This weekend saw me driving a very special automobile for our Quick Spin series: the Focus ST, the only car ever to de-throne the GTI in one of Car and Driver‘s comparison tests–and as we all know, I am over the moon for the VW GTI. So, the question on my mind is, is the Focus ST really better than the GTI, or have C&D‘s venerable staff collectively lost their minds? I went to a Ford dealership in Broomfield to find out.
The Focus ST is, in essence, a regular Focus with some added testosterone. The grille is blacked-out, there’s a tasteful rear diffuser, a gorgeous center-exit exhaust, and some rakish, exciting alloy wheels. There’s a very nice continuity in the shapes presented by the wheels and the exhaust–which is good, considering that they are probably the features that are most obviously unique to the ST. However, they don’t really blend with any of the other shapes on the ST, which is a bit of an aesthetic problem for this car. It looks busy inside and out, and this is especially noticeable in any of the brash, bright colors in which this car is offered (“Tangerine Scream,” anyone?).
In short, you’ve simply got to have it in black. Black hides the wide-open “mouth” on this car, and black allows the shapes of the alloy wheels and the aluminum center-exit exhaust to really stand out and draw the eye. If you have it in any other color, then the noise of the car’s other creases really starts to become an eyesore if you look at it for too long.
One particularly cool feature of the exterior design is the gas-cap (wow, I never thought I would type those words). It’s integrated extraordinarily well into the body, and you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it. It’s shaped like just another panel on the car, and in this way it really “hides” in the car’s lines. This is indicative of a level of detailed thought given to this car’s design which was surprising and very pleasing–and which is also to be found in the interior.
Overall, if you get this car in black, it can be a rather pleasing, and–dare I say it?–special thing to look at. That said, I don’t think that the current-gen Focus is much of a looker in the first place, and the ST’s designers could only tweak it within the bounds of reason. Bearing that in mind, I think most of the ST-specific design elements are for the better (with the exception of the grille; I really don’t know what they were thinking with that). The exterior wouldn’t sell me on this car, but in black, it wouldn’t scare me off, either–on the contrary, actually. In the right color, it’s a properly solid piece of automotive design.
The ST’s interior is very upscale–and very sporty–for this class of car. There are a variety of interesting shapes available to the driver’s eyes and fingers, and that makes the cockpit a very stimulating place to sit. The IP’s gauge pods are crazy pentagons with exaggerated corners; the knob for adjusting how much air comes out of the vents is a chunky, conical (rather than cylindrical!) piece; the vents themselves jut out at the driver at something like a 127-degree angle. Even the handbrake looks like an alien artifact (and comes out of the dash differently than you might expect–it doesn’t hinge up like a lever; rather, the entire, peculiarly-curved apparatus rises up out of the transmission tunnel).
I was expecting to hate a lot of this car’s interior, based simply on the press photographs I had seen of it; let me say, definitively, that I was wrong to doubt Ford here. First, and most prominently, the Recaro seats are fantastic. I understand that, because these seats are tailored towards the slender, they may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for my 150-lb., 6′ self, however, they were absolutely marvelous. The Recaros are absolutely worth the nominal fee you’ll pay to upgrade to them.
The shift knob is something else I was concerned about. Given that this car is only offered with a six-speed manual, I was especially worried that the shift knob looked like it came out of an early ’00s Honda Civic Si. Thankfully, once I actually touched this shifter, I was quite relieved. It’s made of aluminum (rather than shiny plastic, as I’d feared), and the back of it (which no photographer would ever bother to show you) is made of a spectacularly grippy leather (or leather-like substance). It actually felt like a very premium thing to hold, even if it didn’t look the part (to my eyes).
The steering wheel is a gem; it’s noticeably small in diameter, and wrapped in a fine, slightly cushy, perforated leather. While the GTI and the Toyobaru each have a solid-feeling, sculpted, grippy wheel, the ST’s feels more like it’s got a millimeter or two of tempur-pedic material just beneath the leather. I was initially concerned that this would soften up the feel of the whole experience, but mere seconds into the drive, I noticed that it actually felt more sporty than the GTI’s steering wheel(!). Overall, though, I’m not sure I prefer it over the GTI’s tiller, particularly given that there are far too many buttons on the ST’s wheel for my taste. I don’t even know what most of them do. And there are paddles behind the wheel, where shift paddles might go in an automatic: one paddle operates the cruise control, while the other activates voice-command mode. This made no sense to me. Perhaps the best illustration of this problem comes from the fact that there are two separate four-way switches on either side of the wheel. That’s fairly annoying to me on general principle, as I like a steering wheel to have as few buttons as possible. I like a car to have as few buttons as possible, actually, and this is the opposite of that. In total, the ST’s steering wheel has nineteen buttons on it. Ford: knock it off with this, already. Just because I’m part of the “smartphone generation” or whatever doesn’t mean I want my car to be a smartphone. I want my car to be a car.
