Something strange is afoot. Year after year, the cylinder count in the Gyrhead & Sons fleet drops. First with the arrival of the 1987 Buick Grand National then the 2013 Volkswagen GTI.
Our hearts still beat a V8 rythym but dedication to traditional iron has clearly been shaken by persistent $4.00 gas prices and long commutes. Lately we've been drawn to cars with 4 cylinders. These cars appeal to us not only for the promise of 35+ MPG, but because of the incredible performance that cars in this segment are now capable of delivering. When a direct injected, turbocharged 2.0 liter 4 cylinder can out accelerate an SS396 Chevelle or original GT500 Shelby - that is attention grabbing.
Few cars have captured our recent attention quite like the 2013 Ford Focus ST. The Focus has long been a favorite rental on business trips thanks to stellar chassis tuning, herculean brakes, 35 MPG and rowdy 160 HP engine that lives for the upper reach of the rev band. The basic Focus was already so good that our minds were blown by the notion of a 252 horsepower, 270 foot/lb., six speed model - tuned in Europe with zero dumbing down for the US market.
But for months we tried in vain to secure a drive of the ST. The local Ford dealers seemed to know nothing about the ST or when they expected an allocation. One dealer told us the "ST was a very special car, and if you want to drive it, you need to buy it" It was maddening. This kind of dealer intrigue and attitude may be customary for buyers of a Bugatti Veyron, but this is a $25,000 Focus - a very special Focus yes - but still just a Ford Focus.
Today was our lucky day. Just as we were recovering from the horror of a future without Twinkies, we got our chance for long awaited drive in a 2013 ST (dressed in a most shocking shade of Tangerine Scream.) Was I psyched? Absolutely!
The Recaro leather seats (standard with ST2 and ST3 option packages) are excellent - comfortable, grippy, well bolstered and wide enough for larger drivers. Materials and fit/finish were very good. The dash follows Focus tradition, a hot mess of conflicting cut lines, weird angular shapes and dissimilar switch types and display fonts. The ST gets a slick little gauge pod on the dash top which is easy to read on the fly. The starter button is hidden behind the wiper stalk - and I'd still be searching for it unless the dealer told me where to look
The ST styling is busy, but effective and menacing. Light colors make the car look larger than it is and exaggerate the multitude of complex body seams. The car looks cleaner and less busy in black or blue paint - but you may have a different opinion. The 18 inch alloy wheels are gorgeous, and the center exit exhaust very well done. Overall the ST has an impressive stance and visual presence. There is no doubt that this is a serious performance car, and the styling does nothing to dispel the notion. Ford's ST badge will almost certainly become known as a legit mark of performance - just as Honda's Type R and Subaru's STi before it.
The ST steps cleanly off the line with little clutch slip, and down low you can feel the impressive torque. With a 252 horsepower and 270 lb/ft rating, I expected a lot more thrust and fury - but the engine did not seem as willing or as happy to rev as the VW GTI's. Instrumented testing bears this out - the ST is no faster to 120 MPH than the VW. Partial blame goes to the extra 200 pounds the ST carries over the GTI, but the engine also seems down on power relative to the rating. The 2.0 EcoBoost has a feature that only allows full boost (and thus full power) in 15 second intervals. So, you truly don't have unfettered, unlimited access to all 252 horsepower. Car and Driver magazine could only extract a 3.21 lap time around VIR, though admittedly their testing was cut short before the best lap times were achieved. All the same, this is a far slower lap than a base VW GTI on all-season tires. Hmm.
The clutch is very good - with progressive bite and smooth actuation. The six speed shifter is awesome - rifle bolt precise with very light effort. The shift knob is perfectly positioned.
The exhaust note is quite nice. Deep and throaty when laying into the throttle, but refined and muted at cruise. I'm mindful that some of the ST soundtrack is illusory - artificially enhanced by a "sound symposer" tube from the intake tract to the cowl. Ford is not alone in this practice; VW has long used an electronic "Soundaktor" system to enhance the engine sounds transmitted to the interior on the GTI, Jetta GLI and Beetle Turbo. Even BMW now uses a fake V8 soundtrack played through the stereo on the current M5. This is a practice that I could live without - we appreciate realism in all things.
As expected, the ST builds on an already phenomenal Focus chassis and dials it up to 11 (maybe 12.) The steering is telepathic - accurate, perfectly weighted and lightning quick off center. The ST is dressed in Goodyear F1 summer tires and they ride like square granite when cold. One warmed, they ride smooth and quietly. Potential snow-belt buyers of the ST will need to factor the cost of winter tires into their purchase decision - as the F1's are not for use in sub-40 degree temperatures, ice or snow. The ST's massive brakes are excellent - good pedal feel, good modulation. Ride quality and body control are excellent.
We've got mixed feelings about the ST after our long anticipated initial drive. As expected the chassis, brakes and steering shine - and on the racetrack or autocross circuit there probably is not a more capable front driver on the market today. However, we don't live on the racetrack - in daily use the GTI is significantly more refined than the ST - despite much lower handling limits. The ST styling is excellent in our view - aggressive, extroverted and purposeful. We'd expect the ST's styling to be a break point for buyers over 35, who may prefer the subtle styling of the GTI. Interior styling is a mixed bag - but overall the ST does well with the limited hand dealt by Ford's busy dash architecture. The seats however are great - perhaps not as good as those in the Golf R - but darned close. We remain vexed by the acceleration performance however. We were expecting much more drama and violence from 252 horsepower and the ST just didn't deliver it. But in fairness to Ford - we'll need far more seat time to draw final conclusions.
Stay tuned - there's another chapter in this story yet to be written. For now, we remain convinced that the VW GTI still retains the hot hatch title.
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