If you’re not a car person, you might not realize that the hot-rod Ford Focus that graced my driveway is the result of years of heartfelt struggle. You see, for many years, Ford’s brightest compact-performance stars just didn’t make it to America.
The European Escort was different from the American Escort, so we never got the drool-worthy, rally-bred RS or Cosworth versions. And when the Focus brought a global platform, the American version quickly diverged, and we had a brief flirtation with the SVT Focus, but never had access to the longer-lived Focus RS, which stayed in Europe.
Front-wheel drive performance fans wailed, and finally, with the third-generation Focus, there’s more commonality with Europe and we here in the States finally got the Focus ST.
Okay, so it’s not a fight for basic human rights or freedom from tyranny, though to hear some car guys go on about it, you might think it was pretty close. But it’s also true that a hot-rodded, 252-horsepower Focus is worth at least a little bit of civil unrest, if you’re a car guy. The “ST” stands for “Sport Technologies,” and it means that this is a serious little car indeed.
What makes the Focus ST different from the standard Focus? Well, at a glance there’s crazy, bright, primary-color paint in yellow-orange Tangerine Scream, Performance Blue, or searing Race Red. Additional bodywork adds aerodynamic interest, as well as a level of aggression to the Focus’ already dramatic lines. Eighteen-inch wheels wrapped in high-performance Goodyear Eagle rubber are standard.
From behind, the Focus ST’s most recognizable feature is the center exhaust outlet, which is flanked by a sculpted rear bumper designed like a race car’s diffuser.
For such an extravagant machine, the Focus ST garners remarkably little attention on the road, brilliant coloration or not, and that grants it a measure of what they call “Q-ship” status too. It’s not subtle to my eyes, but it definitely didn’t attract the police and passerby scrutiny that a bewinged Mitsubishi Evolution or Subaru WRX would.
The Focus is already a sporty hatchback, willing and able to dance with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3, so the upgraded ST model makes sense in the same way that the sharper-edged Volkswagen GTI and the late Mazdaspeed3 do, not to mention the aforementioned Subaru WRX and others.
The Focus ST’s drum-taut suspension lends itself surprisingly well to road trips, which is unusual for a hard-edged, no-compromise sporty car. Ford has kept the weight low, right around 3200 pounds, and the Focus ST is correspondingly nimble.
The 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder under the hood helps with that too: 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque in a car this size is a lot, and the Focus ST takes advantage of the performance gains to be found in Ford’s EcoBoost direct-injection turbocharged engines to provide eager and ample power. A very versatile 6-speed manual transmission serves as a brilliant interface between driver and car (What, you want an automatic? No.), and the turbo’s quick to spool up and deliver a dose of acceleration whenever it’s asked.
The turbo can be a bit violent and unrefined; keep that in mind if you’re giving your grandmother a ride, feather-foot the throttle. Unless, of course, you’ve got the sort of grandmother who wants to know that the Focus ST tops out at 154 mph while still returning up to 32 mpg on the freeway. On my rather lead-footed drive to Wisconsin, I averaged about 27.
The standard Recaro seats are snug and comfortable, able to easily hold the front two passengers in place during excitable driving maneuvers.
The Focus has a distinct lack of flat surfaces. The ST adds a trio of small auxiliary gauges perched on top of the dash, a unique steering wheel and shifter, and redesigned pedals. The upholstery looks good, and doesn’t feel like the car is showing off cheap-car roots. This is a compact hatch, but a high-quality car.
Amenities like a navigation system, dual-zone climate control, heated seats, fancy interior lighting, and satellite radio are available, as they are in the more everyday Focus.
I expected the Focus ST to be a wild and crazy hot hatch, but it’s actually more refined than that. There’s tire-chirping power, sure, but the car’s excellent base dynamics mean that it doesn’t feel frenetic or barely restrained.
Pricing starts at $23,625 for the model, but the options add up and it’s easy to take the starting price over $30,000. Believe it or not, the Focus ST isn’t a letdown even at that price point.