Any of my car enthusiast buddies know that I generally don’t like front wheel drive, 4 cylinder engines, or manual transmission cars. However, if there is any domestic vehicle out there that has a good a chance as any to change my mind, the Focus ST is it.
Some background on the ST namesake. ST = Sport Technologies. This Focus model is tuned by none other than Ford Germany’s Focus RS engineers. It’s no surprise then, that the car feels decidedly European. Far less country western and more german-precise than I had originally anticipated.
After giving this some thought, I decided to review this car in a slightly non-traditional manner compared to our previous vehicle reviews. Instead of a ubiquitous review, I will be writing my thoughts in a daily diary format. You will get the play by play as I live with the Focus ST.
With many car buyers having the same reservations that I have regarding domestic brands, Ford is working feverishly to break those stereotypes. So this is indeed a worthy challenge.
Now let the fun commence!
Day 1: Vehicle pickup and first impressions
It was a Thursday afternoon that I got a call from Ford asking me whether I would be interested in having the Focus ST for a go for a week. After years of watching the guys on Top Gear UK, and Fifth Gear talk about their hot hatches and how much fun their up-rated Focus (Foci?) was, I was salivating at the prospect of being able to live with one in real life.
Part of the reason for me relishing this opportunity was because of my recent experience with the MINI John Cooper Works cars on at Mission Raceway, which you can read about here.
In that editorial, I talked about how the uprated JCW MINI Clubman (which is also a FWD 4 cylinder car) was my fav vehicle of that day on the track. Surprise me silly.
Ford’s 3rd generation Focus made its debut in 2011 and has been promoted as a global car. No longer does only Europe get the nicer looking Focus or the “hot” version.
With only a few hours to take advantage of this offer (the car had to be picked up that night), I didn’t get much chance to research the vehicle beforehand, like I always try to do before accepting a new press car. More on that later.
Upon pulling into the pickup location, a stunning blue Ford Focus ST greeted my eyes. This colour, known as Performance Blue Metallic, really popped amongst the white, silver, black, and champagne coloured cars that paint the streets these days.
First impressions? For the most part, I think that the styling is a success on the ST. With it’s swept back tail lights that extend into the rear quarter panels, its big roof spoiler, and punchy styling, I like it!
The ST also gets a different nose than the standard Focus. However to my eyes, Ford’s now ubiquitous Aston Martin-esque grill looks a little less elegant on this car than on the Ford Fusion. It looks a bit mouthy to me, a little too catfish-like.
Dual clutch….err no!
Ford offers a 6-speed dual clutch-based Powershift semi-automatic transmission for their non-ST Focus models. I made the mistake of assuming that as a VW Golf GTI competitor, the ST would also be offered with a more robust version of this transmission. Well I was mistaken. The ST comes only with a 6 speed manual transmission.
I can’t help but draw comparisons to the MINI Cooper S which was initially only offered a manual gearbox while its lower horsepower non-S brethren was also available with an automatic transmission option.
MINI eventually added an automatic transmission option to the Cooper S, and now even the even hotter John Cooper Works cars are available with automatic transmissions
Aside from this perhaps controversial decision, in the context of this review, the reality is that I have had an admittedly relatively (shamefully) small amount of time behind the wheel of a manual transmission car.
Regardless, I soldiered on and after a slightly shaky start pulling away in the Focus while the very nice press fleet lady was watching, I started getting comfortable with my new ride. Thank goodness the car was parked nose down on a slope, especially since I was taking advantage of the late summer weather and wearing flip-flops!
My first and foremost thoughts today were, of course, largely centered around the manual gearbox. My first learning experience was years ago as a teenager on a friend’s Toyota Corolla AE86. Since that point, I had some seat time in a 2005-ish era Honda Civic, and most recently in a rally-prepped Subaru WRX at the Dirtfish Rally driving school in Bellevue WA.
Out of all of those cars, the Focus ST’s clutch and gearbox felt most similar to that of the Dirtfish Subaru WRX. It’s certainly wasn’t the lightest clutch pedal, and had a fair amount of pushback. My quads and left calf muscle will certainly get a workout this week!
