The battle for hot-hatch supremacy gets a new combatant.
If the Shelby and its 662 horsepower supercharged V8 is the sledgehammer in Ford’s tool shed, then the ST and its lightweight aluminum four-cylinder, 252 hp, turbocharged EcoBost four-banger is the scalpel. Instead of brute force that will have you hurtling down the road at some potentially ridiculous speeds as you would be in the Shelby, the Focus has you working a little harder to extract all the power, and excels on the tighter, windier roads that we tried it on.
The fast hatch market is one that has had its share of gems in the past; vehicles like the VW Golf GTi, Mazdaspeed3 and the Honda Civic SiR (the last fast hatch Honda brought to our shores) all have their places in many an enthusiast’s heart. There’s just something so appealing about these little cars that provide sports car-like dynamics without having to sacrifice the practicality of four doors and a hatchback.
But in Canada, Ford has been somewhat absent from the sports-economy party; while crosstown rival Chevrolet was busy developing the Cobalt SS and Chrysler the Neon SRT-4 in the mid 2000s, Ford brought us the Focus SVT, which was a very good car but never quite found the traction, as it were, of the other models. The sting was felt all the more by us Canadians when European markets go the ultimate Focus, the RS, which was powered by a burbly five-cylinder, turbocharged firecracker of an engine.
Then the second-gen Focus appeared in 2007 as an ’08 model and we didn’t even see a SVT version here. Meanwhile the Europeans got the stonking RS Mk 2 in ‘09, still powered by the five-banger but now with a new trick limited-slip differential and suspension tuned for even more performance.
The trouble for Ford was while all this was happening, Mazda was massaging the ‘Speed3 to the point where it made 260 horsepower, and VW was refining the GTi with additions like a flat-bottomed steering wheel, dual-shift gearbox and even adding the ultimate (but very limited) Golf R32 to the mix.
It all begs the question: if these manufacturers saw the need for more powerful hatches on our side of the pond, why not Ford, whose Focus is one of the best-selling cars worldwide, year in, year out?
Well, now that the third-gen Focus is a “world car”, the time has finally come for Ford to wade into the hot-hatch market on our side of the pond. Actually, “wade” may not be the best turn of phrase; “dive in” is more apt.
The Mazdaspeed3 has had the distinction of being the most powerful front-wheel drive hatch in Canada for as long as it’s been available, but Ford is set to put the wood to the ‘Speed3 with the ST. We mentioned the horsepower figure, but add to that 270 pound-feet of torque and the Mazda is going to be looking over its shoulder.
There’s other performance additions as well, the most notable being an over-rev function similar to the overboost function in the Mini Cooper S Roadster we recently tested. Basically, what happens is that when you have the pedal mashed and are sending the tach needle past the 3,000 r.p.m. mark, you get a tempoary burst of extra power. This is handy when you’re passing at high speeds on the highway, or in need of a little kick in the pants now and then.
However, as we stated before, the ST driving experience is less about the sheer power and more about the chassis and the way the car communicates with the driver inside and the road below.
The most important aspect of this is the steering, and thankfully it’s wonderfully communicative in the ST. It’s an electronic power-steering setup, but Focus engineers have managed to provide steering that is not aloof, nor so heavy that driving at low speeds is a chore. That being said, since the steering is as direct as it is (you’re looking at just over one turn of the wheel lock-to-lock), the turning radius is more akin to the full-sized Taurus as opposed to the pint-sized Fiesta.
Torque-steer is often a problem with powerful front-drivers (indeed the ‘Speed3 suffers from this affliction, and reports are that the old RS was the same way), but Ford has managed to pretty much nullify this by building in torque-steer compensation. It’s not a full-bore limited slip diff (instead of power being transferred from one wheel to the other as and LSD would do, the brakes are applied to the slipping wheel instead), but it works well to the point that I really had to floor it to get the wheel wiggling.
Our tester featured a six-speed manual transmission (this will be the only available option once the ST arrives at dealerships) whose shift lever was a little long on throw, but whose clutch is light and maintains a well-defined take-up point, making nice heel-toe downshifts a breeze. This is awesome and apt because I’ve always thought that after the steering feel, the shift lever in a manual transmission car is the next best way for driver and car to interact.
And if you really want to get the au naturel driving feel, then you’ll be happy to know that you get three-mode electronic stability control; normal, sport and completely off if you want no electronic interference between car an road.
In the chassis department, the ST benefits from what is already a very well sorted set-up found in all Focus models; I knew that the power of the ST would be a vast departure from other Focuci but I had trouble envisioning how the ST could handle any better. However, thanks to sport-tuned springs and dampers that shave 10 millimeters off the ride height, the Focus jumps from being an able performer on backroads to being a star on the twisties. To give the impression that the ST sits even lower to the ground, the ST also gets new side skirts, front splitter and rear spoiler. Our favorite addition, however, is the rally-inspired center-exit exhaust that adds a real air of authority to the ST’s stance and is tuned to produce a more race-car like tenor.
Inside, with the exception of a slightly upright steering wheel and seating position, Ford has got it bang-on; special ST interior additions include Recaro racing seas as standard, a fatter steering wheel, aluminum pedals and a new set of gauges mounted atop the dash (they track your engine temp, boost pressure and oil pressure). Other than that, it’s standard Focus, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing because that means it borrows from one of the best interiors in the hatchback biz.
The car we drove was a pre-production model, so we’ll wait until we get the chance to fully test drive a retail-spec example before we make our final judgement. Still, if initial impressions are anything to go by (not to mention the price—at $29,999, it sits right smack in-between the $29,940 Mazdaspeed3 and $30,375 Golf GTI) it should be a banner year both for Ford and the sporty hatch market.
Hold on tight.