Ford Focus ST 2021 long-term review
What better than a hot hatch to make up for the many miles of driving we’ve missed during lockdown?
*Why we’re running it: *In the absence of a new RS, is the latest Focus ST good enough to be considered a credible flagship fast Ford hatchback?
-Month 7 - Month 6 - Month 5 - Month 4 - Month 3 - Month 2 - Month 1 - Specs-
-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 7-
*It seems our all-conquering hot hatch has finally met its match - 5 May 2021*
It was early. Early enough for me to leave home in time to be at Lotus HQ at 8am. I live 250 miles from Hethel. But the Focus had a new noise. A pinging sound. And a new warning light on the dash. A flat tyre light. But I had nothing else to drive, the spare was only a spacesaver and it was too far to travel, even if the time taken to change it and the 50mph limit wouldn’t already mean I would be so late as to make the journey not just miserable but pointless, too.
So thank heaven for that on-board monitoring system, as it said not only that a tyre had lost pressure but how much. Despite the fact the car had sat for a couple of days, it was only about 5psi down on the others. So I pressed with only a slight vibration through the wheel to suggest all wasn’t quite right. But the pressure held steady, so I cruised slowly to Lotus, arriving without further incident.
Asked how my journey had been, I explained. So the kind chap from Lotus said that while I was skidding I about the test track in the last Elise, he would get an engineer to look at it. I didn’t see what could be done, because Lotus would hardly have a spare tyre for a Ford Focus ST, but I appreciated the gesture.
So I was somewhat surprised to have the car returned wearing exactly that. By freakish good fate, it turns out the rear tyre of an Evora and the front tyre of an ST are the same. Not just the same size, but the same make, speed rating, everything. More fortuitous still, Lotus was about to bin a new pair that had been so mildly flatspotted that only a Lotus chassis engineer would have been able to tell.
In the process, they had found that the problem wasn’t the old tyre (which still got binned for safety) but a bent rim, courtesy of one of the myriad potholes where I live. They had balanced it and said it would get me home. Unlike the old tyre, this one didn’t hang onto its air for long, but in these Covid times, I didn’t fancy handling air lines in every service station from Norfolk to Wales.
So I went to my brother’s house not far from Lotus, borrowed a cigarette lighter-powered pump, then limped home, one eye glued to the pressure readout, stopping every 15 minutes to reinflate it. In the end, a four-hour journey took six. It was only later I realised that I would have been quicker on the spacesaver after all…
*Pressure monitoring *Without it, I would probably have abandoned my journey. I was so grateful to be able to determine the extent of the problem.
*Ropey rubber *Those tyres look cool, but their liquorice-thin profiles take no punishment. A few weeks later, I hit another pothole and split a tyre wide open.
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*Easy target - 21 April 2021*
A male blackbird has taken against the Focus. He is the same as – or a direct descendant of – the one who tried to peck my long-term McLaren 720S to death a couple of years back. This time it’s a dirty protest. I’m told by someone who knows that he’s spotted another male blackbird invading his territory and hasn’t twigged he’s just looking at himself in the door mirror...
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-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 6-
*Hot Focus meets hot Puma - 3 March 2021*
Ford sells two hatchback STs for around £30k. The Puma ST is less powerful than the Focus and smaller inside, and it has a beam rear axle in place of the Focus’s multi-link set- up. Why would you buy one? If you care about driving or ride comfort, you wouldn’t. The Focus now has its first home-grown scalp to add to its growing tally of victories.
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-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 5-
*What most interests people about our hot hatch? That’s right, its paint colour… - 27 January 2020*
What question have I been asked most frequently since the Focus ST came into my care? Does it concern the performance of its 2.3-litre four-cylinder turbo engine? It doesn’t. Perhaps people are more interested in the balance of its front wheel-drive chassis or its ability to marshal the considerable potential of said powertrain? Not even close.
Maybe they save their enquiries for more practical matters, such as whether it will still transport a family of four across the countryside in a reasonable level of comfort? No, no, thrice no. By far the most popular question, which I’m probably asked more than all others combined, is: “Did you choose that colour?”
