First Drive

Hot hatch spices up Ford Focus lineup

Responsive engine and great handling make the ST pure fun to drive on road or track

2013 Focus ST - Rear

OTTAWA. ON – Ford has given its compact Focus a healthy dose of attitude for 2013. Joining the lineup is the Focus ST, a hot, five-door hatchback that will shock owners of more sedate versions of this family grocery-getter.

The ST is the first global performance product Ford has produced – it will be available in more than 40 markets worldwide – and it delivers much more than special badging. The Sport Technologies (ST) team has developed a car that leaves no doubt about its intentions – it’s designed with a focus on performance and driving fun.

The heart of this five-door hatchback is Ford’s 2.0-litre turbocharged EcoBoost four-cylinder – the first application of the company’s new engine technology in a high-performance product.

2013 Focus ST - Engine.JPGThis lightweight, all-aluminum four-banger, which is also being offered in the full-size Taurus sedan for 2013, uses high-pressure direct fuel injection, low-inertia turbocharging and twin independent variable camshaft timing to give this small-displacement powerplant the muscle of a larger engine, with unexpected levels of performance plus good fuel efficiency and emissions ratings.

Power output is rated at 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque – enough grunt to launch the Focus ST to 96 km/h in just 6.5 seconds, while its top speed is 150 km/h.

There’s even an accelerator-activated overboost feature that kicks in for 15-20 seconds at 2,500 rpm, bumping the torque output momentarily for extra thrust.

The engine is mated to a six-speed manual transmission with revised gearing to produce the maximum punch in each gear. The ratio of sixth gear has been specifically selected to deliver optimum performance while helping maintain excellent fuel economy on longer highway runs. (Canadian fuel consumption ratings have not yet been released.)

Dynamics wow

While the performance of the powertrain is truly impressive, it’s the dynamics of the car that really spark the "wow" factor. In a few hours driving from Ottawa to the Calabogie Motorsports Park track over some wonderful, winding roads, the ST was a blast to drive. It almost begged to be tossed into corners, carving confidently through the apex before grabbing for asphalt on the exit.

If a gear change was necessary, the shift was smooth and precise, while the engine cheerfully snapped in response.

Helping create the proper auditory effect during all this fun is a special sound Symposer that transfers some of the "good" sounds from the engine bay into the cabin, while filtering out unwanted noise.

2013 Focus ST - Tail Pipes.JPGIt makes such great music I never did turn on the car’s audio system. To complete the effect, the exhaust is funnelled out a twin outlet mounted under the centre of the special rear fascia.

Standard in the ST (in Canada only) are Recaro sport seats, trimmed in leather with a heating feature for chilly days. These seats wrap around you in all the right places, keeping the occupant firmly planted regardless of how aggressive the drive might be.

2013 Focus ST - Instrument Panel.jpgHowever, in my test car (a pre-production model), the passenger seat did not have a height adjustment and the positioning felt overly elevated, especially compared to the driver’s bucket, which could be adjusted up and down, as well as fore and aft. The high passenger seat also brought headroom down to a critical level, especially with the optional moon roof fitted to the tester.

As comfortable as the sports seats were, they didn’t provide enough cushion between my butt and the road – the ride was stiff, with little forgiveness for rough spots on the road.

Still, it was more than acceptable on smooth surfaces – and then there was the impressive handling, which I’m sure would be the preference over ride comfort for most enthusiasts considering the ST.

Precision tuning

The secret to that handling prowess is specially tuned dampers, anti-roll bars and springs. The ST’s ride height has also been lowered 10 millimetres compared to its Focus siblings.

The quick, precise steering that helped make the ST such a joy to drive during this test run is a newly developed sport system. The variable-ratio steering rack with electric power assist is designed to increase the sensitivity on winding roads, yet is less sensitive when driving in a straight line. It also has benefits in slow-speed situations such as tight parking maneuvers, with less input needed from the driver to direct the car into the space.

The steering system also is enhanced with Ford’s torque-steer compensation technology. It allows the driver to accelerate at full throttle while still finding grip on roads with uneven surfaces. The system detects the torque steer those conditions can create and interacts with the electric steering software to counteract to virtually eliminate the sensation for the driver.

The ST also features an electronic stability control system that’s been enhanced to increase driving fun. It has three modes – normal, sport (which shuts down the traction control but keeps ESC available) or completely off, giving the driver full control for track use, for example. In this mode, a specially tuned version of Ford’s torque vectoring control remains active, helping minimize understeer in hard cornering.

The ST definitely takes driving fun to a new level for the Focus line. It’s still capable of being a practical daily driver, but it’s also adept turning laps on a race track.

With a base price of $29,999, it will be a hot competitor for such pocket rockets as the Mazdaspeed 3 and Volkswagen GTI. Look for it to arrive in Ford dealerships in late August.

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