Despite lurking in the shadow of the RS these days, the Ford Focus ST is still here, and still relevant. I pretty much knew that before driving the car, despite this being the pitch I gave Ford to convince them to loan me one for a week. My ulterior motive was that the Focus ST, along with the Subaru WRX and Volkswagen GTI, is one of my top contenders for a new daily driver.
The car practically blinded me from the end of my driveway – not from a vast array of rally lights, but because of its Tangerine Scream paint, a $595 option. That, combined with the black stripes ($495) and the optional wheels with red calipers (another $495), and the car looked like it should be driven by a 20-something boy racer, not a 40-something writer. It’s not my style. My wife absolutely loves it. But I’d go for a more subtle Kona Blue without the stripes. It doesn’t look that much different from a more ordinary Focus, and I appreciate the stealth factor. I’d definitely snag the optional wheels and red calipers, though. I think they look much better than the standard “Rado Gray” wheels.
But a car is a car no matter what color it is or how many jokes I make about what colors are faster than others. So let’s get on with it.
As most press cars are, this one is loaded up with most of the available options. The ST3 package includes, among other things, full leather Recaro seats. I’ve sat in two Fiesta STs, one with the Recaros and one without. I found the Fiesta’s Recaros to actually have a bit too much bolstering for me. For daily driving, I’d opt for the basic fabric seats. But not in the Focus. These seats fit me like a glove. They’re more supportive than my BRZ’s seats, but they also don’t pinch me like the Fiesta’s Recaros did. They’re also heated, as is the steering wheel. Considering that I had the car during our hottest week of the year, I didn’t put these to the test.
The leather wrapped steering wheel tilts and telescopes, and ends up in a better position for me than my BRZ’s, which barely telescopes at all. Controls are all intuitive, except for the rocker switch on the end of the left stalk to operate the rear wiper, but this made perfect sense once I figured it out. The shifter is light and precise. It’s a little bit longer than I would prefer, but the mechanical advantage pays off in easy shifting. My wife can’t drive my BRZ because its shifter causes her shoulder pain, but she had no trouble rowing the ST’s six-speed. That’s a big deal, since this is the only transmission available on the ST.
At first the Focus ST had the least appealing interior to me of my three choices, but it’s grown on me. The vertical vents are unusual, but effective, and provide space for a larger touchscreen in the center console. This particular car has Ford’s new SYNC3 with navigation. Forget everything you’ve read about how terrible Ford’s infotainment is – it’s all changed. I had no problem pairing my phone. If I physically plug it in to one of the two available USB ports I can get even full Pandora functionality. Either way, it pairs quickly and reliably. The navigation works well, too. Animation is smoother than other cars I’ve been in or even Waze on my phone. Voice inputs work quite well, and it never once sent me to the opposite side of town from where I wanted to be, unlike my BRZ.
The driver isn’t the only one who gets comfortable. The front passenger also has a Recaro seat, though with manual rather than power controls. The back seats are also full leather. I pass the sit-behind-myself test with flying colors thanks to cutouts in the front seatbacks that give my knees a couple of extra inches. Headroom isn’t as generous as the GTI, but that’s because the roof of the Focus curves down toward the back rather than being flat like the VW. The back of the WRX might be a tiny bit more roomy, but not much.
Hours after the car was delivered and I gave my first impressions, my wife and I took it to pick up her two boys from day care. They said they were quite comfortable in the back seat, which is especially meaningful given that they’re used to the vast space and comfort of my wife’s Flex. There’s even a fold-down armrest to keep them separated from giving each other cooties and stuff.
The ride is appropriately firm for a sporty car, but not harsh. There’s a particularly terrible section of road between home and the local mall, no doubt the result of a border dispute between two highway departments that both refuse to maintain it. In my BRZ I have to slow way down and pick my way through the minefield of potholes and poor patches to avoid shaking myself and my passengers up too much. But the Focus takes this section in stride with no trouble at all. You feel the bumps enough to know that they’re there, but not enough to bounce you around at all. It’s a much better balance between good handling and real world needs than the BRZ.
I love hatchbacks. They’re far more versatile than a sedan, and infinitely more practical than a coupe. This may be a sporty car, but it’s still a Focus, and just as practical as an ordinary SE hatchback. A large cooler fits in the back with plenty of room for other luggage or odds and ends. The subwoofer intrudes slightly into the right side of the cargo area, but that’s OK – it sounds great, and good tunes are worth the small sacrifice.
I previously stated that the back seats don’t fold down flat. I was wrong. Officer Jim Lahey is not a real cop commented on Oppositelock that you must fold the seat bottoms forward before folding the seat backs down. I should have figured this out myself – my 2002 Focus worked exactly the same way. But that car didn’t have one issue that this 2016 model has – the headrests. You have to remove all three of them for the seat to fold flat. Then you’re left with three headrests bouncing around the back of the car. Even worse, the roof slopes down so much that you can’t remove them before unlatching the seat back to fold it. You have to do it from an awkward position halfway through the folding process.
Once down, you still don’t have a completely flat surface. The area where the back seat used to be is flat, but a couple of inches lower than the flat floor of the hatch area. This can be a good thing if you’re trying to cram that much more cargo into the car. Or it can be a bad thing if you have a large flat item that you would rather have sit flat on the floor instead of at an angle. But still, it’s a big space, as befitting a hatchback, which means you can fit a bunch of stuff in there if you want to.
