By Jack Baruth
Friday, Oct 26th, 2012 @ 11:45 am
 

Ford's answer to the iconic Volkswagen GTI seems to have more of everything - power, comfort, features, and weight. Is this the right approach to the segment, or is less still more for hot-hatch buyers?

Across the Atlantic, Ford's reputation for cheap compact speed is truly enviable. From the original rear-wheel-drive Escort Mexico, which predated the Volkswagen GTI, through a series of well-respected Focus ST models, the company has succeeded in the segment again and again. In the United States, on the other hand, Ford's struggled to build credibility with the sport compact crowd.

The new global Focus ST is intended to both continue the European momentum and to jump-start the next generation of would-be American Ford enthusiasts. This time, however, Ford is relying on power and panache, not price, to carry the day. We drove a fully-equipped "ST3" Focus around the back roads of Ann Arbor, Michigan, to find out how successful the company's been in that attempt.

Open wide
Visually, the new Focus is properly aggressive from all angles. The big-mouth-bass front end nods to the company's current Aston-esque grille styling but you won't mistake this for anything other than the fastest Focus. In front-plate states, the look is likely to be a bit untidy, but buyers in this segment tend to be fans of the license-plate-in-the-front-window look anyway.

The standard 18-inch wheels are handsome and dark-finished in the current vogue. The original Focus SVT always looked tippy-toe on its seventeen-inch shoes, but the current car has no such visual issue. New side and rear skirts wrap around to frame a center-exit exhaust . On ST3 models, a strip of LEDs is added to the bi-Xenon headlamps. It seems almost impossible to believe that the LED-running-light look is only a few years old; it's already played-out and it's probably just a matter of days before every car sold in America has them, a sea of floating, meaning hieroglyphicss in twilight traffic. For now, however, ST owners who spring for the top trim can choose to believe that oncoming drivers are confusing them for an Audi R8 GT.

Compact luxury
Inside, the upscale look of the Focus Titanium is mostly retained. Three different seats are available, depending on selected option package. The base ST-branded chairs are acceptable, the mid-level cloth Recaros are very pleasant, and the ST3 heated leather Recaros are as good as anything you'll find south of the exoticars. The four-spoke Focus wheel is retained, complete with the "iPod buttons" which require chimpanzee thumbs to operate without an uncomfortable shifting of one's hands.

By general agreement, the Focus ST has two primary competitors: the aforementioned GTI and the Mazdaspeed3. On the interior, it could have both of 'em both licked. From the feature list to the solid operation of the various little buttons, this Focus has the swagger of a much more expensive car. Where the Mazda feels cheap and the Volkswagen feels just a little content-starved, the Focus is confident, shiny, and well-equipped. Drivers who remember the Focus SVT won't recognize their surroundings.

Power to spare
Things aren't quite as clear when it's time to pop the hoods. Against the GTI, the Ford offers a considerable advantage in rated power, putting down a claimed 252 horsepower and maintaining a slightly bumpy computer-controlled torque curve which plateaus at 270 lb-ft from 2,500 rpm. It's commonly understood, however, that the GTI's engine is curiously strong, and the Volkswagen is as much as 300 lbs. lighter than the Ford. This sort of thing matters; it's not called power-to-weight ratio for nothing.

The Mazda has a 2.3-liter engine to face the 2.0 in the Focus, and that's the sort of thing that matters too. On the open road, the Focus always feels strong, but it never feels as strong as the Mazda and the gap to the GTI isn't as large as the numbers would indicate. The high-crowned rural roads on which we drove the ST also revealed a serious Achilles' heel in the car's demeanor. On any road with even mild camber, the Focus would torque-steer in two separate stages under full throttle. This was likely due to the artificial torque valley after 2,500 rpm. When the boost came on, the steering wheel would yank, then settle as the torque cut, then yank again.

After years of racing front-wheel drive cars with extremely aggressive suspensions and high-strung engines, not to mention ownership of a boosted-up Neon SRT-4, this author thought he'd never be particularly surprised by torque steer, but the double-yank motion of the ST made two-lane passes on narrow roads occasionally dicey. To be fair, on flat freeways the motion was much less pronounced.

Grip to spare, too
Assuming you can hang on for the steering-wheel gyrations for a few seconds, you'll find yourself going very quickly in the Focus ST. Luckily, the suspension is engineered to the same standard of excellence found in the old Focus SVT - or, not to be too nostalgic, the SCCA-autocross-dominating Escort ZX2. The steering is direct and informative, and if the Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires don't seem to have the ultimate grip of Bridgestone or Hankook almost-R-compounds, they're good enough to make progress very rapid. It's possible to turn off stability control completely ("it's part of our brand DNA," according to an SVT spokesperson), back off the throttle in the mid-corner, and point the nose in a bit. This is great fun if your passengers are prepared for it, and even greater fun if they aren't.

The ST has the edge on the GTI for ultimate grip, particularly in fast corners. What it doesn't have is that car's sense of nimbleness. The GTI always feels ready to change direction, but the Focus wants a moment or two of warning or possibly discussion on the matter. It would also be nice if the steering were a touch lighter, but since the market understands "heavy" to be synonymous with "sporty" and there just isn't room and time to make them all drive a three-hour enduro stint in an actual race to change their minds on the topic, that is unlikely to change.

It's Euro, with all that implies
American Ford enthusiasts have been demanding the "real Euro Fords" since about the time of the first Capri. Now they have one. The tricky part about that is that the Focus ST isn't an Escort Mexico. It isn't a cheap, quirky, hooligan-friendly car. It's a serious competitor in a segment that for Europeans is more than a bit middle-class. That segment now demands solidity and premium feel from its compact hatches as much as, or more than, it wants sporting potential. The resulting Focus is bigger, heavier, and more powerful than the BMW 330i of just a decade ago. It almost feels closer in concept to the Golf R than it does to the GTI.

Volkswagen, for whatever reason, seems to understand how to field a lighter and lighter-feeling competitor for a similar price. This makes your decision easy. If you want the most car for the money, choose the Focus. If you want the most sporting car for the money, choose the Volkswagen. If you just want the fastest car for the money, choose the Mazda. If you don't want to leave your local Ford dealership, consider the V6 Mustang, which is significantly more powerful, drives a more sporting pair of wheels, and is likely to show its triple taillights to the Focus ST on anything like a real racetrack.

Leftlane's bottom line
The Focus ST is the most mature entry in its segment - fast, well-equipped, solid, attractive, sensibly priced.

Those of us who are still immature might be tempted to look elsewhere.

2013 Ford Focus ST base price, $24,495.

Some photos by Jack Baruth. Others courtesy Ford Motor Company.