• Sep 12th 2008 at 7:57PM
  • 49
Click above for high-res gallery of the 2008 Ford Focus ST

Save the hot hatch for last. That's what we kept telling ourselves as we wandered the Belgian countryside looking for Ford's Lommel Proving Ground. As it turns out, the facility, located next to an air force base – restricted airspace, you know – is so secret, our hosts at Ford could hardly find it. So we had a little extra time to repeat the mantra: save the hot hatch for last.

On our way to Italy to drive the new Fiesta, we took a detour to Lommel to sample some of Ford's European C-segment offerings. A variety of vehicles, including one with the new dual-clutch gearbox, a Kuga crossover and the fire-breathing Focus ST, would be on hand for us to drive around the track. But we knew that if we gave into temptation and drove the ST first, the rest would seem sluggish by comparison, even though the vehicles aren't comparable. So did we resist the urge, or give into the little demon that's always whispering in our ears to go faster? Follow the jump and we just might tell you.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

Before hitting the track, we sat through a series of briefings on the company, the products and the facility. But one declaration caught our attention more than the rest: Ford VP Derrick Kuzak declared that the Focus ST was the best driving machine that Ford has to offer. That's quite a declaration from the company that brought us the Ford GT, the Shelby Mustangs, and such rally-bred rockets as the RS200 and Escort Cosworth. Needless to say, we were keen to put Kuzak's affirmation to the test.

The Focus ST is based on the European model, which went its own way from the North American version for the second generation. Following the launch of the new Fiesta, the next Focus will once again be a global vehicle sol simultaneously in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. Until then, the 225-hp Focus ST – available with either three doors or five and carrying a Volvo-sourced 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five – will remain a coveted offering exclusively for overseas customers.

But we knew we should drive the diesels first. So once the briefings were done, we stepped outside to find an assortment of Focus-sized vehicles. Maybe we'll sample the DCT first, to see Ford's take on the latest in transmission technology. Or the Kuga, to see how a European soft-roader handles the twisty bits. There was even a C-Max, a little Focus-based minivan. But what's that over there? "There's a Focus ST waiting for you, Noah". Was that my little demon piping up again? Nope, that was one of our hospitable hosts from Ford's European headquarters in Cologne. He knows what we came for. And in that glowing orange hue, it couldn't be missed from a mile away. And I don't even like orange.

Temptation won again, and we slipped into the ST's leather-lined cabin, into the convoy and onto the sharply banked high-speed oval, one of 17 circuits at Ford's vast 800-acre test center. Unfortunately, safety concerns – and a lack of certification – meant that our laps around Lommel would be escorted by pace cars – Mondeo wagons fore and aft – to make sure we kept things within reason. Or at least at a reasonable speed. Fair enough, this would force us to drive under similar conditions to what the everyday driver would face on the daily commute, only without any "everyday drivers" around to get in the way. Or traffic lights, pedestrians or speed cameras, for that matter.

This is exactly what LPG was made for: putting Ford vehicles to the test under safe conditions away from public roads. The facility first opened its doors – to those few with access, anyway – in 1965, and every European Ford vehicle since has undergone testing there. Nestled in the forest, LPG encompasses some 80 kilometers of track. Over the past nine years alone, Ford has invested over €23 million to keep it at the cutting edge. Aside from the dynos, climate chambers and suspension rigs, LPG features 17 distinct tracks, including the two on which we'd be driving: the high-speed oval and the infamous Road 7, a notoriously challenging circuit with more bends than a can of worms on ecstasy.

Pulling out onto the oval track, our rate of acceleration and top speed were limited by the pace cars, but the slightest gap between the nose of the ST and the car in front gave ample demonstration of the hot Focus' ferocity. The turbo comes on linearly and with little lag, giving a smooth progression of power that ultimately proved intoxicating. As our speed built up and we pulled up into the embankment, the Focus ST tracked steadily and securely with a "bring it on" attitude. But it wasn't until we pulled infield that the competence of its chassis really shone through.

The multitude of curves along Road 7 meant that once we got off the oval, we hardly had the chance to climb out of third gear. Not that the Focus didn't try, though. After a lap or two, the unflappable Focus ST gave us enough confidence to push it into a bit of wheel-slip, which the car provided with pleasure and a linear progression that was easy to control, even for this novice driver. But oh, what fun. By European standards this is no small car, and compared to something like the junior Fiesta ST, the Focus carries a bit of weight. But that wasn't about to stop it from showing us a good time. Neither was its front-drive layout, which usually makes tail-sliding a challenge, but even with the traction control and stability management engaged, the Focus still demonstrated a playful nature. We would have switched the systems off, but the option was buried deep within an electronic menu that we didn't have time to navigate.

Those guys in the Mondeos did, though. Turns out these weren't just minders, but Ford's crack team of performance engineers. Towards the end of the day, we got to ride shotgun with one of them, electronics off and helmets on. Whatever we thought we had come to understand about the Focus ST's capabilities went out the window, the same direction through which we had to watch the road as our expert pilot hustled the Focus sideways around the track like a turbocharged shopping cart.

