YOU’VE seen this movie before. Ford SVT introduced its hot, 170-hp version of the Focus two-door hatch 10 years ago to much ballyhoo.
Although it was priced at a $5K premium over the common, 130-hp Focus, buyers lined up to pay nearly $20,000. But a year later, the cars were lingering on dealers’ lots, discounted to $13,000.
This time, everything’s different.
One Ford global development guarantees ST production for the rest of the Focus’ life cycle. If every North American who wants a Volkswagen GTI hatchback competitor for $25,000 to $32,000 buys one in the next year, there still will be demand in Europe, where 252- hp, front-drive four-door hatchbacks are their Mustangs and Camaros. This time, North America’s hot Focus is pretty much the same as Europe’s hot Focus, though we won’t get the wagon version. Don’t even ask.
To make its case, One Ford has brought us to the South of France to drive the new Focus ST along fabulous mountain roads north of Nice. Though we’re probably the least enthusiastic enthusiasts’ publication when it comes to the Focus, the ST impresses, at least on smooth European roads.
Chassis dynamics and throttle response sharpen the car’s dull points. Ford’s US Special Vehicle Team and Team RS in Europe worked together to massage the 160-hp, 2.0-litre EcoBoost four into a 252-hp (on premium) powerhouse. The engineering boffins added high-pressure direct-injection, low-inertia turbocharging, Twin-Independent Variable Cam Timing, redesigned intake and exhaust, and unique calibration. Yes, that makes it the same 2.0 EcoBoost that’s optional in the much bigger, heavier Edge and Explorer.
Ford claims the Focus ST zips through a 0-62-mph time of 6.5 seconds on its way to an autobahn- worthy top speed of 154 mph. You can flash your lights without irony to pass that BMW M3—the driver might be impressed with the ST’s special grille filling his rearview mirror.
It’s a large, one-piece maw replacing the Focus’ “kinetic design” affair, like the ’13 Fusion’s new design language, although its look is more piscine than poor man’s Aston. There are LED daytime running lights, wide side skirts, a subtle red ST badge in the grille, and, if you choose, Race Blue or the Moparesque Tangerine Scream among exclusive paint colours.
If he lets you by—it’s still his call—Mr Bimmerphile will see your handsome honeycomb wheels painted gray black with red brake callipers, part of the optional Performance Pack.
They’re shod with 235/40R18 Goodyear Eagles.
The Recaro front seats are spectacular, with snug and effective bolstering. They come with grippy, techy cloth inserts and leather bolsters and Race Blue or Tangerine Scream inserts with the ST2 package, or all-leather with the ST3 package.
The two-tone interior might seem over the top, but if you choose anything other than the ST2 package, you’ll end up with an interior as dark as Kim Jong Un’s heart. The seats have contrast- colour stitching; and there’s a dash-top gauge cluster with water temperature, turbo boost, and oil pressure gauges; a thick, meaty leather-wrapped steering wheel; a darker headliner than in standard Foci; and a red six-speed shift knob pattern.
Everything else is everyday Focus, including questionable ergonomics as a tradeoff for whatever the translation of “kinetic” is into interior designspeak.
The European-specific centre stack controls for climate and the Sony audio system are devoid of North America’s SyncMyFordTouch folderol. The Euro-stack still is lousy with buttons, but it seems a simpler, more straightforward alternative to the Microsoft voice-operated excess.
Sixth gear is one of the most welcome additions to the ST The gearbox feels direct and precise, and it’s a good companion for the downshift-intense needs of the turbo engine. The sixth cog helps Ford get a 32-mpg highway EPA fuel economy rating.
By now you’ve heard that Ford ST engineers added an overboost feature to the engine, which extends the 270 lb-ft of peak torque for up to 15 seconds at a time. While other EcoBoost engines would quickly drop off their torque peak after achieving it, the ST’s overboost feature extends it from 3000 to 4500 rpm. Lay into that extended torque band, and a “sound symposer,” which amplifies the engine’s induction noise into the quiet cabin, converts the EcoBoost’s well-oiled mechanical whirr into a subtle induction woffle.
The ride feels firm, though you’ll have to wait until we get the ST on a properly decrepit American road, say, in Detroit, before we can judge how stiff it is for everyday driving. Ford says the Focus ST is designed to be comfortable in those stop-and-go commutes that take up far too much of our drive time.
The electrically power-assisted steering comes with variable ratio and effort and a Torque Steer Compensation program that’s lacking in consistency.
Steering effort feels higher with the throttle on than with it off, as in entering a corner or scrubbing off speed. Though it may sound counterintuitive, a slice of torque steer seems more predictable.
You can affect electric powerassisted steering and set the electronic stability control by choosing ESC-on/ESC-off, which doesn’t turn off everything completely, or Sport mode, which should work best most of the time.
While the differences are subtle, crediting again the wide tires, Sport mode improves turn-in.
The Focus ST is a serious competitor for the harsh and nervous current-generation MazdaSpeed3 and the balanced and refined Volkswagen GTI.
Thanks to the Mini Cooper S and the last two revitalised VW GTIs, Americans finally are willing to pay semi-premium prices for good hatchbacks. Most Focus ST prospects will consider these and the MazdaSpeed3 before they give a Track Package Mustang V-6 a second glance.
While those three hatchback competitors help the ST’s North American business case, the new question is how this 252-horse FWD hatch will fare against a couple of well-reviewed, agile small coupes with much less power, vestigial rear seats, and RWD.