Ford?s hot 2013 Ford Focus ST hatchback breaks through
Bounce around in safety in Ford's well-handled and quick front-driving hatchback.
How seriously is Ford taking this ?One Ford? thing ? the same car for every market worldwide?
The Germany-based engineers for the high-performance ST version of the Focus had come up with a revised knuckle for the rear suspension to relocate the attachment point for the anti-roll bar which would help turn-in and reduce understeer.
Now, only 9,000 North America ST Foci are to be built, all in Wayne Mich. Hau Thai-Tang, Ford?s new vice-president of engineering, told me that the components for this revised suspension are difficult and expensive to ship (although he did not explain in detail why).
So consideration was given to perhaps just using the existing Focus rear suspension for North America?s variant. After all, would the typical North American driver even notice, let alone appreciate, the minor difference in handling?
Good for them.
Focus ST goes on sale later this summer, starting at $29,999.
OK, so we don?t get exactly the same car. Our ST will have the cell-phone-inspired centre stack, with the two bent wings full of buttons on either side, which I have found confusing in other Focus models, instead of the straight rows of buttons in Euro-spec cars (which frankly, isn?t a whole lot easier to work).
We will get cruise control, which is not even optional in Europe. MyFordTouch with a big SatNav screen and GPS, will also be available here, not there.
But just about everything else ? 2.0 litre four-cylinder ?EcoBoost? Turbo engine, six-speed manual transmission (finally; all Foci should offer this instead of the wimpy five-speed, and no, there is no automatic option on ST), even proper summer tires (Goodyear Eagle AS2, instead of the insipid no-season crap we usually get saddled with) ? is what everybody else enjoys.
One other exception ? in addition to the four-door hatchback, Europe gets an ST wagon, which of course is spectacular.
Can?t really blame Ford for this; it?s all down to U.S. customers who just won?t see the light ? we don?t even get the regular Focus wagon.
Unless you choose the signature ?Tangerine Scream? paint colour for your ST ? and why wouldn?t you? ? the clues to your neighbour that you paid more for your Focus than he did probably start with the back of the car: the rear roof spoiler and a centre-mounted exhaust pipe which looks like somebody stepped on a round tube with steel boots are giveaways.
The rear bumper is also recontoured with diffuser-style vents in the lower section.
A one-piece grille, revised air intakes, bulged side skirts and wheels that look like those things Ninja dudes fling about complete the picture.
Inside, Recaro front seats are in all models, in three flavours ? cloth, part-cloth/leather, and full leather. They?re comfortable and supportive with any upholstery, but no serious driver would want the full-leather ? not as grippy as the cloth or part-cloth versions. So of course, full leather are the only ones Canada will get.
Who is to blame for this? Ford of Canada? Their dealers? Their customers?
Actually, blame rests with whoever commissioned Recaro to make these seats. Seems the full-leathers are the only ones that have seat heaters, and you can?t expect us formerly-hardy Canadians to do without those, now can you?
Seat heaters can be put in cloth seats, and of course they should be. But I understand this is another battle I?m losing.
A trio of small gauges (oil temperature, oil pressure, boost pressure), lovely leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob and revised trim materials help make the ST a pleasant place to be.
With that turbo engine cranking out 252 horsepower (such as the Shelby GT500, initial estimates of the power ? 250 in this case ? were understated) the ST is quick. 0-100 km/h in 6.5 seconds isn?t supercar fast, but it?s pretty good in this size of car.
Employing a 15-second overboost condition, torque peaks at 265 lb.-ft. at 2,000 r.p.m., and stays right there until 4,500 r.p.m., giving the ST smooth, flexible performance.
Ford has added something it calls a ?sound symposer,? a duct that directs engine noise into the fresh air intake plenum, to add a sportier sound to the interior.
Usually, carmakers strive to eliminate interior noise; in any event, the Focus ST is remarkably quiet, even when revved hard.
The six-speed manual gearbox works smoothly and effortlessly, and clutch take-up is precise.
In addition to that rear suspension tweak mentioned earlier, Focus ST gets revised springs, shocks and bars for improved handling and a lower ride height.
The Electric Power-Assisted Steering (EPAS) has a variable ratio ? quicker at the far ends of the lock spectrum for easier parking lot work, less sensitive on-centre for reduced twitchiness at speed.
Focus ST also offers ?Torque Steer Compensation? ? the system detects differing levels of torque input to each front wheel, and if it deems the difference too great, reduces assist level in the direction that effect is trying to take the car.
Not quite as sophisticated as the ?RevoKnuckle? used in the Europe-only 305 horsepower Focus RS, but lighter and cheaper.
Thai-Tang said they could have virtually eliminated torque steer altogether, but felt that it was part of the fun of driving a quick front-drive car. It suggests that fine-tuning could be in the works if customers wish it otherwise.
An Electronic Differential which momentarily applies braking torque to a spinning front wheel, and Torque Vector Control, which brakes the inner wheel on a tight corner, help stabilize things before the Electronic Stability Control system kicks in.
ESC has three settings ? normal; ?wide-slip? with reduced intervention for sportier driving; and ?you?re on your own, buddy.?
I?ve already mentioned the stout engine and smooth gearbox. Those are part of the price of admission to play in this sandbox.
More critical is how the car?s dynamics stack up.
For the most part I found the electronic interventions to be seamless.
Once in a while ? accelerating hard over some of the few bumps you?ll encounter in this well-maintained part of France ? there?ll be a touch of skittishness from the front end.
Whether this is the amount of torque steer Ford deliberately left dialed in, or the electronics not being entirely sure what to do, would take more time to determine.
Suffice it to say that the front end points very well for a fast front-driver, and you can toss this little car around with abandon, yet in complete safety.
Based on my memory (an increasingly dangerous thing to do…) I?d say it is leagues better in the handling department than one of its main competitors (Mazdaspeed3, which is based on the former Focus platform) and at least on a par with the Volkswagen GTI, which I would venture is the consensus choice in hot-hatch handling. The VeeDub also does it with a lot less electronic intervention.
That said, the GTI has 50 fewer ponies to deal with, and comparably equipped, is quite a bit more expensive.
A back-to-back comparison is clearly called for.
The Focus ST represents a breakthrough for Ford. It is the company?s first truly global performance car.
No longer do we have to wistfully read European car mags or websites and dream of hot Ford hatches ? we can have one too.
No wait ? there?s still that 305-horse five-cylinder Focus RS.
2013 Ford Focus ST
ENGINE: 2.0 litre inline four, dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, variable valve timing, direct fuel injection, turbocharged.
POWER/TORQUE, horsepower / lb.-ft: 252/265
FUEL CONSUMPTION: Transport Canada figures not yet available; European standard data, Urban/Extra-Urban/Combined, (l/100 km): 9.9 / 5.6 / 7.2.
COMPETITION: Mazdaspeed3, Volkswagen GTI.
WHAT?S BEST: Strong performance; excellent ride/handling combination; finally, we get a Ford hot hatch that?s as good as the Europeans get.
WHAT?S WORST: Chassis electronics may get in the way of some purists? enjoyment of the car; rear seat room hardly class-leading; centre stack the Europeans get isn?t much better than the one we?ll get.
WHAT?S INTERESTING: Pronounced in English ST (?Ess-Tee?) sounds like one of the four words you can?t say on Quebec television; fortunately, it?s pronounced ?Ess-Tay? in French.