“BUCK BUCK BUCK!!!”
The [Ford Focus] ST might just be the more realistic choice for the casual hot-hatch shopper.
I’d accidentally run up on the rev limiter in the Ford Focus RS, on the Driver Development Track at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (CTMP). The top of second gear comes hard and fast, even at full throttle around a lightly sweeping corner, where the car seems to ignore the fact that there’s a corner at all. This thing is sticky. Sticky and fast and serious. Drive the bejesus out of it, and the Focus RS feels like it’s glued to the tarmac, with its AWD traction and a set of tires with the consistency of warmed gummy-bears. God, is it fast. Yahoo!
Hit the rev limiter, and the exhaust pops and snaps delightfully, suggesting you grab the next gear, which you do with a little snick-snick of the heavy gear shifter and grabby clutch, before the process of being welded to your seat and flung around like the passenger on a rail-mounted amusement-park ride begins again.
The Focus RS is a serious, seriously capable, and very potent hot hatch, with maximum return on investment coming to those owners who will explore it in a motorsports setting. On a public road, you’re not getting anywhere near the RS’s capabilities with any hope of keeping your driver’s license. Novice driver? The Focus RS will make you feel like a rock star. As skill levels improve, it’s right there with you, too.
It’s getting attention galore for its 350 horsepower, for making noises like automatic gunfire when upshifting, for packing AWD grip with a Drift mode for maximum shenanigans, and for wearing a body kit that makes it look like it wants to devour nearby children.
The Focus RS is a sort of holy grail of modern hot-hatch performance: but it’s also pushing fifty grand, and you’ll be waiting five or six months for yours to arrive, provided your friendly neighbourhood Ford dealer has the allocation to order a unit. There are reasons you don’t see the Focus RS everywhere, these being a few of them.
There’s another option in Ford hot-hatch goodness – and one that’s fifteen grand cheaper, more readily available, more everyday-friendly, more comfortable, quieter, and less likely to land you in jail.
That car is the Focus ST: it has 252 horsepower – about 100 less than the RS. It’s front-wheel drive, to the RS’s all-wheel drive. And though the RS, to the enthusiast driver, is well worth the extra $15,000 and months of waiting, the ST might just be the more realistic choice for the casual hot-hatch shopper.
The 2.0-litre EcoBoost turbo engine is a gem. The turbocharger hits hard after a split-second of lag, and flings the Focus ST along with enough urgency to question the need for another 100 horses. You can fire through first and second gear like a bandit, without entering demerit point territory, though the engine is remarkably flexible and happy to dawdle through in-town traffic at low revs, barely making a peep. Prod the throttle, and an induction sound enhancer projects and amplifies the engine’s intake tone into the cabin. At full song, it sounds like an old Honda Prelude with a cold air intake: deep, sonorous and reedy. It’s a highly satisfying engine to flog.
Sporty drivers will love the six-speed stick: the action is relatively light, but the heavy shifter knob adds weight and precision. Throws are average in length, but the near-nil resistance to the mechanism means the next gear is always within striking distance. It’s a joy to shift fast, and the clutch is springy, holds lots of power, communicates well with your foot, and never feels like it’s made of warmed Velveeta. Note that drivers interested in heel-and-toe work will have to put in some time considering the proper procedure and footwear for the job, as your writer found the pedal placement less than ideal, making it a tricky thing to execute properly, at first.
Oh my goodness, the handling! Push the ST hard, and the steering bites in, fast and sharp, when drivers fire the thing into a corner. The springs are taut and firm, meaning the car responds to your inputs, right now, and with minimal lurching about as weight is transferred between and across axles in fast driving. Twist the wheel, and the ST takes a set, right away – all compressing of the suspension happens immediately, and all further steering inputs go straight to the road.
Hammer a corner in the new Ford Focus ST with your boot in the sauce, and the front bites tight into the bend while the rear end steps out the other way. Just a bit – but enough to tell the driver, via delightful little squirms, that the car’s position on its axis is highly subject to their throttle inputs. Translation? The rear of the ST gets highly involved in the handling, rather than being dragged around behind like dead weight. It’s a front-wheel drive car that can drift, a little, which of course is sweet. In sporty driving, this all helps the ST to feel lively and active and nimble and beautifully squirmy and wriggly.
This is all thanks to some electronic witchcraft taking place within the Focus ST’s braking system called torque vectoring. By braking the inside wheels slightly in a corner, the outside wheels are “pushed” through it more quickly. The car pivots instead of plowing, and clamps down instead of going wide.
The argument between steering and acceleration typical in a fast front-drive car doesn’t show itself often. Torque steer is present but managed well, and the ST puts power down admirably when pushed out of corners, provided drivers are brushed up on their performance driving basics. All said, thanks to various bits of hardware and software, the ST takes the usual handling compromise you’ll find in a fast, front-drive performance car, and punches it in the throat.
Also notable? The brakes are properly sports-car precise and shut the ST down in quick order when needed, but aren’t so touchy that they feel overly hyperactive during gentle driving.
Also (and this is key), the ride quality is excellent. Despite the ST being sprung tightly against its wheels, it’s well suited for hours of highway cruising, where it’s on the firm side of comfortable. Even rougher in-town roads do little to break its composure. The handling will make you giggle, but without ride quality that bashes your spine all to heck.
Fuel mileage impressed too, landing at 9.4 L/100km of premium gas, and that’s in light of your writer’s frequent and vigorous use of the turbocharger.
Complaints? The turning circle is bigger than you’d expect, and the cabin, though unique, is looking dated these days, lagging behind numerous competitors. Finally, the grippy, aggressively-bolstered Recaro seats could be the best or worst part of the cabin, depending on the driver. Those of average size will love the high-performance hug, but larger or wider drivers, and especially those who frequently partake in sequential burritos, will find them too tight. They’re great seats, but they’re not big-guy- or big-gal-friendly.
All said, here’s a tremendously entertaining car to drive the socks off of, with all mandatory performance sounds and sensations flaunted in full. It’s a delightfully easygoing hot hatch to use every day too. If you’re in the market, the Focus ST starts at $33,498, and is highly worth a test-drive.
|Peak Horsepower||252 hp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||270 lb-ft @ 2,500 rpm|
|Fuel Economy||10.5/7.8/9.3 L/100 km cty/hwy/cmb|
|Model Tested||2017 Ford Focus ST|
|Price as Tested||$36,648|
$1,400 – Voice-activated navigation $800; 18-inch premium wheels $600