States call driving a privilege. Some people consider it a task. With the 2013 Ford Focus ST, it becomes a joy. There are very few cars today that so reward the active, engaged driver.
At the same time, the Focus ST would be practical as a daily driver. As a hatchback, it provides versatile interior space that can handle five passengers and cargo. Fuel economy, while down substantially from other Focus variants, is still good enough that each fill-up should not empty your bank account.
For the average American buyer, the Focus ST has a couple of strikes against it. First, it only comes with a six-speed manual transmission. At last count, only 6 percent of new cars sold had manuals in the U.S. And we apparently prefer sedans over hatchbacks, even in the compact segment. I do not expect the Focus ST to change these metrics.
In the tradition of the hot hatchback, a type of car developed by European and Japanese gearheads who generally only had access to economical front-wheel-drive cars as platforms for tuning exploits, the Focus ST sends almost too much power to its front wheels: 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque.
Like an aftermarket-tuned hot hatch, the Focus ST makes use of a turbocharger strapped to its 2-liter engine. However, Ford also gives it direct injection to up the efficiency. And unlike an aftermarket special, the Focus ST has very little turbo lag.
From game to real life
After spending many hours driving the virtual Focus ST in Gran Turismo 5 as my go-to car for the early races, I had high hopes for the real thing. Painted in a yellow-orange color called Tangerine Scream, the fully optioned-up Focus ST delivered to CNET met my expectations visually.
However, I found it difficult to get comfortable in the Recaro seats. The high side bolsters meant a little extra lifting and twisting to get in. The headrest too aggressively pushed my head forward, probably good for crash safety but not general comfort, and the angle of the bottom part of the seat seemed too steep. I would opt for the base cloth sport seats, but Ford ties its various tech options to the Recaro upgrade.
On first rolling out on city streets, I thought Ford might have tuned the suspension too soft. There seemed to be a velvet edge around every driving element, from ride quality to shifter to steering. But I quickly found that the Focus ST exhibits the sort of European tuning I was used to in much more expensive cars from the likes of BMW and Audi. The shifter, for example, moves through the gate as if on a well-worn track, while still showing great precision in gear changes.
On my favorite mountain road, the Focus ST revealed its true nature. Letting the revs run high, the engine took on a hard, ticking exhaust note, the growl of a small-displacement engine with a ton of power. Popping the shifter down to second was quick and comfortable, thanks to its European tuning. And the suspension, while still exhibiting its velvety smoothness, kept the body on an even keel.
Turn-in was sharp, while the wheel fed back good heft, even with its electric boost unit. But the best part about the Focus ST is that it let me play. When I held the brakes a little into a turn, the car responded with predictable rotation. I hit the gas at different points during my turn exits and the car showed me the timing that worked best. The Focus ST's handling is similar to the Scion FR-S', but with a lot more power on tap. It is a car that readily speaks to the driver.
Tame in the city
The real benefit of its European tuning comes in city driving. Instead of making like an uncontrollable bucking bronco, the Focus ST settles down nicely. I could take off from a light without spinning the front tires and creep along in grid-locked traffic without stalling the engine. A hill hold feature would have been nice when forced to stop midway up a steep San Francisco street, but the lack of turbo lag from the Focus ST's engine helped, letting me carefully bring in the power while letting off the hand brake.
On the freeways, the Focus ST rode nicely, its suspension soaking up the bumps from expansion joints, making me feel like hundreds of miles could go by easily. However, in sixth gear at 65 mph, the engine was running about 2,500rpm, not the best tuning for maximizing fuel economy. The Focus ST only achieved 23 mpg city and 32 mpg highway in EPA testing, a little sacrifice in favor of performance.
Mistaking the Focus ST for an economy car, I went out on a run with the fuel needle pointing at a quarter tank, thinking it should get me through the 65 miles of my planned route. But hammering it through hairpin turns up a mountain north of the Golden Gate, I saw the fuel light come on.