So what about those other cars in the motor pool? Yeah, we almost forgot about those, too. We'll have another report on the Kuga for you soon. We also took a couple of laps in a Focus with the new PowerShift dual-clutch gearbox, which, when hooked up to a diesel engine at least, came across as more comfort- than performance-oriented. It'll be interesting to see if Ford will offer PowerShift on any performance models, but so far no word has come on whether that will transpire. With a quick-shifting clutchless gearbox, who knows, we might have gotten out of third in the ST. On the diesel version, however, the DCT proved more of a replacement for a conventional torque-converter automatic than a substitute for a manual.

Of course, that was after driving the Focus ST. And after a few laps in that orange beast, we have a feeling that most cars would feel rather lethargic. But everything is relative. Case in point: Ford is working on a new, even more powerful Focus RS. Enthusiasts were initially disappointed when the announcement came from Ford that, due to cost and weight issues, the RS would stick with front-wheel-drive instead of all fours like the championship-winning rally car it's built to emulate. Those who've driven the prototype around Road 7 promise we won't be disappointed. Looks like we'll have to arrange another visit to Lommel, then. We just hope we can find it again.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

Travel and lodging for this event were provided by the manufacturer.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 7 Years Ago
      Is there some economic or social reason why North American Ford designs are not like this? I'd much rather see this on the street than the NA Focus...
        • 7 Years Ago
        they should sell them here as mercury's or build them here to get costs down
        • 7 Years Ago
        I'm not sure why they don't design them like in Europe, but at the price sold in Europe, if you converted it to Canadian or US dollars here, you'd probably have less sales.

        The focus ain't exciting looking here, but the price is affordable, starting at $16,000 CAD (ford.ca). The Ford Focus starts at 12,500 pounds (ford.co.uk). At $35,000 the Ford Focus ST, you think people will go for a Ford, or an entry luxury car?
        • 7 Years Ago
        Totally valid question. We would all much rather see this on Canadian and American streets than our NA Focus.

        As somebody at Car & Driver Magazine pointed out a couple of decades ago, it doesn't cost any more to style an attractive car than an ugly one. But I can think of two reasons why small European Fords seem to be so much more appealing.

        Small cars in North America are loss leaders. In order to comply with federal CAFE requirements, the D3 routinely lose money on small new cars in order to sell big new ones. Because Americans (yes, wrongly) equate car size to car quality, manufacturers must decontent offerings with body variations, material quality and included equipment. That's one reason.

        The other reason, true of Ford and GM too, is that because the car business has become (I'm informed) a narrowly profitable business, they have a very real vested interest in not competing with themselves. Ford signs off on not just the Ford of Europe Focus but her smarter, prettier cousins Mazda3 and Volvo C30. This is why I suspect somebody at GM surely had a hard business case to make for selling the Belgian-made Astra in the US, instead of reworking the existing Ion.

        Whenever you wonder why "they don't just get rid of the crappy Focus" or something and "just sell the EuroFocus over here", then that's why. If you could charge your customers more for first class, then why would you offer as much legroom and as many amenities in coach?

        So, you're right, there's a lot of economic reasoning and some social reasoning too why we get the NA Focus. Ford's coach class ride. Whose demand is rising, despite our petty, sniveling complaints.

        Anybody else see that episode of Yes, Prime Minister where Jim Hacker has to approve replacing the traditional British sausage with something called the EuroSausage? I think of that whenever one of us mentions the EuroFocus.
        • 7 Years Ago
        revvo: you cant convert pounds or euro to dollar or canadian dollar its more 1 to 1 price than you think besides the new focus and fiesta are going to be build in america so the prices will be cheaper
      • 7 Years Ago
      Bring. It. Here. NOW.

      Hot hatches FTW :)
        • 7 Years Ago
        Knifetramp, and what about customers who weren't looking for trucks? Ever since they nixed the Focus SVT the only Ford car that enthusiasts could get even remotely excited about was the Mustang.
        • 7 Years Ago
        whoops, meant to say MASS PRODUCED car. Ford GT doesn't count.
        • 7 Years Ago
        I really have no idea why Ford treats her huge American fan base and market with such contempt.
        • 7 Years Ago
        Wow, blaming the manufacturer for meeting customer demands? You must work for the government.

        Ford was busy turning out some of the best trucks in the world because that's what the US market demanded.
          • 7 Years Ago
          With all of ford's resources it couldn't focus on the F150 and other models? Seriously? Let's be reasonable here, the Focus ST isn't being sold state side for the same reason the C30's doing horribly and the R32s are languishing on dealer lots, 30k+ hot hatches don't sell well unless their unreliable, have crap interiors, and remind people of the italian job.
      • 7 Years Ago
      If Ford had updated our focus along with the rest of The world, they would be sitting pretty right now with upper hand on compact car market. Which of course, they didnt, so even though they have had this great compact car in their arsenal to compete with the Japanese; their lack of focus on long term benefits caused them to miss the correct timing in marketing this vehicle with its proven success. Quite sad actually. As a svt focus owner, how do I get my hands on one of those here?
        • 7 Years Ago
        The Euro Focus is build on the C1 platfrom developt at Ford Europe in Cologne Germany.

