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2013 Ford Focus ST Road Test

After nearly a decade, the wait is over. Ford's hot hatch is back.

What It Is
A Volkswagen GTI for extroverts.
Best Thing
It's impossible to get tired of driving it.
Worst Thing
A third grader could have designed a more cohesive and usable dashboard layout.
Snap Judgment
Anyone seriously considering a hot hatch should be exiled to Siberia if this car isn’t at the top of your list.


With a light heart and a heavy right foot, admitting that I am not the biggest fan of many of Ford's latest offerings, I came to this conclusion after a weekend of driving the 2013 Ford Focus ST: So far, it's my favorite of every car I've driven this year. It's going to be a tough car to beat, no matter how many 500-horsepower BMWs I may end up driving in the remaining eight months. If you feel the need to stop reading now, you have the gist of my review. I'll explain why in the following paragraphs.

Just before getting my driver's license, I remember sitting in study hall with a stack of car magazines I'd bring in, some featuring hot hatches and sport compacts like the Honda Civic Si, Subaru WRX, and SVT Ford Focus. My friends and I thought to ourselves that these cars were almost attainable, maybe after a few extra shifts at Subway, anyway.

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At 170 horsepower, the Ford didn't have the power of some of its competitors, but it often won in comparisons because of its balance and poise. Alas, the Car Gods giveth, and they do taketh away. The SVT Focus lasted just three years in the U.S., while its Focus ST cousins continued to compete with the Volkswagen GTI and a more diverse set of fast company overseas. A decade now on as Ford unifies its worldwide portfolio, the 'roided Focus returns with 252 horsepower, one of the meanest engine noises you'll ever hear in a four-cylinder, and a compelling combination of technology, style, and agility at a reasonable price that should make you forego your aspirations for whatever Japanese hatch you were looking at. This car is worth giving up your Saturday afternoon and putting up with Jim Bob, the paunched, 30-year Ford sales veteran, and his schtick, just to get behind its wheel.

What We Drove

When you look at the segment in which the 2013 Ford Focus ST competes, there's no doubt comes across as a screaming deal. Starting at $24,495, including destination, the Focus ST undercuts the MazdaSpeed3 by $500, the Subaru WRX by more than $2,000, and the five-door Volkswagen GTI by $1,595. What we had was a little better-equipped for someone interested in more than weekend autocrossing. With the 201A equipment package ($2,505), it adds a 10-speaker Sony audio system, 8-inch MyFord Touch touchscreen display, dual-zone automatic climate control, HD radio, and tightly bolstered partial leather Recaro front seats with contrasting yellow cloth inserts. Our bright Tangerine Scream paint cost an additional $495, and the navigation system was $795, bringing the bottom line to $28,170 after a $120 discount for buying the bundle.

A few things to note: You can't get heated seats or HID headlights with the bi-color partial leather buckets. Those are available a la carte with (with the leather seats) or are available as part of a $4,435 "value" bundle with a long list of other features.

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While the front buckets are about as far from those of a standard Focus' as you can get, the rear seat, albeit covered in yellow cloth and leather, is the exact same piece that's available in other Focii. That means, like other models, the Focus ST has firm foam padding that's relatively easy to reach your fingers in between for LATCH anchors for two child seats. The IIHS named the Focus a Top Safety Pick for 2013, and it scored a five-star rating in government tests. All of this should be enough to convince your spouse why it's a perfect family car. At least that's the plan.

The Commute

"Hey Jake, what are you driving today?"
"A Ford Focus," I replied to my parents via the Bluetooth in the car.
"I'm going to test drive a Focus next week," my dad said.
"It probably won't sound like this one." I dropped the car from fourth to second gear and gave it a little of the beans. The engine roared, its air induction sound throaty enough that my parents could hear it.
"No, probably not," my dad said. "That's not a normal Focus, is it?"

Not in the least.

In everyday driving, the Focus ST behaves just like any other Focus out there: refined, agile, and fairly quiet. It absorbs bumps in the road as if Germans handled its engineering. It doesn't ever feel jarring, but it rides firmly and with control.

But when you want to drop it into a lower gear, even when just cruising around, its engine wakes up with that growl, booming into the interior via a resonator pipe in a setup similar to the Mustang's. It never becomes annoying around town -- as if it ever could -- because it doesn't kick in until you're hovering above 3,000 rpm.

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Ford claims the ST will hit 60 mph in under 6 seconds, and we believe it. It's fast. It's just as easy to drive slowly, though. It only comes with a six-speed manual transmission, and it's one of the best we've tested -- nearly as easy to use as Honda's. Ford rates the car at 23 mpg city/32 mpg highway, and we believe these numbers might be doable with the lightest of feet. We settled at a far less spectacular 20.2 mpg over the course of a week using Premium gas. For the cheap of wallet, you can use Regular when not flogging it.

