To me, the mark of a truly great "hot hatch" (or sedan) is that it drives nothing like the car on which it is based. Compare the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution to the regular Lancer, or even the Volkswagen Jetta GLI to the regular Jetta, and you'll see what I mean. Does Ford's new Focus ST pass this critical test? Read on.
First Glance: You'd never guess it's a Ford
Let's not beat around the bush: The Focus ST passes my hot hatch litmus test with flying colors. Infact, I'd bet that if you covered the Ford badge on the steering wheel and sent ten car fanatics out for a drive on the About.com Top Secret Curvy Test Road, nine of them would never guess that this was a product of the Big Blue Oval. (The tenth would, but only because he peeked at the stickers in the door jamb. I never did trust that guy.) The way this car feels and drives -- heck, even the way it sounds -- marks it not as a domestic, but as a true European hot rod... which, technically, it is.
Before I proceed to drool all over the ST, let's review what Ford has done to it. The ST is based on the Focus hatchback, a vehicle penned largely by Ford's European division. Under the hood is a two-liter turbocharged EcoBoost engine, the same one Ford is using to replace V6s in its larger cars. The ST's version is tuned for 252 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque -- that's twelve more horses than the same engine makes in the mid-size Fusion. A six-speed manual tranny sends power to the front wheels; other changes include the prerequisite stiffened suspension, 18" wheels with summer performance tires, and body kit with unique front and rear fascias, a spoiler over the rear window, and a nifty center-mounted tailpipe.
In the Driver's Seat: Serious buckets
Inside, the ST is little changed from the regular Focus, which itself is about as far from standard Ford fare as you can get. Aside from some extra gauges atop the dash, the biggest difference is the deeply-bolstered Recaro bucket seats, which take some getting used to -- clearly, they were not designed with America's enthusiasm for the cheeseburger in mind, so your individual comfort will vary with your appetite. Back seat space is not a Focus strong point, but the 23.8 cubic foot cargo bay is generous and practical.
My Focus ST was a top-of-the-line model with Ford's MyFord Touch system, which uses a combination of voice commands, steering wheel thumb-buttons, and a big touch-screen to control the stereo, climate and navigation systems. I've talked about this much-maligned system in other Ford reviews; suffice it to say that while I don't think it's as awful as some journos do, it does make simple tasks unnecessarily complicated. Most of the primary stereo and climate functions can be done with redundant buttons and switches, but I found the smooth-sided temperature dial too slick to use easily -- could we have some knurls on the dials, please, Ford?
On the Road: Awesome, awesome, awesome... and it's awesome
What's most important about the Focus ST is how it drives -- and how it drives is utterly fantastic. Acceleration is outstanding -- figure 0-60 in just under six seconds -- with little turbo lag and lots of power from mid-range to redline, plus an engine note is haunting and exotic. Torque steer (the tendency of a powerful front-drive car to pull to one side under hard acceleration) is minimal, manifesting itself as a faint tug at the steering wheel at full throttle, but no dramatic changes in steering effort like you'll find in the Mazdaspeed3. A six-speed manual is the only transmission choice; there is no automatic option. Score one for the purists.
Handling is equally brilliant -- there's lots of grip, but not so much that you can't probe the car's limits. The ride is very firm, but not punishing; the trade-off is that the suspension will go to the end of its travel on really big bumps, which gives it a slightly floaty feel. I think it's a worthwhile compromise for a ride that won't make you completely miserable.
What sets the Focus ST apart is its unusual tail-happy bias: If you lift off the accelerator suddenly in the middle of a fast corner, the back end will slide around. Lift-off oversteer, as this is known, is an advanced-level trait that few automakers (or their lawyers) will design into their cars, and it makes the Focus a lot of fun to drive badly. I'd love to tell you about my preferred cornering technique -- barrel into the curve, jerk the wheel hard in an attempt to horse the Focus into understeer, then yank my foot off the gas, which causes the car to rotate and point itself in the right direction -- but our lawyers won't let me, so don't do it or you will undoubtedly die in a firey wreck. I'd add that this is a lot easier to accomplish on a track or an autocross than on public roads, but that's lawsuit-worthy as well, so I won't. Even if you drive the car properly and don't fiddle with that lift-off oversteer thing, which you and your attorneys should obviously never, ever do, the ST is a hell of a lot of fun to drive fast, and yet it's comfortable and serene enough for the daily commute. Amazing.
One minor issue I did run into was the fuel tank: It's the same size (14.5 gallons) as any other Focus. At the ST's EPA combined rating of 26 MPG, that gives a range of well over 350 miles, but if you drive the ST the way it wants to be driven, it's a different story -- figure 250 miles or fewer before that low-fuel light comes on.
Journey's End: It doesn't get much better than this
With prices starting at $24,495, the Focus ST is just a smidge cheaper than its chief competitors, the Volkswagen GTI and the Mazdaspeed3. No question which car I'd buy: The Mazdaspeed3 is plagued by torque steer and a cheap-feeling interior, while the GTI, though tidier all around, feels way down on power compared to the Ford (though it is one of the only cars in this class to offer an automatic transmission). Once you add options, the Focus ST's price approaches all-wheel-drivers like the Subaru Impreza WRX and the Volkswagen Golf R -- my tester stickered for $28,930) -- but once again I'd take the Ford, because it's quicker than the Subaru and more thrilling (and more comfortable) than the VW. A MINI Cooper S is every bit as agile, but lacks that tail-happy twist and day-to-day comfort. And I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Scion FR-S and the Subaru BRZ; if oversteer is what you want, these rear-drive twins are the real deal, but the Focus ST tops them for power and raw fun.
But I wouldn't advise you to buy a Focus ST simply because it's better than the competition. I'd tell you to buy one because it is bound to be remembered as one of the decade's great cars, a thriller that deserves to be held in the same esteem as the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 and the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. Think of buying a Focus ST as purchasing a bit of history -- except it's better, because history doesn't usually rotate when you lift off the accelerator. -- Aaron Gold
What I liked about the Ford Focus ST:
- Outstanding suspension tuning
- Thrilling to drive
- Comfortable enough for the daily commute
What I didn't like:
- MyFord Touch system is too complex
- Focus ST is the new hot-rod version of the Ford Focus hatch
- Price range: $24,495 - $29,525
- Price as tested: $28,930
- Powertrain: 2.0 liter turbocharged 4-cyl/252 hp, 6-speed manual transmission, front-wheel-drive
- EPA fuel economy: 23 MPG city/32 MPG highway
- Where built: USA
- Best rivals: Volkswagen GTI, Mazdaspeed3, Scion FR-S