Ford may have put the Focus on the podium for the 2012 North American Car of the Year award but it's showing no signs of resting on its laurels. The 2013 Ford Focus ST, which will be available this summer, will come equipped with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine pumping out 247 horsepower and 250 pound-feet of torque through a six-speed manual transmission and 18-inch wheels. It will have three-mode stability control and available Recaro seats.
And it looks awesome. But looks alone means little to those seeking a real driver's car. Now it's time to find out what it's like to drive. Prepare yourself for a surprise.
A Wolf in Wolf's Clothing
Often an alleged performance car will have looks that write a check the car beneath can't cash. After all, it's far easier and cheaper to make a car look fast than it is to make it go fast. But Ford, no doubt stung a little by suggestions its new Focus is effective but a little dull to drive, has ensured the ST delivers in full on the promise made by its steroidal appearance.
Indeed the surprise is just how far Ford has gone with the ST. The specifications sound promising all the way from its turbocharged engine to a chassis altered in every detail. There's a new variable-ratio steering system, new springs, dampers, stabilizer bars, lighter yet stronger forged knuckles and a lower ride height. But it is only when you climb aboard and feel the way all these elements come together that you get a true sense of the car's character. In short, it's an animal.
Over the Limit
At speed the 2013 Ford Focus reveals a character far closer to the Focus RS than any Ford to wear the ST badges. Sure it's nowhere near as quick as the crazy RS (and has nowhere near the torque steer), but its no-prisoners approach to the racetrack is the same.
The engine is no landmark, but rather is a highly effective conduit to where the real fun lies. It sounds better than a turbo-4 has a right to thanks to Ford's "sound symposer" in its exhaust, which separates the sounds you want to hear from those you don't, and it delivers the goods in one solid shove from as little as 2,000 rpm. Ford is yet to release performance figures, but if the ST doesn't post a 0-60-mph time very near 6 seconds flat, it will only be because it lacks the traction, not the power.
But that's not what's going to make you love this car. It's in the corners that you're going to fall for this Focus. So comprehensive are the modifications Ford has made that it feels like a purpose-built sports car rather than something based on a relatively humble hatchback. It flicks into curves, cornering flat and fast. Once you're in the turn, adjusting your line can be done with your right foot or your hands. The chassis is exquisitely sensitive to driver commands: A little lift of the throttle and the nose tucks in a few degrees; a small prod and it returns to the original line.
Find a track and turn off the switchable stability control and you'll discover the 2013 Ford Focus ST will do ridiculous stuff. It's happy to pitch you into full opposite lock before the apex with a rear wheel waving in the air, yet sufficiently stable to require you to do no more than stomp back on the gas to set you straight again. It feels as if Ford has used a length of railroad track for its rear stabilizer bar.
It's not perfect, though. The new steering is clever enough to provide stability on center but its electric operation means it cannot provide the level of feedback offered by the best hydraulic systems. And because Ford chooses to contain wheelspin through a brake differential rather than the more expensive limited-slip differential it really needs, your progress away from a corner can be either slowed by the electronics if they're switched on, or messy if they're not.
Has Ford gone too far and sacrificed the Focus' well-documented everyday ease of use for a level of dynamic involvement owners will rarely be able to exploit? It will take a comprehensive road assessment to be sure, but it seems unlikely.
Perhaps the most clever aspect of the ST's design is not how fast or sideways it will go, but how little compromise has been inflicted on the rest of the car to get it there. At full throttle the engine is startlingly loud, but if you knock the shifter into top gear and just cruise, it is silenced almost completely. There's not much tire noise from the asymmetrical 235/40 section Goodyears, and the ride quality is adequate for a car with this much performance ability.
If there is sting in this story, it is that the wagon version of the ST will be denied to stateside customers, who will only get the five-door hatchback. The wagon's acceleration has to be adversely affected because of its additional weight, but as that weight gain is likely to be less than 100 pounds, it'll take an unusually attuned driver to detect or be bothered by it. We drove the wagon after the hatch, then returned to the hatch and felt only minor differences.
Handling balance in the wagon is less aggressive — a result of its more even weight distribution and the position of its rear springs to maintain cargo space. As a result, the car feels a little less wild while still dishing out its share of fun on the right road or track.
A Class Killer
But even in hatchback form, the 2013 Ford Focus ST is going to give the current Mazdaspeed 3 the battle of its lifetime. Not many cars in this class have had both the handling and the horsepower to match Mazda's potent five-door until now.
We're not in the business of making predictions about which would ultimately be preferable when we've not driven them back to back on the same roads. Still, it's been a while since we last had this much fun in a hatchback, and when we did we were in a Focus RS.
It seems the long, long line of high-performance Fords has just been extended a little further.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.