The answer is a resounding no. It’s just how the car came, its optional Orange Fury paint the work of some bright spark in the Ford press office who took the view that, all other things being equal, it would be better if the car were to stand out on the pages when stories like this were published. And it certainly does that.
What’s interesting to me is that no one is indifferent to the colour. Some absolutely love it, while others feel at least as strongly about it in the other direction. Apart from me. I’m genuinely not bothered about it either way, apart from when the car is dirty.
That’s partly because I’m colourblind, which doesn’t mean that I can’t see colours but does mean that colour means less to me than most people. My family are always banging on about the beauty of autumn leaves while I just see that they aren’t the same colour as they were in summer.
The other reason is that I sit on the inside looking out, so I spend very little time looking at or thinking about the colour of my car. Given the choice, I would always choose something dark and discreet, because the only thing I do know about bright colours is they attract attention, which I absolutely hate.
So I was minded to let the Focus get filthy to lessen its visual impact – and discovered I hate that too. If there’s one thing worse than a bright orange car, it’s a dirty bright orange car. So now I clean it every week – a small price to pay for a car that, in all other ways, is proving one of the most enjoyable long-termers I’ve ever run.
*Decent design *The overall look of the Focus is growing on me. It is not a design classic but is a decently styled example of its class of car.
*Keep it clean *I hate how the car looks when dirty, especially the fingerprints around the tailgate. It makes it look old and neglected, of which it is neither.
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*Not convinced it beats a Mk8 Golf GTI? This might persuade you - 6 January 2020*
The significance of the victory of our long-term Focus ST over the brand-new Volkswagen Golf GTI published on these pages a few months back shouldn’t be underestimated.
First, it wasn’t a contest the Ford was expected to win. The previous ST wouldn’t have stood a chance against any of the modern iterations of Volkswagen’s iconic hatchback. Second, the margin of victory was not small. It may not have been a comprehensive dusting, but there was clear air between them, leading to the biggest win I can remember a fast family Ford scoring against its most bitter rival.
I’m not going to delve back into it all now, but the ST won for two reasons: first, the Golf made it easier for the Focus by trying to be a bit more like it in the way it went down a decent road, spoiling the comfort and class that has for so long been the Golf’s USP. But it’s the second point on which I want to dwell for just a while now, namely that while the Volkswagen was getting less good at the things it has traditionally done well, the Ford was getting better and better in its particular area of expertise, turning the Golf’s mission into something of a fool’s errand.
And that area is handling. With clever front suspension, a limited-slip differential and what feels like a very robust approach to the stiffness of the rear anti-roll bar, it takes the unprepossessing formula of a nose-heavy, front-wheel-drive car with a gratuitous amount of torque and simply bends it to its will.
It has only a touch less torque than the old Focus RS (and a much better torque-to-weight ratio), yet it deals with it so well that I haven’t once ever thought the car would be improved in any way that matters to me by the addition of four-wheel drive. Indeed, I expect the additional mass would ruin its charm, at least in part. Torque steer is limited, traction impressive and electronic intervention delayed until you actually need it, not merely when the car thinks its most lily-livered driver might feel reassured by its presence.
But most of all, I love the way it gets into a corner. This is a very expressive car, it’s a fan of extravagant gestures and it’s not remotely afraid to wave its back end around if that’s what’s required to keep the trajectory of the front nailed into apex.
It’s extremely pitch-sensitive, perhaps not quite up there in the Peugeot 205 GTi league but more eager to allow weight transference to affect its attitude than any rival car, which is what gives the Focus such extreme agility for such a car.
What makes it really clever, however, is not this – which can be achieved by using something akin to a train rail as a rear bar – but how the car has been tuned so as still to feel trustworthy and stable. It’s a very neat trick, and the Honda Civic Type R is the only rival that does it so well.
Otherwise, all is well. Nothing has gone wrong – not that you would expect it to – and the ST continues to provide happy, indulgent daily transport. Long may it continue.
*No compromises *The way it manages to be one of the most entertaining and responsive hatchbacks while retaining sufficient civility still to cut it as a daily driver.
