Now, however, an engine upgrade is available. The original ST pumps out 252 hp, but Shelby’s overdue renovation boosts the turbocharged 2.0-liter to 275 hp - a rather stout figure for a front-wheel drive hatchback. But when I turned up at the Shelby American headquarters in Las Vegas, company president, John Luft, informed me that the Shelby Focus ST now boasts over 300 hp, and I would be the first (non-employee) to sample its eager bite.
In fact, the motor upgrade had only been completed the night before I arrived, and the folks at Shelby were intrigued to learn my thoughts: “Here are the keys,” said Luft. “If you’re not back by 3.30pm, I’ll know it’s gotten the better of you,” he laughed.
“Either that, or I enjoyed myself so much I drove it back home to Indianapolis,” I jokingly replied -- although I won’t pretend the thought didn’t cross my mind.
Exiting the building, the embellished Focus gleamed in the parking lot. There was no mistaking it, dressed in traditional Shelby blue and white and boasting rally-like numbers and decals; “98” represents the late Carroll Shelby’s number. The huge Shelby/Borla twin-exhaust, sporty hood vents and sleek carbon-fiber rear wing, made the petit “pocket-rocket” look like Popeye ingesting copious amounts of spinach. While it might be too “boy-racer” for some, it garners serious attention from many.
The term “pocket-rocket” was often thrown around during my trip. It’s worth remembering that, while a tuned Focus may seem decidedly un-Shelby, Carroll had a distinct appetite for the hot-hatch; in 1986 he took the Dodge Omni and turned it into the notorious Shelby GLHS. After Carroll Shelby’s death, almost one year ago to the day, Shelby American returned to the former chicken farmer’s roots, offering the Shelby Focus ST and the incredible 575 hp Shelby Raptor.
“We’ve had many people write to us saying how Carroll would be turning in his grave if he knew we were tuning hatchbacks and trucks,” Luft told me. “It’s crazy, because Carroll loved to tune vehicles like this.”
Climbing behind the wheel, Shelby logos festooned the cabin. A touch of a button brought all 300 horses to life, evoking a sound like a provoked T-Rex feasting upon Jeff Goldblum.
Accelerating out of the parking lot, the first thought through my head was: “Man, this thing’s fast,” as I witnessed the traction control light flicker wildly throughout third gear. A few milliseconds after enjoying the hooligan-esque sensations, the vicious tug of the steering wheel became apparent; with stiffer motor mounts, Shelby claims to have tamed the Focus’s torque-steer by 50 percent -- adding 50 hp did, however, do plenty to eradicate those improvements. The borderline silly power is derived from intercooler, turbo, and exhaust modifications. As Luft told me: “Stock motors, no matter how good they are from the factory, always provide plenty for us to tweak.”
Under heavy power, the sound of Goldblum’s crushing bones captivated. Turbo lag remained noticeable until you rise above 3,500 rpm, but once you hit that figure, the Shelby wheels and tires chirped louder than a budgie during mating season. Hitting the brakes, the car stopped with remarkable efficiency, thanks to specific Shelby spec brakes and rotors. The pedal, however, was grabby, making slow stops embarrassingly jerky.
And despite Shelby’s installation of its short-throw shifter, the 6-speed manual transmission felt rubbery and long, not unlike the stock STs. But the more I drove the car, the less I cared about grabby brakes, sloppy gears, and massive torque-steer; in fact, the feel of the torque-steer improved as my arms adjusted to the pull. I found myself incessantly smiling, with each and every stab of the throttle. The noise — not unlike a rowdy Fiat 500 Abarth —m ixed with 300 screaming ponies directed entirely through the front wheels, felt refreshingly uncivilized.
With the addition of Shelby/Ford Racing suspension, which not only stiffens the package but also lowers the ride-height by an inch, cornering was planted. Did I mention the sound? The whistle from the turbo buzzed like a hummingbird overdosed on nectar.
Sure, the Shelby Focus ST possesses faults, but the enjoyment factor certainly eradicates most concerns. But is it really worth around $40k when including the price of the car? For me, I’d rather a more powerful all-wheel drive Subaru WRX STI. Or a loaded Mustang GT. But there’s no denying the caché the Shelby name holds. And as a head-turner, few grab attention like Shelby’s mad “pocket-rocket.” It certainly barks to the right tune.
- Shelby American
- Carroll Shelby