on-road behaviour. And that was a bit of a mistake.

So yes, the Focus is continuing to impress me with its practicality. But driving it is so much more fun than loading stuff into the boot – and on that score, Ford does such a great job of nailing the basics.

The Focus’s control weights are all right at the top of the class for me. Some people think the steering is a tad heavy but I find its weight pleasing, and it’s supremely accurate, making it easy to position the car’s nose as you enter a corner. The pedals are neatly spaced, allowing more scope for heeling-and-toeing than you’ll get in many family cars – although of course, switching into the car’s more extreme Sport mode activates electronic rev matching on downshifts.

The gearshift is perhaps not quite as sweet as the one you’ll find in a Civic Type R – there’s just something about the short throw that Honda offers – but it’s a match for anything else in the class, with a positive action that helps to keep you really involved.

The chassis does the rest – and boy, does it deliver – but with one caveat: the Focus is firm by the standards of a conventional family car; occasionally my six-year-old son will pipe up from his car seat to tell me, “This is a bumpy road!” when in fact it’s just a regular British town centre street.

But the ride is far from intolerable and the trade-off is a spectacular one. This car loves to dance from corner to corner, to be pointed towards the inside of a bend and then pushed hard as you accelerate out of it. I’ve been lucky enough to try dozens of great hot hatches over the past 20 years and I’m convinced that this ST is right up there with the best of them. It’s a hoot.

Can I tell that our car is an estate and not the regular five-door? I think I’d really need to be on a track day to determine the fine differences, beyond the slightest extra hesitation when it comes to rapid changes of direction, caused by the extra mass further back in the Focus’s chassis. But we’re talking narrow margins here; in the most part, it’s very easy to be sucked into our orange estate’s agility and performance along a back road. And that, to me, is the sign of a great hot hatch, wagon or otherwise.

The ‘aural enhancement’ on the Focus’s 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine is supposedly meant to make it sound like an old rally Escort. As a long-time fan of that branch of motorsport, I’m not sure it quite matches the screaming BDA engine in Ari Vatanen’s old Mk2 – but there’s something about its relatively gruff lower notes that does make me think of a competition engine idling. 

Elsewhere, I can report that the Focus’s heated seats get very toasty very quickly, and our car’s heated steering wheel has also come in handy over the winter months. 

This increased enjoyment of the Ford’s performance means I’ve also come to rely (quite heavily) on the speed limiter, which is activated via a steering-wheel switch. It’s great because pressing the button tells the limiter to kick in at whatever speed you’re currently doing – and it doesn’t remember this if you flick it off and back on again.

I like that functionality, because it means I can come from, say, a 60mph zone with the limiter set appropriately, and then, as I brake and enter a 30mph area, a double-press of the LIM button keeps me safe and legal without having to muck around decreasing the selected speed manually.

We’ve fallen for our ST wagon. It shows again how Ford can nail the basics of what makes a car great to drive, with handling that matches the performance. And not to forget practicality.

I’m not a smoker, but I am partial to the odd bit of back-of-a-fag-packet maths. And getting the keys to our new Ford Focus ST Estate had me scurrying for the spec sheets, tape measure and calculator.

The Focus is a relatively rare thing in the hot hatchback class in being offered not only as a conventional five-door but also as a wagon. And that got me thinking: where does our latest arrival stand when it comes to offering the optimum blend of a huge load capacity, a high top speed and a rapid 0-62mph dash – for sensible money?

The figures in question, in the case of the Focus ST, are pretty impressive. This £33,095 car has a 276bhp, 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine, potent enough to take it from 0-62mph in 5.8 seconds and on to a limited top speed of 155mph. And this in a vehicle whose standard boot capacity of 541 litres can be extended to a very handy 1,576 litres by folding down the rear seats.

Using a ratio based on maximum luggage capacity multiplied by top speed, and then placing this figure over list price multiplied by the 0-62mph time, the ST does indeed make a strong case for itself. It comes out with a figure of 1.273, which means nothing until you start comparing it with other fast offerings. Mercedes’ cavernous AMG E 63 S, for example, trumps the Focus on load capacity and hammers it on performance, but its list price of almost £100,000 holds it back to a final figure of just 0.999.

Equally, BMW’s X5 M beats even the Mercedes on loadbay, but a limited top speed and an eye-watering £110k price drag it down to 0.690.

And at the other end of the scale, Honda’s Civic Type R GT, our favourite hot hatchback overall, smashes through the Focus’s top speed and has it matched on price, but its boot capacity is a meagre 1,209 litres, keeping it down to final score of 1.12.

The closest rival that I could find, in fact, is the soon-to-be-replaced Skoda Octavia vRS Challenge estate, which has an even bigger boot than the Focus and can almost match the Ford’s performance speeds. But it’s similarly priced and in the end, a slower 0-62mph time keeps it just shy of our car’s final tally, at 1.217.

Beyond these (sketchy) numbers, the Focus is already making a compelling case for itself. It’s already found itself subjected to a couple of runs to the local tip, not to mention the annual last-minute dash to get a Christmas tree, and the wide, flat boot floor makes it easy to slide larger items in.

The cabin is big enough to cope with my son’s car seat and, in the most part, the fit and finish are hard to fault, with squidgy plastics in all of the right places. The infotainment system seems snappy, too, and our car’s options – the orange paint, a panoramic sunroof, the head-up display and the hands-free tailgate – all seem like boxes that are worth ticking.

More than the cabin, though, it’s the dynamics that are really impressing me. This is a 155mph hot hatchback on 19-inch wheels, but the Focus’s chassis has enough compliance to dial out the worst road imperfections that my daily commute through west London can throw at it. The low-speed ride is surprisingly supple.

This helps to make the ST a really effective fast cruiser, too; not only is it comfortable enough, it’s also surprisingly refined once you crank it up to a steady 70mph. The engine is particularly polite, dropping back to the point where a bit of wind noise from around the side mirrors and door seals drowns it out. And what racket there is is comfortably surpassed by the B&O stereo.

Push harder and yes, there’s a bit of judder under hard acceleration off the line – a reminder of the torque and power going through only the front wheels.

But once the ST is up to speed on the right road, its mix of control weights, steering response and a chassis that loves to change direction quickly (yes, even in Estate form) is beguiling indeed. I can’t wait until the roads are clear of frost, rain and general winter grime.

*Insurance quote from AA (0800 107 0680) for a 42-year-old in Banbury, Oxon, with three points.

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