We're having a strong sense of déjà vu, and it isn't just because we find ourselves in Southern France. Yes, we've driven these very roads that drape over the region's Edenic mountains like doctors' signatures several times before. They're some of the best in the world, replete with tight switchbacks bookending snaking climbs and descents interrupted only by the occasional masochistic cyclist or tour bus. The Mediterranean vistas don't exactly suck, either.
We've even navigated some of these routes around Nice in a performance-minded Ford Focus. Two years ago, Blue Oval operatives brought us to this same area for an early drive of their C-Max people mover, spicing up the trip by giving us a short stint behind the wheel of their then-new Focus RS500, a limited edition matte-black monster marshaling a scarcely believable 345 horsepower and 338 pound-feet of torque through the front wheels. Today, though, our 2013 Ford Focus ST driving companion is toned-down but no less outré thanks to its Tangerine Scream paint.
Compared to the RS500, the ST drops a cylinder in favor of a less powerful 2.0-liter EcoBoost four generating 252 hp and 270 lb-ft. Fortunately, it's also a lot less costly, starting from just $24,495 delivered – a price that shades the far less powerful 200-hp, five-door Volkswagen GTI ($25,365). In fact, the ST is nearly as powerful as the Golf R while offering more torque (VW's all-wheel drive hot hatch registers 256 hp/243 lb ft) for a lot less money – the R starts around $35k. Subaru's AWD WRX is an interesting option, too, with more power (265 hp) but less torque (244 lb-ft) for more money ($26,345). The ST's closest natural rival, however, is the Mazdaspeed3 – ironic, as it rides atop the last-generation Focus' platform. The Mazda carries a marginally bigger stick, though: 263 ponies and 280 torques, coming in at $24,795.
Hot hatch grammar dictates that a model must not just be quicker, it also has to look the part. To that end, the ST will not easily be mistaken for a standard Focus, even when it isn't wearing a lurid shade of paint like this one. There's plenty to draw the eyeballs, from its Burning Man mask with gaping air intake to the side sills, shadowy throwing-star alloys and rear bumper with unique double-hexagon center exhaust finisher, not to mention the less-than-subtle rear wing. The whole works hunker down 10 millimeters closer to the tarmac than lesser Focus models, too. Pretty? Hardly. Effective? Indisputably.
Pretty? Hardly. Effective? Indisputably.
The cabin of our tester carries on the exterior's golden zeal, with shouty yellow fabric inserts in the optional Recaro chairs (base ST models receive the sport seats borrowed from the Focus SE) and contrasting stitching, though charcoal is an available option. Other high-performance cues include a trio of auxiliary gauges in a dash-top binnacle, feel-good four-spoke leather-wrapped wheel, metal pedal pads, a special gearshift knob and a predictable assortment of ST badges everywhere from the aforementioned wheel to the sill plates. We find the yellow seat fabrics to be a bit, well, Pep Boys, but they do liven up what might otherwise be an overly somber interior (the headliner and pillar trim are darker on ST models as well). Besides, they grip like mad, with aggressive seatback bolstering that keeps one's torso locked in place in the tightest of corners. They're not rock-hard, either, providing a nice mix of support and compliance, though we suspect those who have stuffed away a few too many Taco Bell Doritos Locos will want to stick with the stock seats.
Significantly, the Focus ST is the first global performance model to come out of CEO Alan Mulally's One Ford blueprint. That's not just hollow marketing bluster – officials tell us the ST's dynamic bits are exactly the same in the U.S. as they are in Europe. U.S. buyers won't have to endure slightly more flaccid springs, soggier bushings, thinner anti-roll bars or even compromised tires: the 235/40R18 Goodyear Eagle F1 high-performance asymmetrical rubber is the same tire – summer only – no all-seasons here.
Chief on our day's mission traveling through Provence would be to determine how successfully Ford has quelled torque steer fears in this powerful front-driver. Thanks to its innovative RevoKnuckle front suspension, the more powerful RS500 put its power down startlingly well, but there's no RevoKnuckle to be found on this car – officials tell us it was unnecessarily heavy and costly for the ST's output, and besides, advanced electronics have done the job well enough. After caning the ST over hundreds of kilometers along the Mediterranean coast, we're inclined to agree with them.
The ST's dynamic bits are exactly the same in the U.S. as they are in Europe.
Under most conditions, torque steer is largely absent thanks to the inclusion of a compensation mechanism that detects the condition and then uses the electric power steering system to counterbalance the phenomenon, curtailing power assist in the direction the steering wheel is normally turned. You can still feel a fair bit of tugging hither and yon accelerating hard out of a tight corner, but it's not hugely pronounced or unnerving. Hau Thai-Tang, Ford's Vice President of Engineering, Global Product Development, tells Autoblog that the Blue Oval has actually intentionally left some of this sensation in – it could have curbed the condition even further through more aggressive tuning. Instead, engineers left in a hint of 10-yard fight as a subtle challenge to drivers – a reminder that they're at the wheel of a powerful, performance-minded machine.
Ford has included an electronic limited-slip differential, which relies on the traction control software to individually brake the front wheel experiencing deteriorating traction, diverting power to the wheel with purchase. There's also Cornering Under Steer Control, a bit of code that uses torque to induce yaw and curb plow based on estimates of the car's intended trajectory prior to the stability control system kicking in.
