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.

Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2008 Ford Focus ST

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.

Related GalleryFirst Drive: 2008 Ford Focus ST

Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

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