While the gearbox doesn’t have the “snick snick” feel that you will find in a Japanese car, it’s nothing to the point of being annoying or difficult. As a less experience manual gearbox driver, I really appreciated that you have to pull-up on a ring below the shift knob collar in order to get the car into reverse. The interlock eliminated any danger of accidentally shifting into reverse rather than 1st gear.
Another much appreciated feature that Ford has included in the Focus is called “Hill Start Assist”. This feature, activated by default, holds the brakes for a crucial couple of seconds as you transition off the brake pedal and onto the accelerator pedal. An inclinometer tells the computer when the slope is steep enough to activate the system. The peace of mind it provided was significant!
Recaro seats, not meant for large proportion people
Whether or not you hit the gym 7 days a week or lay on the couch with a bag of Cheetos, the ST’s Recarro seats don’t discriminate.
While I have experienced equally aggressively side bolstered driver seats before in other cars (i.e. in the Mercedes C63AMG, BMW M3, Porsche 911 Turbo), this was probably the first time I have seen proportionally aggressive thigh/seat bottom bolstering.
If you don’t like your buttocks being cupped like that from a passionate lover, this is not the car for you as you’re going to feel very cramped. While the seats fit my average height, weight and build just fine, your mileage may vary. Make sure you actually try them out before you buy this car as a daily driver.
Whatever the case, the Recaros do an absolutely spectacular job of holding you in the twisty bits.
That’s it for Day 1 with the Focus. Let’s see what the rest of the week will bring!
Day 2: Fri the 13th plays out…of course
Today is Friday the 13th. The saying “the new broom sweeps clean” springs to mind here as I left my house early this morning to get a bit of a drive in before heading to the office.
I was eager to defeat the gods of Fri the 13th myth by having a positive mindset for the day. What better way to start off than in a new hot hatch.
With more time this morning than during the rushed pickup the night before, I started appreciating the small exclusive styling cues that the ST offered. The LED “eyebrow” parking lamps, the HID Xenon headlamps, all add to make this car more special than its “normal” siblings, but are yet also needed to compete with the heavyweight in this vehicle class, the VW Golf GTI.
Instruments, Ford MyTouch, Ambient lighting, and more…
Now, the cabin accouterments. Like all Foci, the dashboard design is filled with all sorts of angular lines jutting out at the driver. While it is a bit busy, I think it works for the character of this car. A bit less economy car, a bit more stealth bomber.
Our ST includes a nice steering wheel with the ST badge in a satin finish at the 6 o’clock position. The gauges are logically laid out where you expect them to be. But why does the speedometer have 0 to 100 km/hr in 20 km/hr increments (as expected), then jumps to 30km/hr increments beyond that. I don’t get it. It’s not as if they needed more room for the max indicated speed. The car doesn’t go THAT fast!
The LCD screen in the middle of both the tachometer and speedometer is small but effective. It’s a nice high resolution colour screen which gives you the trip computer info, and allows you to change various driver aid and customizable instrumentation settings.
I particularly like that the satellite navigation system takes advantage of this small LCD display, and shows you the next turn coming up on the right ¼ of the screen while still keeping the rest of the trip computer info where it is. More on how effective this works when I test out the Ford MyTouch sat nav system later.
While the centre instrumentation has a lot of buttons, they are a result of the redundant controls from the MyTouch screen. So that’s actually a good thing. I like that they are actual push buttons rather than the capacitive touch rubbish that you find in the Ford Taurus.
Whatever the case, you get the sense that you’re getting a fair amount of value for money. Our test car was equipped with SE Plus package for only an extra $1000. This includes the Microsoft Sync system with MyFord Touch, intelligent Access with Push Button Start, Dual zone automatic climate control, and the upgraded 10 speaker Sony audio system.
Also optional but included in our car was the colour adjustable ambient lighting that lights up the interior front door handle releases, front footwells, door map pockets, and the front cupholders. It may sound a little gimmicky and look a little Justin Bieber-ish, it fits the target demographic of the buyer for this car. Plus even the Mercedes-Benz S-Class includes colour adjustable ambient lighting these days!
I really appreciated the lighted map pockets when rummaging for something in the dark. I was also pleasantly surprised to see LED-based map lamps located in the ceiling above both the front seats. It reminded me of something similar from a private jet. Cool!
Tip to Ford though, please include another light in the overhead console. It is impossible to see inside the centre console when the lid is open and the light from the rear LED lamps are blocked by the raised armrest.
