If you've got around £20,000 to spend on a fast, desirable and practical hatch, you're a very lucky bunny. The choice is huge, packed with quality, and diverse beyond any reasonable expectations. The Golf GTI is the consummate all-rounder, the Astra VXR the brash hooligan, the Megane Trophy treads a fine line between the two; and if you're not too image-conscious, then the wagon version of the new Subaru Impreza WRX is a characterful and blisteringly quick alternative.
And now there's the Ford Focus ST. But just where does it fit in, and how do you make a splash in a market bursting with entertainment and catering for virtually every need? Well, the Blue Oval has always been something of a people's champion, and pricing the ST at an ultra-competitive £17,495 should ensure the new hot Focus has a loyal following. That price is for the basic spec car, which still includes the cool alloys, Recaros and body styling. The ST '2' gains Xenons, an MP3-compatible Sony stereo, heated windscreen and ESP traction and stability management and costs £18,495 (still less than the VXR and Mί¿½gane Cup). The ST '3' comes with full leather, has electric adjustment for the seats and a six-CD autochanger and is priced more in line with the Golf GTI at £19,495.
Equally enticing is the Focus ST's unique-in-class drivetrain. The Volvo-sourced turbocharged in-line five-cylinder engine not only produces a seriously muscular 222bhp and a relaxed 236lb ft from as low as 1600rpm, but the deep-chested, hollow warble instantly gives the ST a distinct and compelling character.
So, a bargain price, Golf GTI-humbling power and a rich, throbbing exhaust note make for pretty strong building-blocks for the ST to win customers and steal sales from Renault, Vauxhall, SEAT... And then there's the promise of one of those effortless Ford-patented chassis, which seem to both soothe and thrill without ever breaking into a sweat. The ST could just be the new-generation hot-hatch to top them all.
Basking in the warm Mediterranean sunshine, the Focus ST certainly looks the part. The latest-generation Focus isn't a trailblazing shape like its forebear, but the chunky, Germanic lines have responded well to the lower ride height, 18in Lamborghini-inspired alloys, deep front splitter and thick rear roof spoiler. The beautifully poised but underpowered ST170 of old was intended to slip past unnoticed, but the new ST is happier to wear its heart on its swollen arches. However, the quiet aggression is clearly more Golf GTI than Astra VXR.
Inside, the parallels with the Golf continue. The dash is clear, functional and hewn from high-quality plastics, the colour-coded red and grey Recaro seats look great and clamp you tightly in place, and everything you touch feels substantial. Despite the exceptionally low price there's obviously been no compromise in terms of quality. Perched on top of the dash and angled towards the driver, there's an additional instrument pod with three chrome-ringed gauges; the central dial registers turbo boost and it's flanked by oil temperature and pressure gauges. Serious stuff.
The five-pot motor takes on a deep, resonant note at idle. It sounds potent, but a quick blip of the throttle confirms the nagging sense that there's lots of inertia to overcome within the engine itself. Hopefully the turbo will be more than capable of spinning it up quickly and cleanly...
The Focus genes run unmistakably through the ST. Within 100 yards it feels superb, the ride is genuinely cosseting (despite 30 per cent stiffer springs front and rear and a 15 per cent thicker rear anti-roll bar), and the steering is accurate, consistent and nicely-weighted. Only the slightly rubbery action of the six-speed 'box jars, and that offbeat soundtrack feels a bit out of place in a mid-sized hatch. Characterful, certainly, but I'm not sure it's the right character for a light-footed hot hatch.
No complaints about the way it throws the Focus at the horizon, though. There's meaty grunt from as little as 1500rpm, but unlike some torque-optimised turbocharged engines the ST builds power nicely throughout the mid-range and then seems to find a new lease of life at around 5500rpm. The final rush to the 7000rpm cut-out feels stronger than anything a Golf GTI could muster, subjectively at least.
However, the ST can't disguise its turbocharger as effectively as the Golf. There's small but noticeable lag when you first get hard on the power, and between full-bore shifts the engine takes a moment or two to catch its breath and resume the accelerative fireworks. Through a sequence of corners where you're often switching between strong throttle applications and then calling on some useful engine braking, the delivery can get a little jerky, too.
The ST's ESP system has to work hard to contain the power despite the broad 225/40 R18 Continental rubber. And although it's certainly very efficient at trimming any excesses, you soon feel that it's perhaps a little too eager. Switch it out and the front tyres can easily be overwhelmed once you've clipped an apex and gunned the engine. Eke out the power more gently and the ST stays nice and neutral, and only when the corner has really opened out and you hit full power do you feel the front wheels tugging from left to right.
Torque-steer in a front-drive car of this potency is almost unavoidable, and the Focus is certainly no more prone to it than, say, the Mί¿½gane Trophy. Even so, you sense that Ford has tried to soften the effect before it reaches the steering wheel. The result is that much of the textural feedback that you'd experience in a cooking Focus has been lost.
Push harder, give the engine a free rein, and that five-cylinder unit really begins to dominate. In terms of raw speed it's very impressive, effortless when you're stroking it along and relentless when you're asking for all it's got to give. Unfortunately, for all the power it generates on the straights, it seriously hampers the ST through the corners.
The nose-heavy balance and fairly marked body-roll means that understeer arrives earlier than expected, and it's pretty tricky to neutralise completely. Get out of the throttle and the weight shifts, unloading the rears and progressively restoring grip to the front tyres. It all feels great, until you realise that the Focus's inherent adjustability isn't enough to fully overcome the weight up front. By mid-corner the rear tyres are gripping again and the fronts are pushing-on, away from your chosen line and bleeding away the bulk of the forward thrust through rampant wheelspin.
If you've got the room and the right corner ahead of you, the ST can be made to steer from the rear rather than the front, but it takes a fairly extreme lift-and-lob or heavy braking into the heart of the corner to unsettle the car enough to need opposite lock. In the real world this is not such a huge problem, but the fact that when you're driving quickly and smoothly the ST predominantly understeers and feels just a fraction stodgy is disappointing.
I'm loath to criticise the ST because it really is an excellent package. There's ample performance, it looks great and the ride and general feel of the car at anything up to eight-tenths is spot-on. As a car to own, I think it would be a pleasure. However, just when you want it to throw off its sensible shoes and goad you into really going for it, the ST gets a little sulky, a little detached. The Golf GTI remains the benchmark.