Speaking of electronics, Ford’s voice-control technology (SYNC) is universally detested by consumers and journalists alike, and it is, sadly, a mandatory “feature” on every trim level of the Focus ST. Blissfully, though, there are physical buttons for stereo and HVAC controls, and these were quite straightforward to operate. This is a nice change of pace from some other Ford-family vehicles (Lincoln, I’m looking at you), which make you control HVAC and audio from the touchscreen. This is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do to a car, especially if your touchscreen interface is as slow and un-intuitive as SYNC. So even though the ST’s implementation of SYNC is relatively harmless, I don’t understand why Ford bothered with putting SYNC in there in the first place. This would have been a better car without it.
There are some other gripes, to be sure: I think the driver sits too low and too far back in this car, and as a result it can be hard to use all of the visibility which the windows afford. This also makes the driving position (initially, at least) fairly awkward; it feels like you’re looking up and out at all of the controls, like they’re farther away from you than they should be–which is very weird. I can’t say whether this is something one would get used to, but it was a noticeable (though not insurmountable) issue I noticed for the duration of my test drive. I’m also not impressed by the amount of space in the rear. With the Recaros taking up all of the rear knee-space, your rear-seat passengers won’t be getting too comfortable. It would probably be fine for kids, or adults on a (very) short trip, but there’s no one I hate enough to make them spend a road trip back there. The lovely Recaros in front are absolutely worth the tradeoff for the driver and front-seat passenger, but if your backseat is going to be rendered useless anyway, then why not just get a V6 Mustang instead for the same price? And while we’re on the subject of compromised utility, allow me to report that the trunk space is noticeably less than what you’d get in a GTI, and the rear seats don’t fold all the way down–they just sort of lie at an angle.
Overall, the interior is very well put-together, and it uses some marvelous materials. Panel gap, build quality, and general fit and finish are absolutely up there with the Mk 6 GTI. Everything you touch is either premium or close to it. My only gripe is with how busy all of the lines are. It’s exciting, to be sure–it’s a downright visual feast–but there are lines coming out of nowhere and ending nowhere; hard angles and swooping, gradual angles; pentagons and parallelograms and hexagons and squares and circles and squircles. It’s almost exhausting to look at it all. In short, then, while the ST’s interior may feel quite premium, it does so with too much drama for my taste. Because all of the shapes and lines in the cockpit are all screaming at you, it can be hard to relax. if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, though, then you’ll be more than satisfied with this cockpit–and it does feel like a cockpit; more like the inside of a stealth bomber than a car, really. Ford has made a worthy competitor to the GTI in terms of build quality here (if not in terms of design harmony; the ST’s feng shui is WAY off). Now, if only they would ditch SYNC…
The previous-generation Focus chassis underpinned my old Mazdaspeed3. As such, I was anticipating punishment from this car, what with its lowered ride height, sporty suspension, and minimal tire sidewalls. I was actually taken aback by how comfortable the ST was over bumps. Rough tarmac will definitely upset the car’s zen mojo–you wouldn’t call it “comfortable.” But neither is it painful, or even uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the Mazdaspeed3’s suspension (the ‘speed3 rode on specially designed pain-coils).
The ST doesn’t shield the driver from unwanted noise as well as the GTI’s suspension does, but the ST is a lot more comfortable than I was expecting it to be. I cannot say for sure how the ride would hold up over time (considering tire wear in particular), but the suspension was obviously given considerable tuning so that human beings, with spines, would be able to comfortably sit in the vehicle as it goes along the road. I think it’s a smashing compromise, though a part of me would probably still yearn for the GTI’s Teutonic chassis tuning if I ran into a particularly bad pothole.
This thing can absolutely handle. We took it on a twisty road, with a few esses, and the salesman told me I could put my foot in it, “because cops don’t usually hang out on this road.” What a guy. Wanting only to oblige, I downshifted and gave it a bootful through the esses. I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to explore the limits of grip, but I could sense through the steering wheel that the car was capable of a lot more than the backroad curves could throw at it. It was magnificent, and the steering response was informative without being punishing–it really was tuned very, very well. I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by this car’s handling. One more notable feature–the absence of torque steer. A couple of times, I put myself in second and floored it, thinking, “THIS will generate some torque steer!” and, as I sat there, waiting for the car to jump leftward into oncoming traffic without provocation….it did nothing. It just kept going straight. Whatever wonders Ford has worked with eliminating the torque steer from this 252hp, 270 lb.-ft., FWD monster, it is simply brilliant to drive.
When we turned around to head back to the dealership, I did notice that the turning circle on this car is absolutely hilarious. It needed a K-turn to handle a curve that would have been a simple U-turn for most cars. This is not a deal-breaker for me by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth mentioning.
The brakes are almost flawless. There’s quite a lot of initial bite, but in this car, that bite just inspires confidence in the stoppers from the second you touch the pedal. They are progressive and natural-feeling, while also being very effective at scrubbing speed. This is especially gratifying given that Ford’s brakes are usually about 75% too spongy for me; I’m glad to see that they’ve taken a different tack here.
