Ford Focus ST
When Ford introduced the original Focus, back in 1998, it was hailed as a triumph of mass market design, a people's car that incorporated the swoops, angles and eccentricities of the avant-garde. It's true, the original Focus didn't look like much else on the road, and being a Ford, it was sufficiently well engineered to be a perfectly reasonable thing to drive.
Several generations later, and the Focus still hovers around the top of the table of best-selling cars, certainly in the UK, its once controversial looks long since softened by the profusion of cuts, quirks, scoops and angular surfacing that is now almost universally favoured by contemporary car designers.
A few years into the Focus' life the company launched the RS (for Rallye Sport), a tweaked and very limited performance variant. It became a cult classic, with just 4,500 built. The second generation Focus also branched out into performance variants, with more hardcore RS preceded by a still swift ST.
That pattern has been replicated in the third generation Focus, launched in 2010 and designed from outset as a world car; a hatchback for Europe and the US (where it's considered ultra compact) and a saloon for China and Asia-Pacific.
The next RS is still 12 months away, but the new ST has now hit the streets. Like its predecessor, this is not a machine for shrinking violets. Fast Fords have always had a slightly lairy image, harking back to their origins as tuning shop specials, (relatively) cheap and cheerful racing cars.
Car types are forever banging on about 'premium feel,' fetishising the tactility of a dashboard or door capping and extrapolating high-end design from the perceived quality of the materials. But this overlooks the fact that high quality design is also about form, not just material. We're all for sybaritic sensuality and a visible sign of craft skills, but sometimes the best idea is the one that's rendered in stark black plastic.
The car's interior elements are somewhat reminiscent of the golden age of portable hi fi, when added bling in the form of unusual angles, arrays of lights and random shapes were all the rage. The Focus suffers from this fussiness, and even the graphics on the infotainment screen have a certain strained quality, trying too hard to be contemporary and failing in the process. But really, none of these things ought to matter, and they don't, once you've pushed start and headed off. The ST is a delight to drive - easy and forgiving but also more than capable of an (in)decent turn of speed.
Car makers swing back and forth between two strategies; building a collection of physically similar products or setting out to clearly differentiate each model. Even though technology allows styling changes to be executed faster and faster, long-term strategies like these are like oil tankers and direction changes take a while to filter through. As a result, Ford is committed to the sweeping design programme it began in 2005, ushering in a broad design language that united everything from the 2008 Fiesta - billed as a 'key waypoint' in this new strategy - through to the new B-Max and the large Galaxy MPV.
This new design is all part of a concerted effort to tap into the demands of an increasingly well-informed consumer, someone who wants both a sense of heritage and a sense of futurism. The Focus won't set the design world on fire, to be sure, but it's a brilliant piece of performance car design, a populist rocket that demonstrates how mass market cars need never be dull.