by William Clavey, 16 May 2017
Yes, the Ford Focus ST is actually still around. It’s the hot hatchback we love but faded into the shadows after its little sibling, the Fiesta ST, kicked its ass in the fun-per-dollar argument. It then totally lost everyone’s attention when the almighty Focus RS arrived and decimated everything. It’s still damn good.
(Full disclosure: Ford Canada prepped me a Focus ST so I could drive it for a week. The car was delivered clean with a full tank of gas. Upon my return, I was told something to the effect that a Focus RS press car was lying around in their garage for “special occasions.”*I’m sure we can find a way to arrange that, now can we?)
The sport-y-ish compact car segment is looking good these days with new entries like the Civic Si, Elantra Sport, Sentra Nismo, Golf GTI, and even the Subaru WRX. All of them offer new platforms, suspension tuning, and solid MPG. Does the ageing Focus ST still hold up?
I’m here to tell you that, yes, of course it does. Ford’s hot hatch remains the no-brainer car for any enthusiast who also happens to be a parent wanting to retain his or her illusion of freedom, or just a normal human being who likes to do normal human being things.
What Is It?
For the longest time, we North Americans would look at Ford’s European division and drool with envy as we watched Jeremy Clarkson hoon Sierra and Escort Cosworths on YouTube. Meanwhile, the only fast Ford we had to play with was the Mustang, or the Probe, but that thing was actually a Mazda, so it doesn’t really count.
As far as compact cars went, the only thing Dearborn had to offer was a cheaply built ****box Escort that didn’t have much in the way of power. Or any sort of performance cred, for that matter.
Hey, we had the Escort GT!
By the late ’90s, Ford finally came to its senses by importing the Focus from Europe, a better built small car replacement to our lame Escort. Sadly, we were once again deprived of anything truly performance-focused and left with ho-hum versions of the thing.
Meanwhile, our friends across the pond got the Focus RS- a turbocharged, front-wheel-drive super hatch that paid homage to Ford’s rally legacy over there. Sure, we eventually got an SVT version of that car. It wasn’t bad. But it didn’t last very long.
Truth is, after the last recession in 2008, except for the Volkswagen Golf GTI, and maybe the short-lived Subaru WRX hatch and Mazdaspeed 3, we North Americans didn’t have many options as far as hot hatchbacks went.
Which brings us to this Focus ST. Introduced to our market back in 2013, we finally got our well-deserved dose of proper hot hatch goodness from Ford. Powered by a 2.0-liter, turbocharged, EcoBoost four that sent a claimed 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft of torque straight to its front wheels through a manual transmission, the Focus ST quickly became an enthusiast favorite. And a proper slap in the face to the almighty Golf GTI.
The car received a facelift in 2015, along with updates to the suspension, a little frame stiffening, and changes to the steering that are supposed to make the car “more refined.” Not much has changed ever since, the car’s performance and quintessential hot hatch ingredients remain untouched.
Why Does It Matter?
With the arrival of fresh new entries in the sports compact car segment, there seems to be a resurgence of cheap fast small cars these days. So the Focus ST, which is getting a bit old already, has new kids on the block to play with.
What you need to know is that the Focus ST, sandwiched between the Fiesta ST sub-compact hatch and the Focus RS all-wheel-drive mega hatch, offers the most available power in the front-wheel-drive, compact car segment. It’s also the only hot small car, along with the Golf GTI, to be offered in a five-door hatchback configuration, making it as practical as it is fast.
It was also recently discovered that sports car sales are actually doing quite well in this crossover-infested industry, so expect the Focus ST, or the FoST as many of you like to call this thing, to stick around for a while. We’re not going to complain about that now, are we?
Is It Better Than A Golf GTI?
The Volkswagen Golf GTI does virtually everything it was designed to do impeccably well and is still the standard in practical performance hatchbacks. But the Focus ST is damn close.
The FoST rides well over rougher roads, considering its suspension is on the stiff side. And the steering has a pleasant heft to it, making the wheel very satisfying to move around.
It feels more buttoned-down than the Fiesta, which makes do with a torsion beam rear end, unlike the Focus which has a multi-link setup. So going over bumps in a corner doesn’t unsettle the car too much.
As good as it is, the Focus ST’s suspension setup still doesn’t quite match the dialed-in composure and impeccable balance of the GTI. It also looks and feels a bit like a toy, sort of immature, with its three-dimensional-style plastic-intensive dashboard, cheesy boost and oil pressure gauges tacked onto it, and gimmicky LED lighting in the doors and cup holders. The GTI, on the other hand, looks and feels like a refined, high-quality precision tool.
A ****load Of Rain
I had my FoST during a diluvian week up here in Montreal. Seriously, a small chunk of our island was consumed by the Saint Lawrence river and some poor folks had to abandon their homes to the floods.
