2006 Ford XR5 Turbo
WHAT WE LIKED
Solid competent handling
Very flexible and grunty turbo engine
Tight direct steering
NOT SO MUCH
No auto transmission available
Uses premium unleaded fuel
No cruise control
When Ford replaced its venerable Laser small car with the Focus in 2002, it delivered a car that dramatically lifted the dynamic standards in the small car class. The three and five door hatch offered a new benchmark in ride and handling that was just asking for a hot hatch version. That car arrived the following year with the ST 170, which although lifted the engine outputs from its 2.0-litre four cylinder to 127kW and 196Nm, didn't quite realise the potential offered by the chassis and was more of a warmed over product rather than a true hot hatch.
With the new generation Focus having been launched last year, the car maintained its solid dynamic capabilities and now with the arrival of the XR5 Turbo version, Ford at last has a hot hatch deserving of the title.
Unlike the previous ST170 three-door hatch, the new XR5 Turbo is a five-door, and together with the added practicality, it also delivers a real performance package in a small car that is a true rival for one of the most popular pocket rockets, Volkswagen's Golf GTi.
The 2.5-litre five-cylinder Focus XR5 Turbo is available as a sole six-speed manual only model priced at $35,990. Options are limited to metallic paint - red is the only solid colour - which costs $300 for most colours although rises to $1800 for the four process vibrant orange - and a $2000 leather pack. The leather version also sees the rear three-seat bench seat replaced with a sculpted two person Recaro seat.
Ford's second-generation Focus was, to a certain extent, a bit of a retreat on the design front from the startling, distinctive, sharp-edged lines of the original and according to Ford at the time of its launch, it was aimed to make the car less polarising and more appealing to a wider audience.
For the XR5, Ford has also been relatively restrained in pushing the sports visuals with a body kit that while distinctive, remains fairly subtle. Up front, a new bumper is as much about practicalities as aesthetics with the big wide mesh covered openings necessary to allow sufficient airflow for the turbo. Likewise, the big wheel arches are required to enable enough room for the big 18-inch alloys shod with low profile 225/40 series tyres that are a full 30mm wider than the standard Focus tyres.
At the rear, a roof spoiler suggests the car's performance potential while the exhaust pipes at each corner are set wide to accommodate the huge muffler that was developed to ensure the car's aural presence was as strong as its visual one.
Inside, there is no doubting the car's sports focus either with body hugging Recaro seats up front - and in the rear with the leather option - a thick rimmed three-spoke steering wheel, plenty of aluminium highlights and a triple set of dials for oil temperature, pressure and turbo boost mounted on the dash.
This latter, however, is a bit of a furphy as it marks a maximum 1.2 bar at the limit of the red zone, when in reality the engine's turbocharging is limited to a maximum boost pressure of 0.65 bar.
The first thing that strikes you as you slip behind the wheel of the XR5 Turbo is the superb comfort offered by the seats. These are not simply bigger bolstered versions of the standard pews but rather about as close as you can get to a full racing seat in a road car. The seamless connection between the backrest and side bolsters provides excellent body hugging grip for almost any sized frame and there is plenty of support in the lumbar region and on the sides of the squab. They also look pretty good too with red, orange or grey inserts.
The driver's seat is adjustable in eight directions and the rake and reach adjustable steering column ensure it is easy to get as good a driving position as possible. There is plenty of room up front and in the rear 60/40 split three-seat bench, there is adequate room for adults on short trips around town.
As the top of the range Focus in the lineup, there is a reasonable list of comfort and convenience equipment with the standard kit including air conditioning, power windows and mirrors, remote locking, and a slick black-faced eight-speaker in-dash six-disc Sony CD audio system. Keeping an eye on your speed however remains a sole driver responsibility with cruise control not available.
Given the XR5's performance potential, there is no shortage of safety gear which, on the passive front, amounts to an airbag count of six - dual front, front side and the only car in the Focus range with side curtain bags - and the front seatbelts offer pretensioners.
Apart from the very competent chassis, electronic active safety aids include Ford's version of ESP dubbed DSC (dynamic stability control), traction control and anti-lock brakes with electronic brakeforce distribution and emergency brake assist. To cope with the extra grunt, the brakes themselves comprise bigger front ventilated and solid rear discs and bigger four piston calipers on the front.
