Compact For America
Like Tantalus straining for one lousy fruit, America's unquenched thirst for European-market hatchbacks has been a tale of pure pathos. Here, the three-decade odyssey of homegrown small cars was downright tragic; a grim march through rusting Chevrolet Chevettes, oil-spewing Dodge Omnis, and wannabe hot hatches of all tacked-on stripes.
The Ford Focus rewrote that musty book in late 1999. Finally drawing on its European division's superior small-car expertise, Ford's international player instantly became Detroit's most competitive small car ever. Fourteen years later, the Focus's winning style and substance have nearly extinguished memories of fiery Pintos and foul Escorts, but that evolutionary path was strewn with bumps and blind spots.
The Focus ST, as the rocketing apogee of this year's Focus All-Star lineup, performs a valuable public service. This 252-hp rival to the Volkswagen GTI reminds enthusiasts of just how far our small cars have come. Its acclaimed arrival instills hope that America has joined the first world of small cars and that Ford will no longer deny hot-hatch-loving Americans, however small their number.
To better understand and celebrate the Focus's All-Star win, we arranged a family reunion in Provence, France. Invitations went to the range-topping 2013 Focus ST and its honored European forebears: a rebellious 2009 Focus RS, a 2005 Focus ST, and the seminal 1998 Focus.
Like any family reunion, the get-together sparks fond memories but also dredges up old resentments. As disappointed Yanks will tell you, the 225-horse '05 ST and the 305-hp RS -- two of the greatest Focuses ever -- were never granted American visas. Ditto for the 350-hp Focus RS500, a limited-edition legend of 2010 and 2011. Instead, Americans got the briefest tease of Focus performance, the pesky 170-hp SVT Focus of 2002 through 2004.
We start from the 100-hp beginning, a right-hand-drive 1998 Focus secured from Ford's heritage collection in the United Kingdom. Parked next to the tangerine scream ST, the first Focus looks beyond humble with its tiny fifteen-inch wheels, mint-green-appliance paint, and 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Yet it's worth recalling what a worldwide splash this Ford made. Even in Europe, the Focus received numerous Car of the Year awards. To Americans weaned -- more accurately, malnourished -- on Motown's bottom-feeders, the Focus, when it eventually reached us, seemed like the space shuttle in comparison. We subsequently named it our Automobile of the Year in 2000.
Even today, the Focus's good genes shine through on a fast climb up the Alps. The old '98 proves surprisingly game, keeping the muscle-bound ST in sight on snow-dampened roads despite producing less than half the power. The original's supple chassis and steering, steadily improved upon, remains a key to the modern Focus's charm. Its backbreaking seats have given way to pleasing chairs, including the robust, teenage-dream Recaros of the ST -- their fabric ribbed for your pleasure.
Next up, the right-hand-drive ST of 2005, less than a year removed from Ford's first full redesign of the Focus, which was also when Ford suits hoped for Americans to suffer some Men in Black–style amnesia. The company skipped selling the second-generation car here entirely, continuing to fob off a first-generation, tarted-up Focus in native showrooms. (Premium small cars, Ford's blinkered Detroit execs insisted, were too expensive, too weird, and too European for mainstream U.S. shoppers.) That insult wouldn't be rectified until 2012, when Ford finally put America on the same third-generation page as the rest of the world.
What we lost becomes clear from the Audi-like thrum of the '05 ST and its turbocharged, Volvo-based, in-line five-cylinder engine. Americans would have swooned over the evolved, soft-touch interior. There is even a navigation system with a female-voiced route helper, which in 2005 would have seemed unimaginably posh in a home-market compact.
That 2.5-liter engine peaked with the RS models. On the road, a noisily spinning turbo, Quaife limited-slip differential, and 305 high-strung ponies make the '09 RS seem more like a SEMA special than a production car. Yet in the likely event that another RS is in the cards, Ford honchos suggest that this time it'll be sold on our shores.
Although the RS models remain history's most hard-core Focuses, the new ST crushes sour domestic grapes with every blast of turbo juice and lift-throttle shake of its shapely hindquarters. The ability to induce easy, controllable oversteer -- in a front-wheel-drive car -- is a counterintuitive marvel that has eluded highfalutin compacts from the Mini Cooper to decades of VW GTIs. This tightrope balance was bequeathed by Jost Capito, the former head of global performance vehicles at Ford, whose résumé also includes running Porsche motorsports and Red Bull's Formula 1 team. The German-born engineer has since departed to lead Volkswagen's racing efforts but left Ford's performance unit in similarly energetic, capable hands.
Enthusiasts can and should geek out over the ST, a hatchback that smokes roads without torching the budget. But let's remember that the vast majority of people will buy, and be thrilled by, a standard-issue Focus -- an All-Star last year, too, we'll remind you -- whether hatchback or sedan. That car's bedrock brilliance starts with a dynamic chassis and a 160-hp, 2.0-liter, direct-injected four-cylinder. Closer to the surface, the Ford's formidable design and features set an alluring new standard for affordable American cars. Even with all that, Ford still wasn't satisfied. The Focus Electric plays the green card, slapping a lithium-ion battery in back and that cribbed Aston Martin grille on the front. Sure, the Electric is expensive and short-ranged, but that's true for all early-adopter EVs. More important, the Focus's essential dynamic goodness isn't squelched by those weighty lithium-ion battery packs and complex electronics.
With the Focus ST finally speaking the international language of turbo shove, who knows? Perhaps Ford will gift us with the overachieving 123-hp, 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder that's been introduced in European models and is currently penciled in for our 2014 Fiesta.
Yes, the Focus proves that Motown squirts can be All-Stars, too. But there's more to it. The scrappy Ford confronts Detroit's most enduring, pernicious mind-set and kills it dead: That small cars are a necessary evil, loss leaders and CAFE fudgers designed to keep factories and rental counters humming. And to hell with pride or performance.
Almost unimaginably, the Focus is now the world's most popular car, posting just over one million sales in 2012.
The international Focus finally backs the company's "One Ford" boasts, a world where Americans are no longer second-class citizens. As such, the Focus represents a toast to car lovers. Raise a glass, and vow with us: no more forbidden fruit. Somewhere, Tantalus is smacking his lips. -- Lawrence Ulrich, photography by Tim Andrew
Price: $16,995/$24,495/$39,995 (base/ST/Electric)
Powertrains: 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 146 lb-ft; 2.0L turbocharged I-4, 252 hp, 270 lb-ft;permanent-magnet motor, 143 hp, 184 lb-ft
EPA mileage: 26-27/36-38 mpg, 23/32 mpg, 110/99 mpg-e (base, ST, Electric)