By no means am I an expert in branding. Nonetheless, it seems intuitively obvious that if you want to build brand equity, you might want some consistency over time so that consumers develop an understanding of what the brand stands for. Case in point 911, Corvette and Mustang. All cars that have been around with the same name for more than half a century. Aside from Mustang and F-Series, Ford tends to be notoriously fickle with its branding, especially for its compact cars. With any luck Focus and ST will be brands that stick around for a good long time.
I recently got to have my first extended visit with what was until earlier this year, the hottest hatch that Ford had ever offered to American customers, the Focus ST. The RS has of course now taken that crown and deservedly so, but that should in no way diminish the ST. This Focus and its little brother, the Fiesta ST are the entry points to the ever expanding Ford Performance lineup.
Speaking of branding, that’s another place where Ford has been very inconsistent. Prior to the December 2014 announcement of Ford Performance, Europe performance models were developed by Team RS, American versions by SVT and race cars and parts by Ford Racing. Those groups are now unified under the Ford Performance umbrella with former Mustang chief engineer Dave Paricek as director. Ford Performance is now responsible for everything from the ST pair to the Shelby GT350, the F-150 Raptor and of course the Le Mans winning GT.
Now back to our story of the Focus ST. The current third-generation Focus is approaching the end of its life-cycle having gone on sale in 2011 and getting a refresh in 2015. By the end of 2017, we will likely see the next-generation model and it will probably hit showrooms in 2018. For its first three years, the Focus was only offered with two powertrain options, a normally aspirated 160-horsepower 2.0-liter and the battery-powered electric drive model. Since then three turbocharged Ecoboost engines have been added, a fuel-efficient 1.0-liter three-cylinder, the roaring 350-hp 2.3 in the RS and the way more than adequate 2.0-liter in the ST.
With 252-horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque on tap this machine has significantly more juice than most mainstream compact hot hatches like the Volkswagen GTI or Kia Forte SX, trailing only the Subaru WRX. In fact aside from the high-end variants like the RS, Golf R and Subaru STi, this is among the most powerful of its type since the late, departed MazdaSpeed 3 and unfortunately that one doesn’t seem likely to return.
Unlike the RS with its torque-vectoring performance all-wheel-drive system, the ST has to make do with only using its front tires for tractive force and directional control. While the departed Mazda has plenty of grunt, it also exhibited more than its fair share of torque assisted steering. Back in 2013 when I first had chance to drive an early ST, it took had more torque steer than I would have preferred, not as bad as the Mazda, but enough to make you hang on tight during hard acceleration. Since then, the engineers seem to have tamed that response and the ST basically went wherever I pointed it.
Not that it wasn’t happy to squeal its front rubber. The standard setup on the ST is a quartet of Goodyear Eagle F1 summer tires, but my tester was rolling on the optional Pirelli P-Zero Nero all-season performance tires which have somewhat less grip. If I were to purchase an ST, I’d skip the Pirellis and invest in a spare set of wheels with proper winter tires for the cold-weather months.
Fortunately, one thing the engineers have avoided on the ST is equipping it with overly large wheels just for the sake of styling. The 18-inch alloys are more than large enough and overall they generally combine with the suspension to provide adequate if not plush ride comfort. This is after all a performance model. If Ford were to equip the ST with the variable dampers used on the Fusion Sport, they could probably soften up the springs and bushings slightly without sacrificing any handling, but that would probably add too much cost to this car.
I did find one other dynamic flaw with the Focus. There is a particular stretch of I-94 between Ypsilanti and Romulus that I regularly traverse when I have to go to Detroit and it’s paved in concrete. To the naked eye, the road which was reconstructed in the last decade looks relatively smooth. However, it has these low frequency, low amplitude waves that are completely unnoticeable in most cars and trucks. There are a few however including the Toyota Tundra and Jeep Wrangler where those waves excite the suspension just enough to trigger a vertical bounce that is rather unpleasant.
Aside from that the ST is firm but not harsh and overall offers really good balance and surprisingly good steering feel through twisty roads. The shift throws feel a bit longer and slightly less precise than what you’ll get from the best VWs and Hondas, but it’s still a pleasure to work with. Push the right pedal down more aggressively and the added velocity is also accompanied by some sound from the engine bay as a valve opens up to allow additional induction noise into the cabin. It’s a wonderfully pleasing sound when having some fun, but not something you’ll want to live with continuously if this is your daily driver so it’s good that it’s tied with how swiftly you are moving.
Of course any car that can handle rapid directional change as adroitly as the Focus ST should also retain its driver in the proper position. The standard seats in the ST are very good and will serve most drivers just fine. However, if you plan to regularly use the ST as the kids at Ford Performance intended, you’ll probably want to get one of the option packages that brings along Recaro sport seats. Before you pony up $3,000 to $5,000 for one of those two packages, I’d strongly recommend you sit in the seats for a while and get in and out a few times. The Recaros have serious side bolsters and limited adjustability. If you get in and out of the car frequently or simply don’t fit them well, save your money.
Another factor to consider is the manual transmission. The clutch pedal operation is light and progressive so driving in traffic is not a problem. But if you are part of the majority of American drivers that just have no idea how to operate a three pedal car and don’t have any desire to learn, you’re out of luck. There is no automatic, it’s a six-speed stick or nothing. Same goes for the hatchback, there is no ST sedan. Frankly, both of these are a non-issue for me, I always choose manuals for my daily drivers and I think all small cars should have hatchbacks. In fact, I’m quite saddened that Ford doesn’t offer it’s great looking European station wagons to American customers. Given the option, I’d get the ST wagon in a heartbeat.
Alas the hatch is as close as we get and it’s a lovely looking car. The more aggressive front fascia strikes a nice middle ground between the more pedestrian Foci and the near rally-car RS. The same goes for the spoiler at the trailing edge of the roof. Personally, I’d pass on the over body stripes and the tangerine scream paint. I’ll take the Kona blue, thank you very much, but that’s why we have choices.
You may have noticed of late that an increasing number of your friends, neighbors and colleagues are eschewing cars and instead purchasing SUVs and crossovers. While I personally find this sad, it also means that there are some very good deals to be had if you do opt for a car. The base sticker price on a 2016 Focus ST is $24,425 but as I write this, there is a $2,750 discount available deals are likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future. That means you can get one just like what I drove for a bit more than $29,000 delivered.
Ford’s compact cars have gone through multiple brand changes in my lifetime as have its performance models. Hopefully, Ford Performance will become as much a standard fixture in the coming decades as M, AMG and Quattro and we’ll continue to ST and RS models. The Focus ST as you see it here will probably be available for about another 18 to 24 months. At that point a new generation Focus will arrive and much to chagrin of a politician with a complexion preternaturally similar to this car it will be built in Mexico instead of suburban Detroit. The current Focus plant will instead make way for the midsize Ranger pickups and perhaps a new Bronco that fans of those brands have been clamoring for many years. As long there is an affordable, fun-to-drive Focus ST, I know where I’ll be looking.