This meant that I was stuck driving my overpowered front-wheel drive hot hatch in a hardcore downpour and cold tarmac.
So I found out that this car torque steers a lot, especially when there’s not an abundance of traction. It also has a bit of trouble getting the power down during a hard launch, especially under wet conditions, unlike the GTI which somehow claws and goes (I had the GTI during winter, so conditions were no better).
The Focus, like the Fiesta, has a few ergonomic issues. The placement of its controls are at odd locations and, in some cases, downright useless. A perfect example is the minuscule trunk latch button that’s located next to the fog light switch, so if you’ve got fat fingers, like me, you’ll probably unlock the trunk quite often for no reason.
When it’s raining all that the time, that can get f'in irritating.
Other ergonomic quirks include a push-button start that’s hidden way behind the steering wheel, as well as an overly complicated wiper stalk, and a large 12V jack protruding right next to your right knee. Okay, Ford I get it, you want me to connect my devices. But it’s not the first thing I want to do the moment I sit in this car. I’d like to be able to start it first.
Then there are those Recaro sports seats, which look absolutely gorgeous and do a great job of holding your meat shell into one piece when exposed to excessive cornering G-forces, something the Focus ST can do rather well. The problem has more to do with the lateral thigh support, which squeezes your legs inwards annoyingly. But maybe that’s because I’m large. Still, I’m convinced there are even larger humans than me out there.
Finally, the fuel tank is rather small. I’d get just over 250 miles at best with a full tank of gas, so I constantly had to stop to refuel. Which, again, is more frustrating in the rain.
This is essentially a five-door compact hatch. The cargo space is a bit tighter than a Golf’s, but it’ll still haul the occasional IKEA bookshelf or baby stroller.
The rear bench is also comfortable for actual adults, actually more so than in the Golf. And Ford has incorporated a pocket-like groove behind the front seats for your knees to fit into it. That’s brilliant! I’ve never sat in the back of a car, so far, that had that. So you can carry your long-legged bros without them complaining too much.
Ford claims the car should turn out 25 MPG in combined driving. I managed to do about 22. The turbocharged engine doesn’t require premium fuel, but of course, Ford recommends 93 octane to hit the horsepower numbers on the brochure.
All the fast, fun and loudness that the red badging and aggressive seats advertise. And it will tear your face apart in the bends. Jesus, this is a fun car to beat on hard. That 2.0-liter turbo delivers solid power through the entire rev range, and won’t stop puffing until it hits the 6,500 rpm redline. There’s like, no turbo lag? What the hell?
It also sounds mean. Even if some of its angst is fake, coming from a sound-symposer piping noise into the cabin.
Fine, it sounds a bit ridiculous, like - BRUUUH - ridiculous. You’re buying an ST for a bit of attitude, right?
The Focus ST also has gobbles of torque. Even if you up-shift the thing and floor it, the car will straight out pick up and go. The six-speed manual shifter is slick and fun to throw around. The clutch has a nice firm and low bite to it. The brakes will take violent abuse without showing fade, and it does the occasional lift-off oversteer quite well when you’re really nailing on it hard in the corners.
Oh, and stick-shift only. Now that’s my kind of car.
Ford will sell you an “entry level” Focus ST for $24,775 ($34,698 CAN). My tester had a few goodies added on like a carbon fiber interior accent package for the shifter, handbrake, dashboard, and door inserts, the upgraded 18-inch wheel package with red brake calipers, and what Ford calls the 402A Equipment Group which includes those *****in’ Recaro leather seats with electronic adjustment, HID headlights, a power moonroof, fog lights, and the SYNC 3 infotainment system complete with the upgraded Sony ten-speaker sound system.
My fully loaded tester was worth $28,575. In Canada, the car comes pretty much loaded as one complete package. Only those wheels are optional, totaling $35,298 CAN.
In comparison, a base five-door Golf GTI will set you back $25,595. Go for a similarly equipped Autobahn model, which will come with a dual-clutch automatic transmission, in case you desire that, will easily out-price the Ford at $34,095.
You could also consider the Subaru WRX. It kicks off at $26,995, a bit more than this, and offers all-wheel-drive as standard, but Subaru hasn’t confirmed anything yet about the return of a hatch version.
The Focus ST is old, but it’s still brilliant. Except for some interior plastics that are starting to feel dated, this remains one of the best compromises for someone looking for a fun thrill ride without burning a hole through their wallet. Its chassis dynamics still give the newer cars a run for their money, it will baby all day long, and there’s just nothing in this price bracket that comes with this much power out of the box.
We’re lucky to even have the option to still buy this sort of car. And Ford, please, oh, please don’t kill it off.
The 2017 Ford Focus ST is beautifully engineered, fast, fun, and cool. It’s the near perfect hot hatch that isn’t a Golf GTI.