Want a hot hatch with stunning road manners?
Then Ford's ST170 which goes on sale here in March may be just what you're looking for.
The car's name stands for Sport Technology, 170 horsepower. Its double overhead camshaft motor has variable inlet valve timing, a new inlet manifold, and a cylinder head with larger inlet valves. There are also exhaust improvements.
Though it's new to New Zealand, the Focus will be almost five years old when it goes on sale here. NZ-bound Focuses are 2003 models with the late 2001 styling revamp.
That included new bumpers, jewel-effect headlights, small grille modifications, new interior trims and colours. An all-new Focus arrives in Europe late in 2004.
The 127kW 2.0-litre ST170 is the only three-door in the Focus range that will be sold in New Zealand. It has a six-speed Getrag manual gearbox. There's no automatic option which should please purists who believe auto gearboxes have no place in cars with sporting pretensions.
The car has four-wheel disc brakes. Four-channel ABS anti-skid braking is standard and the ST170 has traction control with ESP (electronic stability program).
The Focus ST170 is a distinctive and good-looking car. Climb in through the large door and slither into the driver's seat and you know immediately that you're in a car that is intended for serious driving.
The sports seats redefine the phrase for a road car. They hug you tightly, yet gently. They're so snug - yet comfortable - that you find you don't need to brace your feet and knees during hard cornering. The seats hold you in place just like race car seats. We've never encountered such supportive seats in a road car.
The steering wheel is leather-wrapped and nicely-sized, its diameter just right.
The gear lever is perfectly-placed and the alloy competition-style pedals are ideally placed.
The feeling is of an environment designed by keen drivers for keen drivers.
Flick the ignition and the 2.0-litre motor burbles into life.
The clutch is pleasingly light while retaining good feel and it takes up cleanly.
The Focus gets off the line without fuss and the gear lever moves precisely and quickly through the ratios.
We didn't use sixth in city running. It's really a motorway or open road cruising ratio and takes away some of the car's urgent feel when you're in the mood for relaxing motoring.
But it's when you hit winding country roads that the ST170 truly comes alive.
The chassis balance is little short of amazing. British testers have complained that the car needs more power, but we didn't feel we were under-served by the 2.0-litre four.
The ST170 takes around eight seconds to reach 100km/h which isn't quick for a contemporary hot hatch where figures in the high six second bracket are setting the benchmark. Top speed is said to be 215km/h.
Though the Brits may complain about a lack of grunt, the ST170 will develop torque steer and front wheel scrabble if you floor the throttle in second and third gears.
Our feeling about the power is that it's adequate and the outstanding chassis allows you to make full use of every kilowatt or Newton metre.
We were amazed, after a few settling-in kilometres, at the car's ability in the twisty stuff.
We found we weren't even contemplating using the reassuringly-strong disc brakes on corners on which we usually give the pedal a brush with the right foot before turning-in.
It wasn't a conscious decision. We just found we weren't even touching the brake pedal, the car feeling so composed as it hurtled towards the corner.
Even bends where we usually give the brakes a strong gentle jab before turning-in were being entered without touching the brakes.
It's hard to describe because it wasn't something we were doing consciously.
The other thing was that cornering speeds were up on most corners on our regular 160-kilometre handling test route.
The car felt so good the planned two-hour drive stretched into three and if we hadn't needed to get back to the office to work on the magazine we would happily have been out there for three hours more.
The ST170 corners flatly and in a totally vice-free manner. The torque steer is the only real indicator that the front wheels are driving as well as steering the car.
On our little multi-corner "squiggle," the ST170 outshone the previous champion, the Mini Cooper.
It was faster, equally composed, equally agile. But the ST170 motor's greater power over the rather lack-lustre Mini Cooper engine meant the car was much more satisfying.
On other demanding sections of road the ST170 would happily take at 100km/h corners on which some cars with sporting pretensions struggle to feel good at 90.
Never once did the car lose composure. Never once did it give us a moment for concern.
In fact if you're driving at 100km/h, the chassis' huge reserves make the brake pedal virtually redundant on all but the tightest corners.
Those form-hugging and supportive seats help instill confidence in the driver. They simply make you feel at one with the car.
They combine with the vice-free chassis to make the ST170 probably the most composed car we've driven in the past year.
Nor is that excellent handling achieved at the expense of passenger comfort. The ride quality is supple and bump absorbent, adding to the car's appeal.
Standard equipment includes air-conditioning, remote central door-locking, powered heated side mirrors, single slot Compact Disc player and front power windows. The safety package includes a centre rear three-point seatbelt, driver and passenger airbags, anti-submarining front seats and front seatbelt pre-tensioners.
The internal hatchback release is at the top right hand side of the dashboard.
The ST170's bucket seats have blue cloth inserts and large leather side bolsters.
The car has race car-look aluminium pedals, multi-spoked 17-inch alloy wheels and heavy-duty brakes.
The ST170's sports suspension includes new springs and dampers and revised front lower control arms. Spring rates are higher, stabiliser bars are larger and the power steering gearing is revised.
Ford got the hot hatch class rolling here in 1981 with the Laser Sport. By modern standards the Mazda 323-derived hot Laser was slow and rather crude. But for its time it was quick and it handled well even if the steering wheel transmitted every road shock to your arms which felt like they'd had a real workout at the end of a long journey.
The ST170 is a thoroughly modern car, refined and far-removed from the rather crude Laser Sport and its descendants.
But what the Focus has in common with those Lasers or yore is that the Blue Oval brand is at last back in the hot (well, allright, warm) hatch business.
There's at last a small Ford that offers NZ motorists real driving excitement.
Ford NZ has yet to announce a price for the ST170.
Auto Point Road Test team; story by Mike Stock. Photographs by Ford.