This is one of the all-time great modern manual transmissions. The shifter moves very fluidly from gate to gate, but it also has a very short throw, and when you put it into a gear, it locks into the gate with a lovely, mechanical-feeling snick. It is a work of art, and even despite the fact that the shift knob looks a bit bargain-bin, it fits the hand very well and is an utter joy to row. My only complaint is that, in order to unlock the Reverse gate, you have to lift the collar on the shift boot, which seems very counter-intuitive to me; it seems to me that the best method for separating Reverse from the other gears is to push down on the shift knob in order to access it. I’m also fine with shifters that require you to add extra elbow-grease to get to the Reverse gate. But lifting the little metal ring that connects the shift boot to the knob? That’s just a weird, awkward motion for your hand to perform.
Thankfully, the clutch is every inch as beautifully engineered as the gearbox itself. It’s light–not so light as to feel numb, but just light enough that operating it isn’t a chore. Clutch-flywheel engagement is very progressive, and you can feel it through the pedal just enough so that you know what’s going on. The friction point is wide enough that it doesn’t feel like a switch, but not so wide that you might accidentally drop out of a gear before it’s all the way engaged.
Simply put: it’s a fantastic gearbox. It might be one of the best transmissions I’ve ever used; it’s certainly in the top five. As a manual junkie, I was floored by how much fun it was to row this thing. It strikes the perfect balance between notchiness and smoothness, a feat that few other gearboxes I’ve encountered have been able to match: for instance, the GTI’s ‘box is a marvel of smoothness with not enough notchiness, while the Mazdaspeed3’s is so notchy that it’s hard to shift it without a major application of violence and force. On the test drive, I even found myself changing gears even when I didn’t have to, just because it was such great fun to operate this transmission.
This car has 270 lb.-ft. of torque, and you can absolutely tell that from the driver’s seat. A generous helping of that torque is available from about 2000 RPM, and so it’s quite easy to have fun in almost any gear at almost any time. It’s really shocking how favorably this compares to the Mazdaspeed3, which has more bhp (263) and more torque (280); it just feels like the ST makes that power a lot earlier and a lot more consistently. (Don’t tell Mazda, but I also feel like more of The ST’s 252bhp are making it to the wheels).
The moral of the story is that, with an ocean of torque consistently available throughout the rev-band, the ST flies. It just absolutely flies. The ST gets 9/10 points in this category–not because it could objectively out-accelerate 90% of the cars on the road (although that may be true), but rather because the sensation of acceleration you get in this car is more exhilarating than the experience of accelerating in a great many other cars, including ones that cost much more.
You can definitely tell that the ST’s sound is being piped through an active sound symposer (or “snorkus”). In this car, that isn’t even close to a bad thing. You can feel the deep basso profundo thrum of the engine’s exhaust note in your kidneys, and this would be true even without the symposer’s help; it’s there to add the treble notes of induction noise to this composition, and it does so with the precision of a 1st-chair violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra. When you get on the throttle, the symposer snarls at you. It chucks out this positively lupine growl that sends shivers down your spine. It’s marvelous technology.
The thing is, apart from the engine noise (and the sound coming from the excellent stereo), there isn’t much to hear with this car. Sound-deadening has been applied here to great effect, and road noise is effectively a non-issue. I can’t speak to the presence or absence of engine drone at cruising speeds, but I can tell you that the cabin is a very sonically comfortable place, and that the engine note is positively demonic. For me, this is just about a perfect combination.
This is really the ST’s weak spot. The thing is, it does have the toys you’d expect a hot hatch with options to possess: heated seats, nav, touchscreen…things, bluetooth for your phone, hookups for your MP3 player, and so on. My only issue with these toys is that many of them are connected with Ford’s truly horrible SYNC interface, which is unendingly frustrating to use. It’s such a distracting piece of technology to operate that I honestly believe it’s unsafe to use SYNC while you’re driving. If that condemnation isn’t enough to frighten you, then consider the following anecdote, which should give you chills: when I was talking to the salesman about SYNC, he said that Ford’s plan was to phase out physical buttons and eventually have the entire car be operated with voice commands. This is a bad idea.
This car’s base price is $24,115. For what you’re getting, that is
incredible INSANE value. Admittedly, given that you will want some of the options for this car (do yourself a favor and get the Recaros, rear legroom be damned), the price of the model you actually buy would probably be closer to the model I tested, which was fully-loaded at about $29,000 (MSRP). Now, if you were to go with an ST specced somewhere in between those two prices? At about $27,000, this car would be a very, very sweet deal. I would even say that it’s a serious rival for the current-generation GTI. The busy design of the ST, inside and out, might keep me from buying one, especially considering the wonderfully simple, clean design of a GTI, but if a salesman made me a particularly good offer on a day when I was feeling particularly rakish? …..I might just end up in this fast Ford.
At least, until the Mk. 7 GTI comes to America next summer.
Aggregate Score: 78/100