As Ford launches Focus ST David Wilkins is one of the first writers in the world to drive it.

At last, the ST high-performance version of the third-generation Ford Focus has been launched, and on the face of it, the new car faces a bit of an uphill struggle.

First, the latest ST has to re-establish itself in the market after a break of more than two years since its predecessor (sold as the XR5 in New Zealand), bowed out - and the old model is a hard act to follow.

With its magnificently characterful Volvo-derived five-cylinder engine, it provided a particularly attractive blend of sporty refinement that has rarely been seen in affordable cars with mainstream badges.


Now the Volvo engine has gone,replaced by something that on paper looks a lot more ordinary - Ford's own EcoBoost turbocharged 2-litre petrol four, the same engine fitted to the base model Falcon XT in New Zealand.

The new ST is being billed as the "first global performance Ford" and will have to appeal to customers not only in the old one's traditional EU markets but also in new territories such as Russia and North America.

As part of its maker's "One Ford" policy, which is designed to drastically simplify Ford's model range and operations, the ST will be produced in near identical forms in Saarlouis in Germany and Michigan in the US.

On the face of it, the need to cater for such a wide variety of customers seems like a recipe for a dumbed-down, undistinguished, lowest common denominator car unlikely to appeal to sophisticated European enthusiasts.

And as if all that weren't enough, the Focus range already contains one mega-star, the headline-hogging three-cylinder 1.0-litre EcoBoost version - yet to be seen in Godzone - that has been wowing foreign professional testers and ordinary punters alike with its mix of performance, refinement and economy.

The new ST, no matter how good, is going to struggle for airtime in the face of the adulation that car has been receiving.

Well there's no need to worry about any of that, because the new ST turns out to be an outstanding effort that easily matches or exceeds the standard set by the old one, and the attention-grabbing 1.0 EcoBoost is just going to have to get used to sharing the limelight.

First, performance, which is, after all, the point of a car like the ST. With a top speed of 247km/h and a 0 to 100km/h time of 6.5 seconds, the new car is certainly quick, but at the same time it returns 7.2l/100km (combined cycle) and 169g/km in official tests, an improvement of 20 per cent compared with its thirsty predecessor.

The impressive on-paper figures can't really tell you much about the qualitative aspects of the new ST's performance - the way it sounds, the way it delivers its shove.

Those were areas in which the old car excelled, thanks to that warbling five-cylinder engine and a wonderfully cushioned drive-train.

The new car's turbo-charged four delivers a generous 184kW but the big surprise is that Ford has succeeded in giving it almost as much character as the old one.

A lot of effort has gone into tuning the exhaust, while a "sound symposer" directly relays engine noise into the cabin to provide a sportier experience.

In practice, that means a nice gravelly undertone to the ST's engine note, but only under hard acceleration or at high revs.

The rest of the time, it's extremely refined and quiet, as Ford has exploited the engine's strong torque to provide long gearing.

But impressive as the latest ST's drive-train is, it's this car's chassis behaviour that really sets new standards.

Every Focus made has been a magnificently fluid handler, but the latest ST operates on a completely different level.

Its outstanding body control and damping show why Ford was able to topple Peugeot all those years ago as the maker of the best-handling mainstream cars - and why nobody has seriously threatened its position since.

The variable ratio steering, which takes on a more direct ratio away from the straight-ahead, works well, too.

Best of all, the new ST combines its cornering prowess with superb ride comfort - in fact, it must be one of the best riding cars of its size or price, a staggering achievement.

Unlike the crude fast Fords of old, the new ST doesn't really shout too much about its abilities.

There are no garish body-side decals and no big show-off spoilers, although there are some more subtle body mods.

Instead, it stands out in less obvious ways - there's a choice of unusually vivid colours, including "tangerine scream", a sort of metallic orange that recalls a popular launch shade for the old XR5, and a distinctive "double hexagon" exhaust tailpipe also marks out the ST from other Focuses.

Base pricing, when the ST goes on sale in New Zealand in from November, will be in the "early $50,000s", says Ford NZ.

- Independent