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Published: 10/16/2012 - by Mark Takahashi, Automotive Editor
A wise man once said, "Never underestimate the power of having fun."
High above the crashing white waves of California's Central Coast we found what we were looking for. Fun. This stretch of Highway 1 is undoubtedly one of the all-time epic drives, not just for its scenic vistas, but also for its narrow ribbon of broken asphalt. It was here that the front-wheel-drive 2013 Ford Focus ST proved itself as the hottest of all hatchbacks.
Yes, we do realize that in a few performance metrics the Focus isn't on top. But if the numbers are all that matter to you, your idea of fun varies greatly from ours.
Doing What It Does Best
Crank that wheel over hard. Feel the weight shift to the outside, compressing the ST's suspension and sidewalls. Stay in the throttle and feel the slightest of slides as the tail predictably creeps toward the edge of the road. Point the front wheels where you want to go, squeeze in a little more throttle and feel the way the rear end obediently snaps right back into formation. Smile. Exhale. Repeat. Now this is fun.
Those engineers at Ford somehow have managed to transform the commonplace Focus into a beguiling canyon carver that doesn't suffer from the faults that haunt lesser hatchbacks. Sure, bolting a turbo onto the base 2.0-liter Focus inline-4 is a good start, but rarely are such improvements without consequences. With up to 20 psi of boost kicking output up from 160 to 252 horsepower, turbo lag and torque steer are obvious concerns.
Thankfully, lag is effectively killed at a decidedly low 2,500 rpm, where the Focus ST's peak torque of 270 pound-feet is delivered. And rather than petering out, an overboost feature keeps the torque boiling as you keep your foot on the floor and the tach needle swings into the big numbers at the top of the scale.
As far as torque steer is concerned, a combination of clever steering compensation and an electronic diff (which brakes the appropriate wheel) keeps the Focus tracking true. Under hard acceleration, you can feel these systems wrestling with torque steer, but the process never gets to the point where you feel you have to back out.
Further adding to the 2013 Ford Focus ST's appeal is a close-ratio six-speed manual transmission. No, there isn't an automatic option, so if there was ever a perfect time to learn to shift for yourself, it's now and with this car. When you're driving to excite, the first five gears easily keep the revs up and the boost boiling.
Numbers Don't Tell the Whole Story
All of this mechanical wizardry combines to produce some impressive results. Off the line, the Focus ST hits 60 mph in 6.6 seconds (6.3 with a 1-foot rollout as on a drag strip) on its way to the quarter-mile in 15 seconds at 93.3 mph. Number crunchers will note that the Mazdaspeed 3 will beat the Focus with a 6.3-second run to 60 mph (6.0 with rollout) and 14.4 seconds at 99.2 mph in the quarter-mile.
The same holds true for the slalom, where the ST weaved through the cones at 69.1 mph, while the Mazdaspeed 3 snaked it at 71.1 mph. The Ford does have a slim advantage in the skid pad, pulling 0.93g versus the Mazda's 0.91g. Similarly, coming to a stop from 60 mph, the Focus needed 112 feet while the Mazdaspeed 3 did it in 113 feet.
But even where the numbers fall in favor of the Focus ST, they don't do the car justice. It's just downright fun, and our Highway 1 hijinks were confirmed at the test track. Our driver noted that the car's willingness to rotate allows for complete freedom to adjust his line through a corner. In his words, "Stability control and suspension engineers tuned this car for drivers who understand." We found the ESC on and Sport modes so well tuned that we deemed full ESC off unnecessary, as the system lets you have quite a bit of fun before gently reining you back in.
But That's Not All It Does
As fun as it is in the twisties, the 2013 Ford Focus ST also retains the favorable traits that keep the regular Focus in high regard. On the long stretches of open highway as we cruised back home through California's midsection, the cabin remained pleasantly quiet, with road and wind noise reaching merely detectable levels.
Engine noise on the highway is well controlled as well, but it's there when you want it. No doubt, the tall 6th gear helps in this regard on interstates. Burbling engine notes still make it into the cabin under higher-than-normal loads via a "tuned sound symposer," a tube that transmits low-frequency tones from the engine intake past the firewall. Sure, using a "snorkus" might seem disingenuous, but damn, it sure does sound good.
Furthermore, the Focus ST also won't beat you up after hours behind the wheel. Despite the sporty suspension tuning, there's still plenty of compliance to smooth over rough pavement, with midcorner bumps barely acknowledged. The same goes for the optional Recaro seats that anchor you with thrill-ride-like security, but are still comfortable on extended drives. Broad-shouldered drivers might feel a bit cramped by the upper seatback wings, though, but only after several hours in the saddle.
Elsewhere in the cabin, the 2013 Ford Focus ST features a clean and intuitive layout. Our test vehicle, which carried an MSRP of $29,065, incorporates the optional MyFord Touch navigation touchscreen and dual-zone automatic climate control, which simplify and sharpen the look of the center stack. Unfortunately, the interface is still a point of contention, as it responds to some commands like a groggy teenager, but the Sync voice activation and 10-speaker Sony audio system are good enough to gain forgiveness. Other controls are thoughtfully placed, while the quality of the materials ranks as our best-in-class.
All of this is wrapped up in an exterior that is appropriately styled to match the Focus ST's fun factor. An aggressive front fascia replaces the more pedestrian Focus nose with a large trapezoidal grille and a sculpted chin, while extended rocker-sill valances give the ST a more hunkered-down appearance. That theme is continued around back with a full body-colored bumper, accented with conjoined trapezoidal exhaust tips and a larger rear roof spoiler. Were it not for the squint-inducing Tangerine Scream paint, this Focus looks more Euro-sporty than boy-racer.
But It Won't Do That
As much as we wish there was a car without faults, it simply doesn't exist. To the Focus ST's credit, however, its few drawbacks are easily overlooked. On a winding road, the variable-ratio steering is precise, and it also relays enough information to let you yank the car toward an apex with confidence. Sensitivity is increased as the wheel is turned further, and in a parking lot, it delivers a bit of a surprise as it veers sharply as the wheel approaches lock.
You can get used to this, but probably not the wide 39.4-foot turning circle (compared to 36 feet for the standard Focus). We also found the brake pedal a bit soft after a spirited blast on a tight and technical blast though a canyon. Given the lack of hard braking on this route, we speculated that this might be attributable to the selective braking from the torque-steer mitigation system while powering out of turns.
More Than Just the Numbers
Bench racers will always revert to specs and stats. In particular, naysayers will point out the Focus ST's aforementioned shortcomings against the Mazdaspeed 3. Some may also balk at the $4,500 premium over a base Focus. Whatever. Drive it, and drive it hard.
Those doubts and digits will disappear in a cloudy haze of dust and smoke in your rearview mirror. The 2013 Ford Focus ST is quite simply the best front-wheel driver's car to date. It is as fun to pilot as the rear-drive Toyobaru twins and more nimble than the bang-for-the-buck Mustang.
Achieving this blend of performance, comfort and refinement is unheard of in this segment. The Ford Focus ST is the real deal. It took whatever arbitrary limitations we once placed on hatchbacks and burned them in a towering funeral pyre for all to witness. But above all, it's just plain fun.
Edmunds purchased this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
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