Our test car was also equipped with the optional $1200 moonroof, and the $700 satellite navigation GPS system. More on the latter in a future date.
Most of the frequently touched surfaces (e.g. switches, air vents, etc) in the Focus are pleasant and high quality enough for the price. The only cheap feeling pieces that I took issue with were the glovebox lid and the headliner which occasionally made popping noises at highway speeds. That being said, the VW GTI still uses a bit nicer materials all over the cabin.
Wearing proper footwear today made all the difference in the driving experience. Just like getting back on a bike after! But I vowed to avoiding flip-flops during the rest of my tenure with this car.
While I had initially planned to talk a little bit more about the Focus’ engine today, alas the Fri the 13th gods struck a blow. I noticed a big screw in the passenger side Goodyear Eagle F1. Testing the Focus’ tire pressure warning system was not really part of my plan for the day!
Regardless, I am happy to report that the Focus ST, surprisingly, includes a full sized spare tire! What a rarity these days as manufacturers try to save weight and costs. Granted it doesn’t come with the same 18” alloy wheel nor the Goodyear Eagle F1 summer performance tire, but it is an honest to goodness Continental all-season full sized tire with a 16” steel wheel. Kudos to Ford for this!
More to come soon…
Day 3: The people have spoken
After my last update, I gave our friends at Ford Canada a call regarding the punctured tire. They politely declined my suggestion of going to a tire shop to get the tire repaired, even if it was on my own dime.
Since the tire hadn’t been losing air at all, I was told to keep the car, but limit the distances traveled until they get me a replacement vehicle tomorrow; evidently there is another Focus ST in the press fleet.
Special thanks to our wonderful contact person at Ford Canada for dealing with this so quickly and professionally!
“When given lemons, make lemonade”, as they say. Since I couldn’t drive far, I took advantage of the end of summer sunny weather to snap the obligatory beauty shots around town while running errands, including a quick Starbucks run.
I was curious as to whether the Focus ST would spark conversations with strangers outside Starbucks (where a lot of car guys meet), and sure enough it did.
Most people loved the performance blue colour, the centre mounted Lamborghini Aventador reminiscent exhaust tip, and the Y-spoke 18” aluminum wheels that wouldn’t look that out of place on a Lamborghini Gallardo. Others couldn’t believe that it was a Ford Focus, especially when they saw the quality of the Recaro seats and the materials used in the cabin.
Almost everyone liked the practical nature of the hatchback design, with not a single person asking whether it came as a 3 door rather than the 5 door hatchback design. This was something I wondered because the GTI does come in 3 and 5 door versions. But nonetheless hatchbacks really are coming back in style to North America. To that point, one gentleman even commented that he could probably easily get a couple of bikes in the back with the rear seats folded down even though our Focus wasn’t a station wagon.
Jaws were dropped and eyebrows raised at how reasonable the price was for what you get with the ST starting at $29,999.00 base (as indicated on the sticker).
A quick perusal over to Ford Canada’s website indicates that current prices for my approximate postal code are even lower. Your dealer may sell for less of course.
I’ll be picking up the replacement vehicle tomorrow, so we’ll cover more on the Ford MyTouch system, the sat nav GPS functions, and more driving impressions.
Day 4: They call me mellow yellow
Strictly speaking, my replacement Focus ST is equipped with the optional tri-coat Tangerine Scream paint job, not yellow.
What is a tri-coat paint, you ask? Normally most vehicles have a two-stage paint job (colour + clearcoat). The tri-coat paint adds a middle layer to add some depth to the paint by means of refracting light.
Whatever the case, Tangerine Scream is obviously not a subtle colour. While it thoroughly suits the hooliganism nature of the ST, for me, the performance blue is loud enough.
Aside from the Tangerine Scream paint job, this replacement ST is identical to my blue car with the exception of one thing. It has about 4000 kms more mileage on the odometer (9600 kms versus 5500 kms). The major difference I noticed immediately was that with some extra miles under its belt, this car was far easier to shift smoothly especially from a dead stop and between 1st and 2nd gears.
Now that I have the distraction of the punctured tire behind me, let’s talk a bit about the engine performance!
Turbo…err I mean Ecoboost!
