A Less Hot Hatch

I’ve been thinking lately. A good hot hatch should always be front wheel drive. You can keep your poxy ‘Nitrous Blue’ RS with its ‘Ken Block Mode’ and give me a good old five-speed with three pedals and power to the front wheels. The latest uber-generation of hot hatches has been tarred by their newfound philosophy of aspiring to be micro-supercars. They’re no longer a loutish method of transport from AusPost-robbery to centrelink appointment, they are cars trying to compete in a luxury performance segment that should be reserved for the likes of BMW M and Audi RS models. Cars like the Golf R are ruined by being too big, too heavy and too full of gadgets, gizmos and electronic trickery that sap the fun out of mechanical driving, which is what a hot hatch is supposed to offer.

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So rather than spending my hard earned on the latest and ‘supposedly greatest’ offering from a manufacturer who is building the wrong type of car; I hit the depths Gumtree and went down the rabbit hole of hot hatches from the late naughties, hoping to find a car with a bit of character. Something that could drag itself by the front paws and let the rear turn into a tripod under some enthusiastic cornering.

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The Ford Focus ST is what I ended up with. A car designed in the UK, built in Germany, fitted a Swedish heart, then finally rebadged as an XR5 Turbo upon immigration down under. And on the surface it looks great. Australia never got the spritely looking three-door in anything but the later RS, so to overcome its family-orientated five-doors, the XR comes loaded with enlarged gills, fins, sills, bumpers and pretty much every body-kit component an avid Need For Speed fan could have asked for in 2007. The resulting muscular stance is a dead giveaway this Focus is a step above your average faded red shopping trolley.

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Featuring an inline five-cylinder engine under the bonnet, it produces around 225bhp from factory and a whump of torque from the beefy 2.5 litre capacity. Dynamically, it’s quite an interesting car to drive. It’s not particularly fast, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking character. Flat footing from takeoff will cause a lively chirp from the tyres before the torquesteer attempts to wrench the wheel from your hands. Driving without the traction control is an absolute no-no unless you’re an overconfident Ari Vatanen impersonator. The open diff in the front means one wheel is going to break loose no matter what your plans are, you’ve just got to feather the right foot and pray to your revelvent gods.

Cornering is mostly good, there’s plenty of grip with that weighty engine nestled above the front axle - though, turn too tightly or too aggressively, and it will snap oversteer, particularly on liftoff when the weight of car shoots forward. From a soft-launch standing start, it does fall victim to turbo lag. Boost really seems to live at the further end of the rev range, but as a compromise, the 5-pot makes one of the best induction noises I’ve ever heard from a factory-car this side of Maranello.

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I recently dumped the best part of $1,000 sorting out some decent tyres, then a bit more making sure the suspension and brakes were in good order. My dad always used to bang on about how I should be sensible and buy a Ford, wasting money on fixing all these European supersports is a worse economic decision than eating smashed avo on gluten-free toast. Well, less than 5,000km into my motoring life at the helm of the Focus has left anything but a reliable impression. Multiple check engine lights, ABS sensor failures, blown CV joints and wheel bearings leading to misfires and boost-reduction limp modes have somewhat plagued my ownership thus far. Disappointing.

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On a more positive note, the interior feels particularly old-school which gives the Focus a bit of crap car character. Up front you get two big Recaro buckets which are supportive and horrendously uncomfortable to sit in for more than 11 minutes - somewhat reminiscent of the race buckets in an old Escort. The NVH levels in the cabin are about as refined as a refrigerator from the Soviet Union; the whole car bangs, groans and creaks over the slightest bump. The steering wheel has no reach adjustment so you can never quite get it in the right place. Worst of all is the pedal box. All three pedals seem to fall at different heights and are oddly spaced apart. Heel-toeing isn’t happening unless you’ve got size 19 feet and can reach across the chasm in between the brake and throttle. The clutch also has an awful habit of hanging around at varying heights, so you never quite know where the bite point is going to be.

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I think the main problem for me is that this generation of XR5 is too big to be a proper hot hatch. Just like the latest Focus RS, it is slugging above its weight. Trying to be all things to all men. Perhaps if they’d kept it more along the size and weight of the Mk-1 Focus it would have been for the better. You drive the XR5 and it feels big. It is reasonably quick, but the high driving position means you never really feel the sensation of speed until you’re on the naughty side of 150kph.

My daily drive, the V8-powered BMW X5, which I repeatedly harp on about, manages to act as a big, comfortable cruiser, but when you bury your right foot, comes alive and shrinks to the dynamic feel of a 3-Series. Its lumbering weight hidden behind a curtain of a 7,000RPM redline and M-Tuned suspension.

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I had really high expectations for the fast Ford. It’s by no stretch a bad car. In a single car garage, aside from the appalling comfort factor, I think it could be a really good daily driver. It’s big enough to transport your IKEA crap, kids and dog all in one go, and you can have fun on a twisty road in the right conditions. But as a dedicated weekender for a Sunday afternoon blast? Given the choice, I took the BMW every time.