*…Well, maybe just one *There is a price to be paid in ride quality, but no more than you would expect in this class of car. The suspension is more firm than harsh, which I consider acceptable.
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-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 4-
*Ford meets Honda for another hot hatch showdown - 25 November 2020*
With the Focus ST fresh from a surprising yet convincing win over the new Volkswagen Golf GTI and having already put a V8 Mustang back in its box, I pitched it against my favourite hot hatch, the Honda Civic Type R. Could it claim this most prized scalp? Er, no. Not as a thing to drive, at least, but it was a very close contest in all-round terms.
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*Ford’s most potent take on its family hatch has a fine engine at heart - 21 October 2020*
Engines in fast hatchbacks are curious things. Today’s turbo technology means we can now prise huge power from their necessarily small capacities and install them in relatively affordable packages, so we tend to forgive them their faults. So what if they have a peaky delivery and sound rubbish? For that much power, and for this much money, what did you expect?
Which is just one more somewhat unexpected reason why I’m finding myself getting on with this Focus ST so well. Under its bonnet is anything other than just another hot hatchback meat-and-two-veg lump of high-output, forced-induction mediocrity. In this application it is actually quite brilliant.
Context is everything. This engine is also offered in the Mustang coupé. In that car, and despite it being presented in a more powerful state of tune, you cannot help concluding that this is the engine you have to have simply to keep your tax and fuel bills under control, when the thumping, thundering V8 is, of course, the motor you would choose in a heartbeat if only you could.
In the Focus, it provides no such dilemmas. There’s plenty to like here, most obviously its sound, which has such a characterful edge you can find yourself wondering if there are five cylinders under the bonnet rather than the claimed four. There are not.
But I like also that it’s not a very stressed motor. It has 276bhp, which is a little down on the 300bhp par for this kind of car, yet it comes from a somewhat bigger capacity of 2.3 litres rather than the 2.0-litre norm. And far from this being evidence of Ford not being on top of its game, it simply indicates a different, more subtle and more effective approach. Because while, yes, it has less power than the acknowledged leaders of this field, the Volkswagen Golf R and Honda Civic Type R, it actually has more torque than both, and when you accelerate it is torque, not power, that you feel. And it has a higher compression ratio than these rivals, so there’s less lag, too.
My only concern was the engine’s thirst, but even this is coming under control now it’s been nicely loosened with a few thousand miles under its wheels. It had been struggling to better 30mpg but now seems to be settling at around 35mpg across all settings. That still isn’t great, but if it’s the price to pay for such a cracking motor under your right boot, then that’s what I’ll continue to do.
*Engine *Smooth, characterful and responsive. Sparkling real-world performance and a touch of class.
*Fuel consumption *Improving, but still worse than I’d hope for from even a hot family hatchback.
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-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 3-
*Is our car more Soho or Noho in the confines of the West End? - 30 September 2020*
This is the report where I talk about the reasons you might deploy to explain to a significant other why dropping 30 grand on a Ford Focus is, in fact, and perhaps despite some purely superficial evidence to the contrary, an idea touched by genius. Phrases not to mention during this conversation include ‘limited-slip differential’, ‘more torque than the Focus RS’ and ‘exquisite lift-off oversteer’.
Instead, we’ll take it London, droning down the 50mph speed limit formerly known as the M4, park it in a ridiculously cramped underground car park and then take two hours to do three miles. Forget it being quicker to walk. On my journey from the West End to the south side of the Albert Bridge, I genuinely think it would have been quicker to crawl.
The Ford is actually pretty good on the motorway. You only hear the engine in sixth gear if you’re not listening to music, the brilliant Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres are commendably quiet and the ride quality is good enough so long as you remember to take it out of Sport mode and put it back into Normal. I’d prefer to keep the sharp throttle and lose the stiff damping for the motorway, but that’s not possible, apparently.
More important, however, are the excellent sport seats in the front (unless you’re unlucky enough to be sat behind them because they eat rear leg room), fine visibility and radar-operated active cruise control, which is far quicker to react and less annoying than in most other cars, including those costing two or three times as much.