The Focus ST has a 2.0L aluminum block direct-injection 4 cylinder engine that has been fettled by Ford’s European engineers. The group that developed the car equipped it with a BorgWarner turbo that supplies 19.5 psi of boost (with an extra 20 secs of overboost up to 21 psi).
What this equates to is 252 hp and 270 ft-lbs of torque with very little turbo lag in day-to-day driving. Turbo boost is delivered in a linear fashion and is very usable in day-to-day traffic. There is plenty of torque at lower RPMs, and the car never feels out of breath or the power band too spikey. There are no surprises here.
Ford’s engineers also redesigned the intake and exhaust system for the ST, and doesn’t share any of these bits with the regular Focus. I was surprised by how lacking the engine is of any turbo cues whatsoever (such as the turbo and blow-off valve noises). I could just barely hear the turbo spool when the radio was off, if on the right road surface, and only under the right throttle conditions.
What isn’t lacking however, is the amazing engine induction noise entertain your ears above above 3000rpms. Ford equipped the ST with a piece of new tech called the “Sound Symposer”.
Essentially it’s a clever pipe with a butterfly valve that amplifies engine noise into the cabin. Popular Mechanics covers it all in their article along with a nice video clip, so I’ll leave it to them to explain.
In short, the system works as advertise. You get some lovely engine induction noise (none of that fake fart can muffler exhaust noise) above 3000 rpms, but once you are in 5th or 6th gear on the highway, the noise settles down and never drones. Great job Ford! It’s really the best of both worlds.
252 hp and 270ft-lbs of torque all going to the front wheels also means that the 235/40R-18 Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2 tires work hard to grip the road under heavy throttle. On dry pavement, the car never feels like a handful. There is plenty of grip and it’s always safe and planted while yet being fun to drive.
In the wet, it is easy to spin the front wheels and have the traction control slap you on the wrist. And with how much rain we usually get in the Lower Mainland, this is one of the reasons why I usually prefer rear wheel or all wheel drive. I wasn’t a fan of how the car felt when the front tires lost grip in the wet and when the traction control cut in. There’s a bit of more axle hop than I expected.
In their attempt to counteract torque steer (the tendency for a front wheel drive car to pull left or right under throttle) Ford’s engineers made used of the electronic power assist steering system, and added some intelligence to it.
When the system senses an imbalance of torque to the front wheels, it counteracts by cutting the power steering assistance in the direction that the steering wheel would normally be yanked. This helps to dampen out the effects of torque steer.
For the most part the system works well. But plant your foot too hard and there is only so much it can compensate. You will feel your old friend torque steer still snatching at your steering wheel when the turbo kicks in hard. Basically it still deals with the symptoms and rather than the cause. In day-to-day driving though, it works reasonably well.
How does it ride and handle?
Let’s talk about the ride and handling in the real world. The team that developed the ST specifically engineered new springs, dampers, anti-roll bars for this car. The front and rear suspension uprights are also all new.
What this means on Vancouver roads is that the ride is European firm but not uncomfortable. You can rest assured that your Starbucks coffee will stay in its spot even while traversing on the perpetually-in-construction Highway 1. The only time that I felt the ride motions were a bit busy were on the heavily milled sections of pavement. There were a lot of quick and small jarring movements here that could’ve been dampened better.
Quicker steering than a 458, kinda.
I love the ST’s quick 1.8 turns lock-to-lock steering setup. If you don’t know what “lock to lock” means, click here.
To give this some context, even the Ferrari 458 Italia’s insanely quick steering is set at only 2.0 turns lock to lock. Not saying that the Focus ST has anywhere close to the feel or handling of the 458 (although I’d be happy to compare if I ever got the chance!), but it does give you some context as to how quickly this car responds to your input. In contrast, the regular Focus is setup for a slow but safe 2.6 turns lock-to-lock.
You do have to pay attention (in a good way, because it is a driver’s car after all) when the pavement switches from the milled stuff diagonally to the new tarmac on Highway 1 or King George Boulevard in Surrey.
But the rewards of both the quick steering and the suspension tuning are an almost go-kart like feeling of responsiveness. There is a controlled amount of body lean, even on off-cambered downhill sweeping corners. I was pleasantly surprised at how little understeer there is in this front wheel drive car. It really likes to change directions quickly with little drama and a whole lot of fun.