        Vehicle on the C1 platfrom
        2003 Ford Focus C-Max(europen) Mazda 3
        2004 Volvo S40 V50
        2005 Focus (international)
        2006 Volvo C70 Mazda 5
        2007 Volvo C30
        2008 Ford Kuga

        The Mazda 3 is the closest think to a Euro Focus avaible in the USA.. both share the same front- and rear-subframes, suspension, steering, braking, safety, and electrical components
      • 7 Years Ago
      Mexico is privilegied about getting that hot hatch.
      And it costs less than $30k dlls. ($290,000 pesos).
      • 7 Years Ago
      We have that car here in Mexico and its great!!!
      • 7 Years Ago
      Autoblog: I for one would like to hear a more detailed review of the DCT.

      US Readers: Go buy a Volvo C30 T5, it is the same car. The engine calibration is identical, and the chassis & suspension are also the same as the Focus ST reviewed in this article.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Dear Ford,
      We regret to inform you that you are bankrupt because you fail to bring cool cars to the US market. You have driven Americans to buy cool trendy cars from Japan.

      Yours truly,
      The American car buyer under 30 that wants a cool car for his family.
      • 7 Years Ago
      I bought a GTI last year. I would definitely have taken a look at the Focus ST if it had been available in the US - more stylish inside, less restrained outside (as nice as the GTI looks, it looks nice in a bland sort of way). I checked out the Volvo C30 a few months ago, and while the engine tuning may be the same as the ST, there are some points where it felt worse than the GTI:

      - steering wheel too big with a cheap feeling cover
      - 5 speed auto vs 6 speed DSG (face it, being stuck in traffic with a manual just isn't fun). The auto was slow to kick down, and the lack of paddle shifting means it takes more effort to do that kind of one-off shift manually. Made the entire car feel lethargic.
      - equipped similarly to my GTI, it costs $3-4k more. I wouldn't expect that in the Focus, but it's something to point out with the Volvo.
      • 7 Years Ago
      @ zamafir

      Problem is with lack of advertising. Ford has failed to let anyone know that there is a good looking practical hatchback (C30) which is a pleasure to drive and very frugal.

      GM has done a sh*t job with Astra, not to mention how they ruined it for US market.

      VW has done so-so with Golf (Rabbit), GTi and it shows. Here in MI, we have a ton of those zipping around.

      So your point is too general and does not get down to the bottom of the issue. Of course PR people from above mentioned companies will give a BS excuse of hatches not being popular in US and that's that.

      They need to look at fantastic job that BMW has done with the Mini promotion. You had to have been living under a rock not to know that it existed and everyone even knows about the JCW version available.

      I'm beginning to see just like with anything else...you put 20 ppl of same profession in a room and only 3 of them are going to be worth anything.
      • 7 Years Ago
      Well, now that gas is now a huge concern for us, maybe the U.S. will finally start to get some of these hot cars. For years GM, Ford, Honda, Nissan, etc. have had really great small cars that they only released in Europe and Japan because small cars just didn't sell here, especially hatchbacks. I'm glad to see that we are getting away from oversized SUV's, I've always owned smaller cars because it's all I've needed. Now that the demand is going up, there are starting to be alot more choices. That 5 door focus is hot!!
      • 7 Years Ago
      What's the estimated MSRP on this? Are we talking WRX or STi money?

      Also, this does have the nicer-spec Euro interior, right?
        • 7 Years Ago
        just to get that in the right perspective...

        In europe are ALL cars much more expansive...

        price in Germany INCLUDING 19% VAT

        Ford Focus ST 25,500Euro
        VW Scirocco 2.0TFSI 25,550Euro
        VW GTI 25,650Euro
        Reanult Megane Sport Trophy 26,800Euro
        Honda Civic Type R 26,900Euro
        Opel Astra OPC 28,000Euro
        Mazda RX-8 (141kW) 30,800Euro
        VW R32 33,675Euro
        Mazda RX-8(170kW) 36,600Euro
        Nissan 350Z 38,190Euro
        BMW Z4 3.0si Coupe 40,700Euro
        Subaru WRX STI 43,770Euro
        Audi TT-S 44,900Euro
        BMW 335i 45,000Euro
        Mitsubishi Evo X 45,950Euro
        Porsche Cayman 48,879Euro
        Audi S5 55,900Euro
        BMW M3 66,650Euro
        Chevrolet Corvette C6 68,890Euro
        Porsche 911 Carrera 69,600Euro

        Don´t make the mistake to transfer Euro car prices into US prices to compare it wit other US car prices.. compare europen prices with europen prices... here are the same differents between a Focus and a Evo as in the USA... only on a different money level..

        The Focus ST is a on the Europen market a good deal.. as it would be sold in the USA..
      • 7 Years Ago
      Love it!! But Ford can you please get rid of that goofy antenna. For the love of Pete, spend the extra $20 and put a sharkfin on that beauty.
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