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.
As this Focus ST came optioned with MyFord Touch and the optional SD card-based navigation system, I tapped the voice command button on the steering wheel. Once I'd gone through a series of commands -- "Destination," "POI," "Nearby," and "Gas stations" -- MyFord Touch displayed a list of gas stations, giving me confidence that the 30 miles of range shown by the trip computer would be enough for the 10 miles I would need to travel.
What impressed me most was how the car let me set this destination all while keeping up my speed, dashing down each straight and getting the tires to squeal in the turns. Although it seemed a little tedious drilling down through the voice command structure, I was able to keep some very necessary focus on the road, and the system recognized what I was saying at each step.
However, I am not a huge fan of this navigation system. The maps look good and its route guidance gives street names and easily understood graphics for freeway maneuvers, but it renders too slowly, visibly rebuilding the maps when the car starts up and while it's in motion. On other Ford vehicles using this same system, I have also experienced long lags in which the GPS system took 10 minutes or more to locate the car. Until Ford can get some faster hardware built in, I would avoid the navigation option.
In another symptom of underpowered electronics in the dashboard, the Focus ST's MyFord Touch system lagged a bit at times, the touch screen failing to immediately respond to button pushes. MyFord Touch encompasses navigation, the stereo, a hands-free phone system, and climate control, color-coding each function on the LCD.
This format makes the system easy to understand, but where I find the interface fails is navigation down through menus, for example when searching for a POI using the touch screen. At each step, MyFord Touch overlays a new menu screen. To back out to the main screen, I had to touch a back arrow on each of the multiple screens I had already drilled down through. The only shortcut I found was hitting the main menu button, then hitting the navigation function area again.
The stereo and phone screens were not quite so complicated, and have the added bonus of being powered by Ford's Sync system. Sync comes standard on the Focus ST, and does not need MyFord Touch to work. It let me pair my phone through Bluetooth and make calls by saying the name of anyone in my phone's contact list. I could also play music from my phone using the system's Bluetooth audio streaming feature.
However, I preferred plugging a USB drive full of MP3 files into the car's USB port. Not only could I then see the contents organized as a music library on the MyFord Touch LCD, and select music on that interface, I could also use voice command to request music by artist, album, genre, and song name. This system offered similar integration with my iPhone's music library when I had it plugged into the car's USB port. Other automakers are implementing similar systems, but Ford had Sync first, and it works very well.
The Sony-branded audio system in the Focus ST, a very worthwhile option, delivers much better sound than I would expect from a premium system in a compact car. Its 10 speakers, which includes a meaty subwoofer in the cargo space, and 355-watt amp create very clean overall sound. Bass comes through strong enough to feel, while highs can be very delicate, when recorded that way. I never found the system delivering distorted or shrill notes. It may fall short of the extreme fidelity of audiophile systems, but represents an excellent bargain.
The latest from AppLink
With or without MyFord Touch, Sync includes AppLink, which offers some very impressive integration with popular apps. I tested the latest version of AppLink in a Ford Fiesta earlier this year, and recorded the video embedded below. The Focus will show similar functionality.
Looking at engine, transmission, and suspension, the 2013 Ford Focus ST makes for an excellently responsive car, one that anybody who really likes driving could enjoy. There are faster, more powerful cars around, but the Focus ST is a car you can bring close to its limits on public roads without undue recklessness. At the same time, its body style makes it a practical everyday driver.
The Recaro seats are a little much, not the most usable for everyday errand running or commuting. And although improved from its initial launch, MyFord Touch remains overcomplicated and a little clunky. Leaving off the navigation option, where most of the problems arise, makes it a more palatable option, but including it will also bring in the Recaro seats with Ford's option packaging.
|Model||2013 Ford Focus|
|Power train||Turbocharged direct-injection 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed manual transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||23 mpg city/32 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||23.1 mpg|
|Navigation||Optional flash-memory-based with traffic integration|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard with contact list integration|
|Digital audio sources||Smartphone apps, onboard hard drive, iPod/iPhone, USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD Radio|
|Audio system||Sony 10-speaker 355-watt system|
|Price as tested||$28,170|