Like other Foci, torque vectoring, which can brake an inside front wheel midcorner to improve cornering balance, is also present. The system seems to work as advertise as the car tightly held its line on whatever twisty roads I put it through.
Electric Power Steering…the negatives
Let’s talk about steering feel now. As mentioned earlier, all Foci are equipped with electric power steering. While it has been tuned for performance versus the regular Focus, I found it still lacking road feel. This is of course not anything unique to just to Focus, but also to just about all of the electric steering systems out there. There is a price to be paid for fuel economy savings.
Besides the lack of feel, I found that there was too much of a tendency for the ST to self-centre its steering wheel. Anything past the off-centre position weighs too artificially in resistance. And even though the ST has a variable ratio rack, it just feels a tad too heavy at highway speeds.
Finally we come to the brakes. The ST is equipped with 12.6” ventilated front discs, and 10.7” solid discs in the back. The fronts are uprated from the regular Focus.
They do an amazing job of hauling the car down to a stop from speed. I found the brake pedal initially too touchy (not dissimilar to that of the Focus Energi), but over the last few days I have gotten used to it. ABS kickback is minimal and the system seems well sorted out.
In my next post, I’ll be giving a through run through of the Ford MyTouch system. Stay tuned and thanks for reading!
Day 5: Harvest Moon
Before we delve into the MyTouch system, let’s talk about the rarity of the ST. Not once have I seen myself coming and going everywhere, unlike the GTI. The only other ST I have seen is in town was my former performance blue press car!
With the Focus ST’s heavyweight class competitor, the VW GTI, all over town, I really appreciated the rarity of the ST.
Now let’s talk about Ford’s MyTouch with Microsoft’s SYNC system. For starters, I really liked the 8” display. It was bigger than average, had nice graphics that rendered relatively quickly, and it provided a central area to control vehicle functions: climate control, entertainment, navigation, and phone function
Ford seems to have made improvements to the system which is now much quicker and more logical than the MyTouch system I experienced in a rental Ford Taurus Limited last year while heading to the Pebble Beach Concours D’elegance.
Unlike the Taurus where there were a lot of soft touch redundant buttons with zero tactile feedback, the Focus has actual buttons for the same controls. I liked this much better.
While the MyTouch system has been improved, it still seems needlessly complicated to do simple tasks. A lot of my criticism is centered around the Microsoft SYNC voice command system. It’s slow to react and there are just so many commands.
Why not have a pop-up that lists all the commands you can say when you activate the voice command system, similar to Mercedes-Benz’s system? For example, I don’t need to know about the climate control voice commands when I’m in the navigation screen. I just want the relevant navi commands!
And do we really need to change our climate control settings via voice control? It looks good in the TV commercials, but SYNC seems to listen for a long time (compared to the systems on German cars), and therefore it takes about 10x longer than to just to turn the knob!
There are also a few other small annoyances, such as the song title being blocked by the bezel surrounding the screen because of its lower left hand corner position. Or some frequently used functions being buried in submenus.
A lot of it takes some getting used to and I’m sure that over time, most owners will figure out what they like and where the appropriate menus are. Maybe this is why Ford has to have a SYNC manual app in Apple’s App store, for a quick reference!
On the plus side of the MyTouch system, the GPS navigation display is good, with nice graphics and decent rendering. You even get 3D buildings when you’re in major cities, such as in downtown Vancouver. I’ve only seen this in higher end luxury brands.
I particularly liked the floating street names on the GPS map display too. In too many systems, the street names are crammed sideways, parallel to the street lines. They’re difficult to read without having to contort your neck. No such problems with the MyTouch system. I also liked the split-screen view, and how quickly the system updated my actual position on the map.
So in short, better effort Ford and Microsoft, but there’s still improvements to be made. I’m glad to see that at least they’re listening to customers though!
Day 6: “Woah that’s a Ford?”
On the last day of summer, I took the car over to a few friends who fall directly within the target demographic of the Focus ST. These are hardcore VW GTI and Subaru WRX fans that aren’t afraid of voicing their opinions.
“Cool, factory standard turbo gauge?!”, “This is the new Focus?”, “OMFG, I love these Recaro seats” were all comments that were uttered.