In town, it’s less good. It feels quite big, never more so than when trying to squeeze into a tiny car park under a hotel, and while its Orange Fury paintwork attracts a lot of attention, I’m not convinced it’s always for the right reason. Or maybe I’m just being oversensitive. But the steering lock isn’t exactly generous and, while the clutch is light, if you’re manoeuvring at very low engine speeds and engage said clutch, you can hear the revs fall away quite suddenly before they’re caught by some clever anti-stall safety net.
Even in their totality, these observations don’t amount to serious criticism, just points of which I think anyone thinking of using a manual petrol ST in London should be abreast.
You should also be aware that the infotainment system, with its blue graphics, isn’t exactly beautiful, but it does work very well. At home we have a 2017 Volkswagen Golf whose colour touchscreen I’ve always considered to be the benchmark for cars in this class, but in terms of ease of use, the Focus’s runs it very close, if not for easiness on the eyes.
The optional (£100) telephone induction pad also works far better than that fitted to the Mercedes-Benz E300de Estate I ran prior to the Ford. So long as I lob the telephone in its approximate direction, it seems to get charged. In the Benz, I was always fiddling with the telephone to find the right spot and often arriving at my destination for a day’s work with an uncharged handheld device.
All I haven’t yet done in the ST is a really long journey. We were all set for my annual pilgrimage to the Spa Six Hours but, like so much else, Covid-19 ruined that. Hopefully by the next time we meet, I’ll have righted that wrong.
*Fuel Consumption *Not sure I exactly love the above but, as the engine loosens up, it’s getting considerably better
*More choice, please *It has four driving modes, but you can’t individually configure the powertrain and chassis maps.
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*Focus meets its American cousin - 26 September 2020*
I had a fascinating day out with the Focus, discovering whether a frontdrive 2.3-litre four-cylinder hatch costing £30k has any answer at all to a rear-drive 5.0-litre V8 coupé from the same manufacturer costing £20k more. The story containing the answer will appear in the magazine soon, but for now be advised that the highly tuned Mustang Bullitt doesn’t have it all its own way. At all.
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-Life with a Ford Focus ST: Month 2-
*Nothing to see here, honest - 26 August 2020*
Pics of long-termers on transporters tend to send their manufacturers into paroxysms of anxiety, but there need be no worries this time. When I recently drove an F8 Spider, I had to leave my Ford at Ferrari HQ, and when they came to collect their car, they brought the Focus ST. Even straight after the Fandango, it felt just fine – which is quite something, when you think about it.
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*Which is more fun on a mountain road, an NSX or our hot Ford? - 12 August 2020*
An interesting, if impromptu test. I had an appointment with the newly revised Honda NSX and it occurred to me that within the broad confines of what may loosely be described as ‘driver’s cars’, you could get further apart than these, but not much.
One is a mid-engined supercar costing £170,000 and has four-wheel drive, three electric motors to supplement its V-formation engine and a paddle-shift gearbox. The other is a front-engine, front-drive hatch with manual transmission and under half the power and costs less than a fifth of the money. Just how humiliated would my poor old Focus ST feel by comparison on a really great road?
The NSX was flashingly fast in a straight line, had a very pleasant engine yowl and, when it came to the corners, it gripped and gripped and gripped. Its damping control is genuinely outstanding and, by the time I’d flung it across the mountain road and returned, I was full of admiration for it. It is a genuinely impressive, massively competent and very thoroughly engineered car.
But here’s the thing: this £30k Ford is simply more fun to drive.
Surprised? You should have seen my face. But I got into it straight after the NSX and drove it at the same effort level on the same route in the same conditions, and this is what I found.
I didn’t covet the NSX’s performance as much as I enjoyed the Ford’s eagerness for the open road. When a truck came the other way, I’d lift in the Honda just to give me a little more time to judge the gap. In the Focus, my foot stayed down. In the NSX – and in this respect, I could be describing any modern supercar – I felt I was always using only a fraction of the available ability.