The steering itself has gone to an electric assist setup for improved fuel economy and emissions, and unique to the segment, it includes a variable-ratio rack that gets quicker as the steering inputs increase. To its credit, it's a system that's easy to get used to, and it's more satisfying than some early attempts at this sort of thing by BMW, say. But it should come as no surprise that it's not perfect – there's simply too much going on with the front axle to deliver heaps of feedback. Variable ratio rack, torque vectoring, e-diff, understeer control and the small matter of 270 pound-feet of torque means that you won't confuse the steering experience with a rear-drive car, even though you can rotate the ST's rump in corners by sharply letting off the throttle when the electronic stability control is in Sport mode (or sent packing entirely). Unusually, there's no sport button to summon increased steering effort or suspension firmness, but it won't be missed.
The brake pedal is no less agreeable than the throttle, with 12.6-inch discs up front and 10.7-inch rears acted upon smoothly by an easily modulated and pleasantly firm pedal. We noticed precious little deterioration on hot downhill runs, but we weren't really tromping on the brakes that much – it'll take a good track day session to really determine the worth of these binders.
Peak torque arrives early at just 2,500 rpm, and a special turbo overboost function means that you can ride that wave all the way between 3,000 rpm to 4,500 rpm for up to 15 seconds, after which time the ECU dials back pressure in the interest of self-preservation. The 2.0T sounds good while doing it too, as Ford has included the "Active Sound Symposer" technology seen on the last Focus ST and RS to enhance the engine's in-cabin sound. The ASS (hey, we didn't name it) employs a sound tube acted upon by an electronically controlled butterfly valve that opens and closes depending on throttle input. The result is more engine sound when you want it – under hard acceleration, particularly in lower gears – and less engine drone on the freeway when you don't. Because of this sonic boom tube, engine sounds trump the exhaust note for first chair privileges, but that's alright by us. However, the 2.0-liter is utterly devoid of any turbo audio signature and the ST is surprisingly quiet from the outside, something that may or may not come as a disappointment to drivers.
The power and sound are stimulating enough that it won't be long before you find yourself bouncing gently off the ST's soft rev limiter – the engine's redline is capped at just 6,500 rpm. The four-cylinder is quick to rev, offers good midrange shove and feels ready to carry on its progress beyond 7k before the governor steps in, but them's the breaks.
Ford says 62 miles per hour should fall in about 6.5 seconds, but that feels a shade conservative to us.
Thankfully, the six-speed gearbox is a fine piece of work, with clearly defined gates and nicely short throws, and the clutch is reasonably progressive in its operation while being neither overly heavy nor light. We recently spent a week in a standard Focus manual model, and it could use the extra cog, too (hint, hint). Ford says 62 miles per hour should fall in about 6.5 seconds but that feels a shade conservative to us. Top speed is listed at 155 mph.
Despite having firmer springs and rubber with narrower sidewalls, the ST rode startlingly well throughout our day, though admittedly the region's road network is comprised of some very fine surfaces. It's an open question how well this Ford's front Macpherson strut/rear control blade suspension will cope with chuckholes, frost heaves and mid-corner bumps under power, as France's well-maintained roads simply refused to oblige our curiosity. We'll have to wait until we can drive an example back in the Midwest, but first impressions suggest that ride comportment – along with noise, vibration and harshness – is light years better than competition from Mazda and Subaru, likely trumping the GTI, which to this point has been the segment's bogey for ride/handling balance. Anything but a high-strung proposition, we predict the ST will make an excellent everyday driver.
Fuel economy digits aren't in yet, but Ford says it is gunning for a highway rating of at least 30 miles per gallon. We'd be a bit startled if it didn't muster at least a click or two better, however, as the Edge CUV gets 30 mpg with the same engine, and it weighs in excess of 800 pounds more than the ST. For comparison's sake, the GTI ekes out 31 mpg and it's the best of the rest.
While European-spec models like the one we drove won't vary in terms of tuning or performance from their Stateside counterparts, there will be a few changes in terms of standard features and available options. In the main, all U.S. vehicles will be equipped with cruise control (a feature that isn't even available in Europe), and models equipped with navigation will receive a larger seven-inch touchscreen than the unit seen on our tester. Also unlike Europe, MyFordTouch will come along with GPS, a feature set we'd be happy to do without.
Speaking of unavailable features, before you ask, no, we're not getting the wagon model, and yes, it looks sensational. All North American STs will be sourced out of the Blue Oval's Wayne, Michigan assembly plant, and since Ford of North America doesn't even offer the standard Focus in a wagon configuration, the costs to homologate an additional bodystyle made building a business case all but impossible – especially when the automaker believes it will only shift around 9,000 STs annually in the States to begin with.
Before you ask, no, we're not getting the wagon model, and yes, it looks sensational.
Ford says the first STs will begin arriving in dealers this September. Ostensibly, Mulally's One Ford agenda opens up the door to even more delicious offerings like a future RS variant, but officials dutifully refuse to confirm plans for an even higher-performance Focus. We're just going to have to take the liberty of looking forward to a second instance of déjà vu, hoping Ford gifts us with another opportunity to make a French connection with a hot Focus. We just hope we don't have to wait another two years.