Prior to driving it, I was prepared to be just a little disappointed with the new Focus ST. That's because in a former life, I ran a Focus XR5 turbo as a long-term test car for a year and loved it.
And what I loved most was the sonorous, multi-layered soundtrack that came as standard, courtesy of the Volvo five-cylinder turbo engine.
I had no doubt that the new ST would be a better, more sophisticated machine than my old XR5. Thanks to EcoBoost engine technology, the new ST is more powerful (166kW/360Nm), faster (0-100km/h 6.5 seconds) and considerably more economical (7.2 litres per 100km).
But it's still just a four-cylinder, right? In fact, that 2-litre turbo powerplant is a modified version of what you find under the bonnet of a fleet Falcon XT these days. Fours don't make cool noises like fives. That's a fact.
After a day in the new ST, the verdict is in. No, it doesn't sound as good as the previous XR5. But it's so close that it really doesn't matter, especially when you consider how much more exciting and accomplished the car is in every other area. It's now surely the best hot-hatch on the market and at $52,490, a relative bargain.
The secret to the ST's surprisingly engaging soundtrack is something called a 'sound symposer'. It's a special tube attached directly to the intake manifold, with a composite paddle that vibrates when required, to amplify the engine note inside the cabin under load.
Ford emphasises that the symposer does not generate artificial noise. It simply enhances what's already there. I'm not sure where you draw the line, but the results are impressive: the ST sounds a lot like the old XR5 when you put your foot down.
The difference is that the symposer settles down when you're not driving hard, so the engine can be as refined as any entry-level small car when you want it to be.
The rest of the ST package is stunningly good. The engine is smooth and linear, yet still energetic at the top end. The steering system is unique to the ST and features a variable-ratio rack. The front suspension has some unique hardware, the whole car is lowered by 10mm and there are various electronic aids in place to prevent torque steer and keep this powerful front-drive car on the straight and narrow.
The ST is six-speed manual-only and destined to remain so. That is theoretically a limiting factor in New Zealand - Volkswagen dropped its Golf GTI manual a long time ago because 95 per cent of buyers bought the DSG automatic - but the ST is a very special car that attracts a purist audience and Ford does not see the gearbox as an issue.
Yes, they would say that. But it is a brilliant gearbox to use - again, unique to the ST - and the first shipment of 40 cars has already sold out, so there's hope for us two-pedal-obsessed Kiwis after all.
Aside from being awesome, the ST is significant because it's Ford's first global performance car. Developed by Ford RS in Europe and Ford SVT in the United States, it will be sold in more than 40 countries in essentially the same form.
The ST spearheads a revised Focus range. A change in sourcing from Europe to Thailand on hatch (excluding the ST) and sedan models has allowed more flexibility in the lineup and increased equipment levels.
The most significant addition is the Sync voice control system, which is now standard on all models. Voice control is not new (especially not to Ford), but voice control that actually works is a real novelty. And Sync can successfully be used to control media and telephone functions.
Developed in partnership with technology company Nuance, Sync understands 150 different commands and breaks your voice commands down into letters rather than just words, meaning it can understand natural speech patterns and even hazard a guess at what you mean if you're unclear. It's new to New Zealand but well proven: Sync is already fitted to four million Ford vehicles worldwide.
With a media player and/or cellphone tethered to the car, there's a lot you can do without taking your hands off the wheel. For example, you can choose an artist or track with a simple sequence of instructions like: "Play artist Mumford and Sons" or "play track Early Roman Kings".
The same intuitive ethos applies to the cellphone connection. You can dial somebody in your phonebook with a command like: "Phone, call Patti".
Sync even allows you to set up conference calls while you're driving, although that might be your cue to pull over.
There are some limitations. With the media player, you cannot choose specific tracks by voice if your device is tethered by Bluetooth rather than by a cable (although you can say "next track", for example) and there is such a thing as too much data.
Our test Focus would not allow track-name voice selection on my iPod (which was attached with a cable) because there were too many tracks on it (about 100GB worth).
Nor does Sync, er synch with satellite navigation yet. But eventually, it will. The next level up from Sync is called MyFordTouch; it's used in many premium Ford models in the US and integrates voice control with touch-screen functions.
Other additions to the Focus include active grille shutters to improve aerodynamics and therefore fuel efficiency, a shift to the right-hand side for the indicator stalks (technically correct for a right-hook car) and new trim colours.
The Sport gains new 17-inch alloy wheels, while both Sport and the flagship Titanium models have a new body kit and reversing camera.
The Titanium also picks up Active City Stop, which will automatically brake the car from up to 30km/h if it senses an impending nose-to-tail collision. Ford claims the system can prevent an impact completely at 15km/h. Sound familiar? Active City Stop is simply Volvo's City Safety technology by another name. Ford owned Volvo until 2010 and the Focus still lends its platform to the Swedish/Chinese marque's V40. Which should tell you what a high-quality, high-tech vehicle this little Ford is.