At the heart of the Focus XR5 Turbo lies a 2.5-litre five-cylinder turbocharged engine that comes to Ford courtesy of sister company Volvo. This narrow angle long-stroke undersquare all-alloy engine delivers a maximum power of 166kW at 6000rpm and peak torque of 320Nm between 1600rpm and 4000rpm. With plenty of power potential simply from the large capacity engine, turbo boost pressure is limited to a relatively mild 0.65 bar meaning that there is no discernible lag or monster boost in the mid range.
Drive to the front wheels is through a close ratio six-speed manual gearbox with a shorter final drive than the standard car's five-speed box with both fifth and sixth as overdrive gears.
The mechanical package for Focus XR5 is, however, much more than an engine with the car incorporating a stiffer front end structure with additional bracing. The suspension retains its MacPherson strut front and control blade rear arrangement but the dampers have been recalibrated, spring rates have been stiffened by about 30 per cent at both ends, the rear anti-roll bar increased by 5 per cent and the car sits 15mm lower.
The electro-hydraulic assisted rack and pinion steering too has undergone significant revisions with a ratio that is about 8 per cent quicker than the standard with just 2.4 turns lock to lock. The steering also offers three electrically adjustable modes of comfort, standard and the default sport that alter the amount of assistance.
With the small car segment booming in Australia as fuel prices continue to remain high, the number of carmakers offering a top end sports version continues to grow. Heading the list is the latest version of the Volkswagen Golf GTi that with its European pedigree commands a $4000 premium over the Focus. The XR5 Focus, however, also comes directly out of Germany unlike its bread and butter siblings that are sourced from South Africa.
Other Euros in the mix include Renault's Megane RenaultSport 225 Cup that ups the price ante again to $43K and while the Peugeot 206 GTi 180 is a match for the Focus on price, it is in reality a class smaller and a three-door.
Around the corner, Mazda is set to launch its front drive Mazda3 MPS that uses the same turbo 2.4 as the bigger Mazda6 MPS - and also shares the same chassis as the Focus. Holden will also add a 147kW SRi 2.0-litre turbo Astra three-door later this year and performance partner, HSV, goes one better with a fully blown 176kW VXR Astra that will be priced under $43,000.
ON THE ROAD
With the standard Focus already having a particularly well-sorted chassis, we awaited the bigger engined sports version with bated breath. And Ford has certainly delivered on expectations.
From the minute you turn the key and engine rumbles into life, this car sounds serious - well and truly more serious than its under whelming ST170 predecessor.
Put the boot into the right pedal and the car pulls forward with great enthusiasm with a delivery of peak torque almost just off idle. The big tyres offer outstanding grip, and only a hint of torque steer, as the car surges forth.
The gearshift is slick and smooth and well up to the task of regular shifting but with an absolutely flat torque curve delivering maximum grunt between 1600rpm and 4000rpm, the engine is so flexible that if you don't want to, you can keep gearshifts to an absolute minimum. It will happily pull from 40kmh in fourth while cruising around town you can almost drop it into third and forget about it.
But this engine and the entire package were developed to be driven - hard - and it certainly does deliver when you are a bit more active with the gearshift.
Pushing into a tight corner, the car sits flat and stable and follows your desired line with aplomb, pushing driver confidence levels to even greater heights.
The steering is delightfully fluid and tight with a good degree of feedback as to what is happening at the front wheels. Although the launch drive was limited to about 250kms, you get the feeling that over time, you could get to know this car very well and anticipate its dynamic behaviour with precision.
The ride is definitely firm, but despite the very low profile tyres, there is surprising amount of compliance in the suspension with little trade off in ride comfort for the excellent handling. Bigger holes and sharp ruts are noticed but still well damped while smaller road irregularities are simply soaked up. The comfort factor is also definitely helped by the superb seats.
With the arrival of the XR5, Ford at last has a real hot hatch and although it would take a comprehensive back-to-back test to confirm, it may even have a class leader when it comes to pocket rockets.