As a special note, everyone was impressed by the sculpting on the back of the front seats that carved out a couple of extra inches of leg/knee room for the rear passengers. Space was just fine for 4 above average-sized guys that we had in the car at one point.
Someone also discovered the rather novel rear cupholders which are on the outboard positions of the rear bench versus the usual spot at the back of the centre console where they can be kicked and broken. Smart!! Just keep it to water bottles and not hot beverages. They’re good but not THAT good.
The couple of negative comments that were mentioned were subjective ones. One person felt that the Tangerine Scream colour combined with the high tail of the Focus caused it to look too tall visually. A suggestion that was brought up was to paint the area between the rear bumper’s red reflectors to black. This would break up vastness of the solid colour through simple visual trickery. A valid point and a trick that BMW uses on their cars.
There was also the question as to why the regular lower end Foci can be had with parking sensors and the rearview camera but not the ST. Even though it’s not a long car, the hatch design combined with the steeply raked rear window does make rear visibility a challenge on dark rainy nights (as if we don’t get those in Vancouver).
Either the rear parking sensors or better yet the rearview camera would add an extra margin of safety and security.
The final negative point was around the blindspot mirrors that Ford has chosen to integrate in some of their models, including the Focus. They’re non-adjustable and set up for people who don’t adjust their mirrors properly! To learn how to adjust your mirrors to eliminate your blindspot, read this.
I commend Ford for this feature, but the passenger side blindspot mirror was completely useless when the main mirror is adjusted properly. The former just points two lanes over! The driver’s side mirror was acceptable though.
While we are on the topic of safety, the Bi-Xenon headlamps on the ST are brilliant! While they aren’t active cornering, I was surprised to find that they did come with cornering lamps built into the main units.
These added another extra 20 degrees of corner illumination, and would turn on when either the front wheels were turned at a sharp enough angle, or when the vehicle speed was low enough and the turn signals were activated. A premium feature on a relatively inexpensive car.
Tomorrow is my final day with the Focus ST and I’ll wrap my overall thoughts there.
Day 7: Parting thoughts
I suppose it’s only fitting that on my last day with ST, it absolutely poured. The first day of fall definitely didn’t “disappoint”.
No matter though as this allows me talk about how the ST handles in typical Vancouver fall weather.
In short, the ST always felt safe and secure despite the power on tap. With traction control, getting a move on was never an issue.
I mentioned earlier that I experienced some axle hop when the front tires lost grip in the wet and when the traction control cut in. After driving the car for a few days now, I suspect that it is the Goodyears that are the culprit, and less of the car itself.
My only other gripe is that in heavy rain, the wipers need to have a higher speed setting. At times I felt that they couldn’t keep up with the rain, even though I had adjusted the vehicle speed for conditions.
For some odd reason, the MyTouch system also “forgot” the SD card that the navigation maps were stored on which necessitated a bit of fiddling to get the satellite navigation system working again.
During the week or so that I had the Focus ST, I averaged around 7.7L/100 kms (30.55 mpg) on the highway, and around 10.8L/100kms (21.78 mpg) in city driving.
The US EPA claims the Focus ST will get you 23 mpg in the city and 32 mpg on the highway. My real world figures weren’t too far off.
For the 2014 model year, there are no major changes to the Focus ST aside from the addition of optional black racing stripes and grey painted wheels with red painted brake calipers. I like the grey wheels but would skip the black racing stripes myself. Save yourself the few hundred bucks for that option.
I will miss the ST when it’s gone. Over the last few days, I have come to regard it as the common man’s BMW M3. High praise from a German car fan like myself.
I will miss its puppy dog enthusiasm, sharp handling, good looks, amazing seats, and eager power plant. What I won’t miss is the finicky MyTouch touchscreen system and its so-so rearward visibility. But given the choice of not having the MyTouch system with its integrated GPS and Bluetooth connectivity, I would still get it and put up with its shortcomings.
At the start of this review I mentioned that if there is any car that would regain my confidence in domestic vehicle brands, this would be it. Guess what? Ford and the Focus ST have not disappointed!
My ratings (each category out of 10).
- Power: 8
- Handling: 8
- Ride comfort: 7
- Controls: 7
- Quality: 7.5
- Fuel consumption: 8
- Technology: 8
- Value for money: 9