First Drive: 2013 Ford Focus ST
The spiciest Focus on the menu was prepared by the chefs of the Global Performance Vehicle Group in close cooperation with Ford of Europe's Team RS and the American Special Vehicles Team, SVT. "It's a one-fits-all-markets concept," explains the project leader, Dieter Schwarz. "Design, engine specification, chassis calibration, and tire choice are exactly identical, regardless of whether the car is sold in Beijing, Los Angeles, or London. We are convinced we have found a global setup that fuses performance and comfort with practicality and affordability."
The ST makes a visual statement thanks to unique eighteen-inch wheels, larger front air intakes, a center-mounted exhaust, a massive rear diffuser, flared rocker panels, and a mighty roof-mounted spoiler. Inside, we notice dressed-up pedals, a newly designed leather steering wheel and matching shift knob, auxiliary dashtop instruments (oil pressure, oil temperature and boost pressure), a near-black headliner, and a pair of Recaro seats. Mounted lower than in lesser models, the cloth- or hide-trimmed buckets are comfortable, supportive, and generously adjustable.
Like most modern turbo engines, the 2.0-liter EcoBoost, which develops 252 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque, sounds more characterful than its normally aspirated sibling, and it fields a broader bouquet of dynamic talents, too. It is hard not to be smitten by the faint turbocharger whine on overrun, the spine-tingling intake rasp which turns into a dense full-bodied hum at only 2000 rpm, or the colorful exhaust note that varies from blat-blat impatient to no-holds-barred thunderous. To transmit the acoustic action into the cabin, the engineers installed a so-called sound symposer in the firewall. Add to this the catchy background tune played by the large dual tailpipes, and you can probably imagine why this Ford is truly a stereophonic treat. It also is a rapid machine. On dry blacktop, the ever-eager compact will zip in 6.5 seconds from 0 to 62 mph and on to a maximum of 155 mph. Thanks to a low-inertia charger, variable valve timing, and direct injection, the 2.0-liter four suffers virtually no turbo lag, tardy throttle response, or meager bottom-end torque.
The only transmission available for the Focus ST is a six-speed manual, but it's a slick one. Our only reservation concerns the excessively tall top gear --it undoubtedly helps to save fuel but forces you to downshift rather too frequently to keep up the momentum at freeway speeds. Despite a brigade of electronics, there is still a fair bit of steering fight involved when you push the car hard, especially in the wet. Torque Steer Compensation, Torque Vectoring Control, and Cornering Understeer Control, together with ESP, which can be deactivated in two steps, aim to synchronize the steering input and the torque flow without putting too many dents into your chosen line. This mission is accomplished as long as you're not driving all out; push it hard, however, and the 252-hp Focus ST can be a handful.
One change from the standard is the addition of variable-ratio sport steering. The rack-and-pinion device feels quite light at low speeds but firms up nicely as the mph readout rises. The calibration is so direct that you can keep your hands on the helm when racing through hairpins, where one armful of lock is all it takes to master a 180-degree corner. At the same time, the steering is relaxed enough at triple-digit speeds that a quick flick of the wheel won't upset the car's stability. But there are drawbacks. On rough pavement, the front suspension kicks and tugs like one remembers it from the old days, which means that going fast entails a fair amount of adjusting and correcting. It's fun, but it ain't smooth. The other complaint concerns an underlying artificiality that can on its own tighten or slacken the line, depending on radius, steering angle, and vehicle speed. The intent is laudable, but at the end of the day I felt that less electronic intervention would result in a more natural and intuitive driving experience.
When you switch off ESP, you also disable traction control, thereby clearing the stage for a good bit of lift-off oversteer. In this zero-interference mode, the ST can be a truly wild thing, sliding and carving, swinging like an angry pendulum from wide-eyed understeer to arms-crossed oversteer. To improve grip, Ford equipped the most ambitious Focus with special-compound Goodyear Eagle AS2 tires (235/40R-18), lowered the ride height by 10 mm, and fitted tauter springs and non-adjustable dampers together with redesigned knuckles and fatter anti-roll bars. Although the Brembo brakes used by many competitors are conspicuous by their absence in the ST, the four discs (large inner-ventilated 12.6-inch rotors in the front) keep the 3000-pound Focus in check at all times.
At $24,495, the Focus ST plays in an almost deserted segment that used to be owned by the Japanese and the Europeans. Just about the only remaining rivals are the Mazdaspeed 3, the Volkswagen GTI and, to a lesser extent, the winged and turbocharged Mitsubishi and Subaru twins. The Ford ST is not exactly a world-beater in terms of refinement, handling balance, or ergonomics. But it does offer a lot of car and performance for the money, it scores an undisputed ten on the entertainment scale, and it won't fall apart when pushed to the limit. All that distances the high-performance Focus from real greatness is some fine-tuning. We'd like to see the computer-controlled cleverness scaled back in favor of a more homogenous steering and suspension setup. And while Ford is at it, its engineers and designers could bring some order into what must be one of the world's messiest center stacks.