The Grocery Run

There's a downside to all of the features that come in the 2013 Ford Focus ST: Cargo space, or the lack thereof. On paper with 23.8 cubic feet of cargo space, the Focus ST has 50 percent more space than even the larger Ford Fusion. It’s the same amount of space as any Focus hatch, sans the battery-filled Focus Electric. But where the Fusion has an expansive, deep trunk, the Focus’ space is measured vertically, limiting the square-footage for grocery bags in back. In our tests, we measured space for eight grocery bags without having to start stack them, or three with a stroller in back.

Fortunately, the rear seat folds down for truly huge items like a lawnmower, ladder, or a big-screen TV. Hatchbacks are infinitely more useful than their trunked relatives in most cases.

In low-speed maneuverability, we found the Focus ST easy to park, although it has an unusually wide turning circle. Visibility is ample outside of blind spots in the rear quarters and a smallish rear window. Surprisingly, Ford does not offer backup sensors or a rearview camera, despite offering up a giant center screen that would make it fairly cheap to offer on top of the pricey MyFord Touch. We got a kick of parallel parking the old fashion way in a brand new car for once, which is rare anymore in vehicles that come out of press fleets.

The Weekend Fun

Let's start with the bad since there's so much good to be told: The little turbocharged 2.0-liter engine is a monster, in a good way. However, Ford equipped the Focus ST with an electronic differential that is supposed to power equally to the front wheels in theory. But it doesn't quite do it, allowing for an ailment called torque steer, tugging the wheel to the right when your foot is into it. Not cool.

A mechanical limited-slip differential -- which, as the name suggests, limits slip -- would have cured this. Ford offered one in the previous ST not sold in the U.S. Not sending 270 pound-feet of torque -- twisting force -- exclusively through the front wheels would have, too. But we'll let that slide.

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Because when the road gets twisty and you're in the middle of nowhere, driving the Focus becomes one of the most fun things you can do while sitting upright. Its steering is pinpoint sharp, well-weighted and quick to move back on-center. The engine's rasp envelops your auditory sense's full attention; the engine doesn't feel like it's going to run out of steam until the very top of its rev range. Its brakes do exactly as they're told, never compromising on daring stretches of road on Malibu's famous Mulholland Drive. And when you get deep into a corner, the car will rotate its rear end, making it feel lighter on its feet, falling back in-line with a dab of the brake pedal. Without a doubt, it's one of the most fun cars I've driven this year, price no object.

Which leaves but one other letdown -- nothing to do with its performance. Rather, its interior is a bit of a mess, with odd shapes, awash with an awkward design that shoves 20 buttons onto the steering wheel, including the horn. The rest of the dash has the same problem with too many buttons in impractical locations and odd shapes. Most everything can be controlled via the MyFord Touch screen and voice controls. But why should you have to do that just to change the radio? Did Ford intentionally overcomplicate its ergonomics so you're forced into using the voice commands?

Summary

Anyone who is forced to trade in a Miata, give up aspirations for getting a Subaru BRZ or Scion FR-S, or just wants something a little more spacious than a Mini Cooper S should withdraw any predispositions to walking into the showroom of an American automaker and take a solid look at the 2013 Ford Focus ST. It’s a no-compromise hot hatchback that feels like an high-class product despite its overcluttered dashboard. Going through the options list, there’s not much we’d tell anyone to opt against -- even MyFord Touch worked well. But if you're a little wider around the waist, we're not sure we'd recommend you get the optional hip-hugging Recaro buckets. Otherwise, there are few options we'd advise against. Some competitors offer a little more power and speed -- the Subaru WRX and MazdaSpeed3 come most immediately to mind -- but they can't quite match the Ford's solidity and composure, much less its modern amenities.

For once, we can say that a domestic brand has built the sporty compact to beat. And Ford has once again given high schoolers a new muse to swoon over during study halls.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $28,170
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 23 mpg
EPA Highway: 32 mpg
EPA Combined: 26 mpg
Cargo Space: 8 grocery bags/3 with stroller Child Seat Fitment, Second Row: Good
Estimated Combined Range: 322.4 miles
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Poor

Notebook Quotes

"This and the Raptor demonstrate why Ford's Special Vehicle Team unit is around and one of the best in the business. They were able to liven up the Focus so much and make it feel like a whole new vehicle. It was fun to drive, had an aggressive engine note, and you just felt fast everywhere you went: even if you are slowly creeping along in traffic." -Trevor Dorchies, Associate Editor

"I kinda almost expected a WRX killer. Hurter is more like it, not as much a slap on the all-wheel drive wrist, but a good, swift kick to the groin. Stings a little, but ultimately, one the WRX gets up and walks away from." -Jason Davis, Associate Editor

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