FRANKLY, SANTA, I haven't actually been that good this year. For example, I wasted a ton of money on power tools. Would you like to hear my impression of my wife? It goes like this: "Four cordless drills?"
I've treated my body like a slag heap, he wrote, as he narfed down a second Bojangles chicken biscuit. And yet, despite my increasing doughiness, I have not always exercised restraint in anything except exercise. I'm rapidly turning into some Rabelaisian character, fat, randy and dissipated. Oh, my God, I'm Erasmus Darwin.
Nonetheless, Santa, I feel I have some standing to make the following wish. After all, I have waited patiently while Ford futzes with its global high-performance organization, a circus of headless chickens that for years has been mysteriously unable to bring the very best versions of its cars to America. The Euro-spec Focus ST being the prime example.
Photos: Ford Focus ST
So here's what I want, Nick…may I call you Nick? I want the U.S.-spec Focus ST to be exactly like the one they sell in Europe: I want the five-door hatch with the turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter four, with the hotter chip (software), the breathier intake and exhaust systems, and the snappy six-speed manual (and a durable clutch!). I want 252 horsepower and 270 pound feet of torque, with lots of low-speed tractability in the engine, a minimum of turbo lag and, on the other end, I want a big, on-the-cam feel while I'm spinning up through the gears, a tarpon on light tackle.
I want the bigger brakes (12.6-inch front rotors), the grippier tires on the dead-sexy 18-inch alloy wheels, high-intensity headlights, and two utterly perfect Recaro bucket seats up front. And I would like it to be as maximally entertaining to drive as is feasible, considering the car starts life as a lowly front-wheel-drive family subaltern, not a performance car at all.
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Oh, Ford is selling the Euro-spec Focus ST in the U.S. now? In that case, I'd like a chicken biscuit.
To set the table a bit: The Focus ST is what's known as a sport-compact, or a hot hatch, a category of performance-minded variants of what are generally pretty routine, practical hatchbacks. Some of the most entertaining cars of the last two decades—the Volkswagen GTI, the Mazdaspeed3, the Renault Clio Sport, Citroën DS3, the Mini Cooper JCW—have been these massively overachieving, surprisingly affordable, front-wheel-drive four- and five-seaters, with two or four doors. It also helps that World Rally Championship rules have enshrined such cars in the top levels of the sport.
Previously, Ford's product cadence has been uncoordinated, globally, with some regions of the world using one platform generation while other regions were limited to older and lesser platforms, with generational inferiorities baked in, as it were. American enthusiasts have been particularly ticked off about the Focus. Indeed, a sizable industry exists solely to help hobbyists tune up their stateside Foci to the levels of the European cars.
And that's fine if you have a garage, tons of time and a couple of like-minded friends to call 911 when the car falls on you. What enthusiasts really wanted is the turnkey tuner, a slammed Focus ST with a factory warranty and all the tinsel. And that's exactly what this car is.
“Ford's stateside hot hatch is a small stampede of a car, with an ornery sound, a low, wicked look and a long list of endearing character defects. ”
Base price for the U.S. market Focus ST five-door is $23,700 and rated mileage is 23/32/26 miles per gallon, city/highway/combined, and those are all lovely numbers.
By the way, late next year Ford will likely roll out a yet higher-performance Focus (the 350-hp RS, unofficially) that will (again!) be available only in Europe. And to think Henry Ford didn't even like Europeans.
Our Focus ST? It's great. Actually, when you index driving fun against price—the cheap-date quotient—I'd say the Focus ST and the Subaru BRZ I drove a few months ago are best cars on the market. Like the BRZ, the Focus ST isn't particularly, by-the-clock fast (0-60 mph in about six seconds, at about 6,600 rpm at the top of second gear) but it feels birdlike, sporty, tossable, willing, lively. Both these cars have suspension setups that allow an unusual amount of free play in the rear of the car. The cars can be coaxed into a controllable four-wheel drift, pitching around as they corner.
2013 Ford Focus ST Five-Door Hatch
Base price: $24,495 (with delivery)
Price as tested: $29,000 (est.)
Powertrain: Turbocharged and intercooled 2.0-liter, direct-injection, 16-valve in-line four-cylinder with variable valve timing; six-speed manual transmission; front-wheel drive with torque-vectoring limited-slip differential
Horsepower/torque:252 hp at 6,000 rpm/270 pound-feet at 3,000-4,500 rpm
Length/weight: 171.7 inches/3,200 pounds
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
0-60 mph: 6 seconds (est.)
EPA fuel economy: 23/32/26 mpg, city/highway/combined
Cargo capacity: 23.8 cubic feet; 44.8 cubic feet with second-row seats folded
In the Focus ST, the danciness can be dialed up by turning the stability control to "Sport" or "Off."
The difference, of course, is that the Focus ST is a front-wheel-drive car, which means putting the power down through the front, steered wheels. To mitigate the effects of engine torque on the car's steering—that wandering feel in the steering as the car accelerates—Ford has programmed its electric power steering with something called torque-steer compensation. This bit of programming attempts to neutralize torque steer by varying steering assist in order to seamlessly integrate steering effort and directional linearity. In other words, to make the car go where you are pointing.
This system can in no way be said to overcompensate. There is still a fairly busy torque steer in the Focus ST, as you might expect with a maximum sustained torque of 270 foot-pounds, and if you really kick it while cornering, the car feels like it's been hit with a Texas crosswind. Meanwhile, the brake-based torque vectoring system on the front axle helps to route torque to the outside wheel by lightly braking the inside wheel, thus pulling the car around a corner. And yet, make no mistake: You can light up the inside tire if you want to.
Torque vectoring, torque compensation, a variable-rate steering rack (a rapid 1.8 turns lock-to-lock) and the weirdly huge turning circle of almost 40 feet? The Focus ST's steering appears to have been toiled over. It feels it. For all its digital interventions, the Ford's helm isn't nearly as connected, as predictable, as solid as the linkages of the Mazdaspeed3.
But again, there's a lot of horsepower chatting through Focus ST's front tires. I could reduce these Goodyears to figgy pudding in about a week.
American enthusiasts, you asked for a Ford Focus turned up to 11, and now that it's here you can stop whining and feeling sorry for your elf, I mean, self. This is a small stampede of a car, with an ornery, angry sound (thanks to the acoustic piping between the engine bay and the cabin), a low, wicked look; front bucket seats that ought to be in the Louvre; and a long list of endearing character defects.
All it needs is a cordless drill.
Email Dan at firstname.lastname@example.org.