You can’t hold the throttle open for long before unspeakable numbers start to appear on the dial – nor can you sensibly get anywhere near the limit in almost every corner. You feel you’re sampling about 30% of what the car has to offer. In the Ford, it’s nearer 80%. In the corners, you play with the car’s attitude with the throttle pedal, while in a straight line you are entrusted with the task of changing gears all by yourself. Imagine that…
I’m not saying the Focus ST is a more capable car than an NSX: it’s not and it’d be ludicrous to suggest it were. But it is more involving, and I think for those who love to drive, that is a more important consideration.
Back in the more real world, the ST is getting on with daily driving reasonably well. I like that I can fling my telephone into the central cubbyhole and it just starts charging, but the cheapness of the interior is starting to irk slightly. It’s just a bit too rough around the edges inside.
*Uncompromised fun *Great chassis adjustability, unlimited enthusiasm for the open road but still a great daily driver.
*Some cabin materials *Cheap interior plastics are a price worth paying if it means the money saved is spent on making it fun. But I still don’t like ’em.
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*A leak that wasn’t - 29 July 2020*
It was a colleague who alerted me to a steady drip of water from the Focus’s rear exhaust box. Even I know that’s not a particularly good sign. Water is meant to circulate the engine, not travel through it and exit via the pipes. Happily, as soon as the engine was warm, the drip stopped. Condensation in the pipe – no more, no less. And I breathe again.
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*The future is orange, but is it bright? We check in at the 1000-mile mark - 22 July 2020*
Now that the 1000th mile has rolled under the Focus ST’s elegant 19in rims, a few preliminary thoughts – some, all or none of which may be modified, contradicted or confirmed as the months elapse.
Firstly, and I guess most importantly, it feels like the kind of car that I want a fast Ford to be. Which means it’s more than just fast. It has urgency and attitude, too. It’s not a suave sophisticate like a hot Volkswagen Golf, and nor is it intended to be. Its suspension is notably firm, which would be properly problematic were its movements not so expertly controlled by some exquisite dampers. I want to find out more about them and will over time, and indeed the Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tyres it wears, which my early outings suggest might be very special indeed.
The only interesting journey it has done to date is a cross-country run to Malvern for me to drive Morgan’s new Plus Four and not-quite-so-new Plus Six – and it remains instructive how, despite the fundamental issues of uneven weight distribution and front-wheel drive, a well-developed hatchback can be just as much fun to drive as a classic front/mid-engined, rear-wheel-drive sports car with double-wishbone front suspension.
I gave it a bit of a squirt on the way back, although still within the spirit of the running-in guidance, and was surprised not only by the response of the engine but also its surprisingly tuneful voice. Someone has thought hard about that.
But I’m hoping it starts to use less fuel as the motor loosens up. At the moment, any attempt at even slightly brisk driving drops the average MPG down to the mid-20s, and even if you’re just cruising at the legal limit on the motorway, about 35mpg is about the best you can expect.
If there’s a disappointment, it’s the interior, which looks somewhat downmarket compared with its most plush rivals, although no-one could fault the amount of standard equipment that’s loaded on the ST.
It all works reasonably well, too; there are just too many cheap hard plastics in there. Even so, these early weeks have proven promising. Next time I report, I’ll have a far better understanding of its capabilities.
*Promising chassis *Grippy and exceptionally damped, yet with more-thanacceptable ride quality.
*Downmarket cabin *This may be a £33,660 car, but the interior quality is that of one costing half as much.
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-Life with a Focus ST: Month 1-
*Welcoming the Focus ST to the fleet - 8 July 2020*
I have been a fan of fast Fords for as long as I’ve known how to drive, a fact I owe almost entirely to my mate Ben. He was a somewhat better-resourced teenager than I, which meant that while I chugged about the place in a long succession of aged, arthritic rusting wrecks that were dead slow even when new, Ben had a Ford Fiesta XR2. The original: white paint, round headlights, pepper-pot wheels and low-profile tyres. I was hooked from the moment I drove it.
Of course, the fortunes of rapid Ford hatchbacks have ebbed and flowed over the years, but I think the company has been consistently good of late at producing a successful string of cars that combine speed, response and just a touch of back-to-basics honesty just in case you were ever likely to forget that, above all, these are cars of the people. So I’m looking forward to the months to come behind the wheel of this new and quite exceptionally orange Focus ST.
