Ford’s Focus is often an afterthought entry in a class of cars best known for the Asian all-stars named Corolla and Civic. In fact, the latter two compact cars outsell the venerable Focus almost two-to-one each year. Furthermore, the Focus barely outsells the Hyundai Elantra while Chevy’s Cruze isn’t far behind the Hyundai.
Even despite drooping small car sales, soft gas prices and shrinking demand for compact cars (and cars in general) Ford is aiming to make the Focus a larger player in this segment with two sportier renditions on sale here that have been in other markets for years.
The thinking apparently goes, if BMW and Audi can sell small performance cars here, why can’t Ford. Really, it seems that we have outgrown our distaste for hatchbacks, as every crossover on the planet has some type of a hatchback — and we all know where crossover sales are — so five-door compact cars are going to proliferate in the United States. Finally.
The past few years have seen more than usual year-over-year investment in the Focus, as Ford works on enhancing a solid platform with more interior refinement, greater driving balance, as well as a broader lineup that includes the two alluded-to sportier versions. That will increase the line’s reputation as well as the bottom-line for anxious dealers worried about having all of their eggs in one basket (the hot-selling F-series trucks).
The first expansion is this week’s Focus ST, a 252-hp turbocharged sprinter meant to mimic the VW GTI. Coming later this year, the RS version of the Focus five-door with AWD plus a 350-hp EcoBoost turbocharger 2.3-liter four cylinder engine. Can you say Audi S3 fighter? Subaru STI rival? How about VW R nemesis?
The ST shines in several areas. For the most part, the Focus’s ride and handling balance are maintained — all good — despite the low-profile rubber and smarter looking alloy sport wheels. Some tuning of the independent suspension means more rigidity when pressing the right pedal down your favorite piece of tarmac, but no one will find their wisdom teeth rattling because of bump absorption shortcomings.
Steering feel and braking power are both more sporting; i.e. more sensitive to your inputs so the car is faster slowing and quicker steering. Torque steer, always a bugaboo with high-power front-driving cars, is present but only becomes unmanageable when you select the “off” position on the traction control and you want to destroy your tires.
A hill-holder clutch aids take-off, while the six-speed manual snick-snicks between gears with consistently light effort. Not as precise as either a Honda manual, or even the GTI, it is nonetheless more than capable of managing the ST’s affairs and still imparting some sporting behavior.
Externally, the Focus ST plays the sporty image well. Tape stripes, fog lamps, those alloy wheels, plus cool-looking dual exhausts pipes in the center-rear give the car good street presence. Add some bright yellow paint and yes, everyone is now looking at you. The ST also earns points for its smooth lines, shapely five-door body, and the subtle little details such as a fuel-door tucked into the rear fender next to the taillight so it looks like fluid design rather than a gash in the center of the fender that no one really wanted to address.
Keyless access (and ignition) greet you, while lithe drivers will relish the torso-hugging Recaro sport seats, swathed in suede and leather and heated here. The power adjustments could offer more options, or maybe they can’t by design. Either way, the seats are quite supportive when enjoying your driving.
Happily, MyFord Touch has been displaced by Sync 3, a more congruent way to operate sensitive infotainment requests. The center screen has good line of sight, something the push-button ignition does not as it is tucked deep in behind the steering wheel rim. But that’s it for complaints, as the power windows all whisk up and down with one touch of the index finger, while the rear liftgate has large handles for both right- and left-handed owners. That simple convenience probably cost 50 cents; I hope other hatchback vendors are paying attention.
Base Focus hatchbacks start at under $18,000 with a turbo-three-cylinder engine or a naturally aspirated 2.0-liter four. The ST, with some other bells and whistles, begins at $25,300 — right in the wheelhouse of its closest rival, the VW GTI. The pending RS will list for $37,000.
The Focus ST is slightly longer than the VW, about the same weight (3,200 pounds), yet offers 32-hp more than the GTI. Still, the VW “feels” quicker, but only by a small margin. Turbocharged small cars such as the ST produce smooth power that seems effortless, and doesn’t tail off as you reach redline, so the car runs hard and doesn’t require the driver to massage the shifter as much as other cars. Cruising is easy and passing is easier when the turbo spools up big torque plus the extra power that you paid for.
Both the Focus ST and the GTI are practical five-doors — with real adult-sized rear seats that fold down for expansive cargo holds — and each car is a blast to drive slow or fast. In our hands, the ST returned 28.5 mpg — in the sweet spot between the EPA city and highway projections.
Ford’s portfolio of sporty cars continues to grow. Cars like this ST, plus a hot-rodded Fusion sedan coming, give buyers convenience options that don’t exist with Mustang. Choices; we all like choices.