This car is 98hp down on the Focus RS, so let’s not even think about comparing them. It is, however, 52hp up on my BRZ, but also weighs around 500lbs more, tipping the scales at 3,223lbs. That’s 659lbs more than my 2002 Focus. It’s gotten a little more round in the middle as it’s aged (rather like me).
But the Focus ST more than makes up for its weight with torque – 270lb/ft, to be exact. My BRZ makes a mere 151lb/ft, and it’s a difference you can feel. Ford’s EcoBoost motors act like they have two more cylinders than they really do. Turbo lag is there, but minimal, a fraction of a second at most. It’s a satisfying turbo shove I can feel through my butt, as well as see on the dashboard’s boost gauge. Like my BRZ, the Focus ST has a six-speed manual transmission, but it generally wants to run one gear higher than the BRZ. If I follow the shift indicators on the dashboard screen, the engine turns just 1,300-1,800rpm when just cruising down the road. I also don’t need to downshift before even thinking about passing someone. On the highway I can quickly blast around that jerk hogging the left lane in sixth gear. If I downshift, I could reach go-directly-to-jail speeds rather quickly. Hypothetically, of course. There is a little torque steer when you put your right foot down, but less than I expected from a car with more than twice as much horsepower as my last Focus, and it’s easily managed by the traction control system. It does have to work a bit harder to keep it under control when the road is wet, though.
The brakes are more touchy than my BRZ. That may be because they only have about 9,000 miles on them. They have no problem bringing the car to a halt in everyday street driving, and should be just fine for autocross as well. I’d imagine that, like most stock brakes, they wouldn’t hold up so well to heavy track use, but that’s not the point of this review. Besides, all it takes is some good brake fluid and brake pads intended for the track all around to solve that problem, as I’ve done in my BRZ.
Front wheel drive is my least favorite drivetrain configuration. It asks the front wheels to do all the work, while all the rear wheels do is hold the back of the car up off the ground. This typically leads to understeer, understeer, and more understeer. Understeer is not fun.
But unless you dive way too hard into a corner, the Focus ST keeps understeer pretty well in check. No doubt the car would do better with the standard Goodyear Eagle F1 summer-only tires, rather than the Pirelli P Zero Nero all-seasons this particular car has. Cornering is amazingly flat, with little body roll. The Recaros hold you in tightly and keep you focused (see what I did there?) on the process of guiding the car through the corners. Limited left foot braking is possible, but the throttle will automatically drop after one second of simultaneous gas and brake. I’m sure there are tunes out there to help with this, since left foot braking is one of the best ways to make a front wheel drive car handle well. But the Focus ST does well on its own without assistance from my left foot.
My only complaint is that the steering is too light for my taste, and doesn’t transmit as much information about what the front wheels are doing as I’d prefer. I wish the Focus ST had multiple steering modes like the Mustang so that I could put it into sport mode to improve the feel. Or maybe putting traction/stability control into sport mode or disabling it completely would simultaneously increase steering effort and feedback.
Because Ford’s loan of this Focus ST as a last minute arrangement when a car from the New York City press fleet suddenly made a visit to Boston, I was unable to take it to the track, a rally, or even an autocross (most of which in my area happen here, on the runways of the former Fort Devens). But that’s OK. The Focus ST was designed to be, first and foremost, a sporty and fun daily driver, not a track monster. At its core it’s a Focus, not a Mustang, but although it’s not a pure sports car it’s sporty enough for my daily commute and bombing back roads. It also maintains all of the practicality of an ordinary Focus hatchback. You don’t have to give that up to have a car that’s fun to drive every day. Yet I have no doubt that I could enjoy dodging cones or banging apexes on a track in a Focus ST as well. The smaller, lighter Fiesta ST might be better at that, but the Focus ST would more than hold its own.
At one of last year’s Track Night In America events, a Focus ST caught, passed, and walked away from me and my BRZ. After driving one for a week I understand why – the ST is simply a faster car. It’s also far more practical, with a quite usable back seat and cargo area.
I enjoyed the WRX I reviewed. I’ve been a rally fan for ages, and all wheel drive can be handy here in the snow belt. But really, front wheel drive is perfectly adequate as well, and I’ve been getting by just fine with rear wheel drive and snow tires for the last two winters. The Focus ST surprised me most in how solid and refined it is. I was expecting it to be the least refined of these choices, but at least in ST3 trim, it’s much more refined than the WRX. It’s almost as refined as the VW GTI, and more powerful. It’s also the least expensive of these three choices, and made in America. I’d probably search for a Certified Pre-Owned car to save a few more bucks, like my wife did with her Flex. That way I could easily afford the ST3 package to get both the speed and refinement I’m looking for.
The Focus ST is the perfect car for my needs. I would not be surprised if we become a two Ford household in the future.
Transmission: 6-Speed Manual
Engine: 252hp 2.0L turbocharged and intercooled DOHC 16-valve inline-4 cylinder
Exterior: Tangerine Scream, Exterior Stripe – Black
Interior: Charcoal Black
Destination Fee: $875
Packages & Options
Equipment Group 402A – $4,995
- Dual Zone Climate Control
- Bi-Xenon HID Headlamps
- 8-Way Power Driver’s Seat
- Full Leather Recaro Seats
- Heated Front Seats
- Ambient Interior Lighting
- Heated Steering Wheel
- Heated Mirrors
- Navigation – Voice Activated
- Carbon Fiber Interior Accent Package
Tangerine Scream Tri-Coat Paint – $595
18″ High Performance All Season Tires (Pirelli P Zero Nero) – $30
18″ Machined Aluminum Wheels – $495
Total MSRP: $31,910