Anyone who’s paid attention to the long-termers I’ve run on these pages for the last many years will notice they’ve all had very sober colours in common: dark blues and greys mainly. This is not a coincidence: I have no desire to be noticed driving any car at all. I can remember swapping a BMW i8 for a 911 a few years back and delighting in the anonymity the Porsche provided.
Well, I’m clearly not going to be getting any of that here. But I guess if you’re going for an outrageous colour, you might as well go the whole way, and it might as well be on a fast Ford. Needless to say, however, this was not a colour I chose – it just came that way. Indeed, I had no choice in the spec at all other than to insist the car came with petrol rather than diesel power, hatchback rather than estate bodywork and manual instead of automatic gears.
So when it turned up and I started to push and prod about, I was startled by the amount of goodies and gadgets that had been loaded onto it, everything from radar-controlled cruise control to a heated steering wheel. Ford press cars used to be known by journalists as ‘Bob Wright Specials’ thanks to aforementioned (and quite brilliant) Ford press fleet man’s predilection for loading his cars with every available option, so I thought this ST might be some kind of tribute act to the recently retired Bob. But no: it’s all standard.
I’ll talk more about this at greater length a little bit further down the line. In the meantime, be advised that, orange ‘Fury’ paint aside, the only actual options this car carries are a wireless charging pad and Ford’s Performance pack, which provides launch control, a track mode, rev-matched downshift and an upshift indicator, all for a piffling £250. The car had only done 150 miles by the time it arrived, almost all accrued on its way from Ford’s UK head office in Essex to my home in the Welsh borders, so it will be a while before I get to drive it in the way I suspect it will shortly beg to be driven. And I’m fascinated by the powertrain.
The engine is a four-cylinder unit, but sourced from America where it’s more usually found in the entry-level Mustang. Its 276bhp output sounds rather modest, particularly when you consider its 2.3-litre capacity – remember Mercedes is now blasting way more than 400bhp from just 2.0 litres – but the devil appears to be in the detail.
A low-inertia twin-scroll turbo promises rapid response and more torque than some far more powerful competitors, including the Honda Civic Type R, the Mercedes-AMG A35 and the Volkswagen Golf R. It also has a form of anti-lag technology on it, where the airflow into the engine can be held open for up to three seconds after the driver lifts off, meaning the turbo compressor wheel is not slowed. And then there’s the differential, which is effectively an e-diff: open most of the time as you would want, but capable of locking up and sending half the power to each front wheel to maximise traction.
This, then, seems to be much more than just another rapid hatchback. It may look somewhat garish but deep down it seems that engineers have thought hard about how a car like this should behave on the road and not just gone down the headline-grabbing route, which, with the power that engine could clearly deliver, they could easily have done.
So far, and thanks to Covid-19, it’s only done short local journeys, but as the country opens up, so will its horizons be peeled back. What will it be like to live with relative to, say, a Golf R? How will its handling compare with the aforementioned Civic? Will the already obvious cheapness of some of the cabin fitments make me wish I’d gone for an A35 instead?
I have no better idea than you what the answers to all these questions might be. But I’m already looking forward to finding out.
The last Ford Focus we had on our fleet was a vision of anonymity. It was an ST-Line model, free of the lurid paint and associated frippery of Andrew’s full-fat ST. I’m excited to find out how its excellent poise is heightened in ST form – even if it does mean drawing attention to myself.
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-Ford Focus ST specification-
*Specs: Price New* £32,510 *Price as tested* £33,660 *Options * Orange Fury paint £800, Ford Performance pack £250, wireless charging £100
*Test Data: Engine* 4 cyls, 2261cc, turbocharged, petrol *Power* 276bhp at 5500rpm *Torque* 310lb ft at 3000-4000rpm *Gearbox* 6-spd manual *Kerb weight *1468kg *Top speed* 155mph *0-62mph* 5.7sec *Fuel economy *34.4mpg *CO2* 179g/km *Rivals* Volkswagen Golf GTI, Renault Mégane RS, Honda Civic Type R
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