Following the well-received first-generation Ford Focus and its peppy SVT trim introduced in 2002, Ford for years had neglected its vaunted Volkswagen GTI fighter; the second-generation Focus in the United States was haphazardly warmed over from the original, and lacked any sporty variant. But with the long-overdue launch of an all-new Focus, the company is no longer content to let the Civic Si, Mazdaspeed3 and Volkswagen GTI dominate the niche, and re-entered the hot-hatch fray with the 2013 Ford Focus ST.
The ST makes an immediate visual impact. Its aesthetics are "youthful," and the pouting, shark-mouthed grill attracts lots of attention—mostly from "slammed" and dilapidated '94 Civics dragging on the ground. Inside, the busy interior with its colored inserts feel unsettling, and the Recaro seats' side bolsters are a tight fit for anyone over 100 lbs. Couple that with the (still) frustratingly slow and buggy MyFord Touch navigation, you're better off sticking with the base model.
Specs-wise, there's no disputing its competitive performance. Making 252 hp from a turbo 4-cylinder, paired with a slick six-speed manual gear box and riding on sticky Goodyear F1 tires, the ST responds to hard-edged driving. Its power stretches enthusiastically to the 6,500-rpm redline, with no turbo lag. The manual gearbox has quick, crisp throws and a perfect clutch bite. Thankfully, the exhaust note has none of the stereotypical buzz of a Fast-and-Furious 4-banger. Quiet like a base model when cruising, the ST crescendos to a metallic rumble when flattening the gas pedal. Mild understeer eventually kicks in through the bends, and the quick electronic power-steering provides adequate feedback — but exhibits enough bump steer that you need to keep a firm grip on the leather-wrapped wheel.
So it eats Volkswagen GTI's for lunch, and leaves the dumbed-down Civic Si in the dust (which hasn't been competitive since 2007). But the ST's performance edge is marred by the inherent drawbacks with front-wheel drive. Aside from complacency and corporate bean-counting, there's good reason for automakers like Volkswagen and Honda to hover around 200 hp; even with "Enhanced Torque Vectoring Control," the ST steering transmits that telltale tug of torque steer when powering out. Turn traction control off and the front wheels prodigiously spin off the line and with first-to-second gear shifts.
And therein lies the rub of most performance front-wheel-drive cars: the more power you get, the stronger the reminder that the car's driving the wrong wheels. Being the fastest front-wheel-drive car is faint praise, like saying you have the most stylish pair of Crocs. The world barely noticed when the 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt lapped the Nurburgring under 8:23, which was quicker than a Lotus Exige or a BMW 335i. And at a starting price of $24,495, the Focus ST gets perilously close to cars with more desirous drivetrain layouts, such as the all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza WRX or the tail-swinging Scion FR-S.
But the Ford ST accomplished its mission: to show the import competition who's king of the front-wheel-drive hill, and for those that want a brash hatch and bragging rights, it's a worthy purchase. Yet I'd wait for the upcoming 200-hp Ford Fiesta ST, which will be smaller, lighter and more affordable — although it will still spin the wrong wheels.