2013 Ford Focus ST first drive review: Not-so-mellow yellow

2013 Ford Focus ST

Ford’s 2013 Focus ST: We’re just mad about Saffron…If you found yourself on a VW showroom roughly 30 years ago, you know the hubbub created by the U.S. debut of Volkswagen’s GTI, long  regarded as the first credible hot hatch available in the States. I was there, and am still wishing I had bought one then (although we enjoyed a Scirocco for a short period of time). And while VW still offers a credible variant of that same hot hatch recipe, Ford (FORD!) has developed a completely incredible alternative, the Focus ST.

As the photos will attest, this thing ain’t – by any stretch – subtle. But then, neither has Ford adapted the exaggerated sheetmetal of today’s Mazdaspeed3 or the seemingly random appendages of Subaru’s WRX. Despite a subtle winglet here and foglight there, the ST is almost indistinguishable – at least visually – from the cooking variants of the Focus 5-door. Only 18-inch rims (protected by 235/40ZR-18 all-season Goodyears) and the Tangerine Scream Tri-coat color would seem to give it away.

From our first, early glimpses of the Focus we liked its visual balance. Although relatively conventional in its two-box profile, the Focus hatchback seems more planted than others in the segment. And based on door closure and panel alignment, the made-in-Michigan bodyshell provides everything in build quality we’ve come to expect from Volkswagen (Germany) or Mazda (Japan). And while the Focus ST’s lower profile may compromise ingress and egress, you won’t confuse its accessibility with Mazda’s Miata or Scion’s FR-S. This is a 4/5 passenger hatch that can easily haul a young family or – when by yourself – simply haul.

2013 Ford Focus ST

And Saffron’s mad about me…

Inside, however, tells another story. As we surmised when considering the purchase of a Focus 5-door roughly two years ago, once inside a Focus you and your front seat passenger are almost overwhelmed by plastic. And while plastic is a fixture on virtually any of today’s automobiles – even those costing six figures – there’s plastic and then there is ‘plastic’. The dash is this vast, unbroken expanse, while the area surrounding the shift lever is ungrained, almost looking pre-production. And although the nav screen is clear and (almost) intuitive, that in and of itself provides very little visual relief. With the 7th-gen Golf arriving within the year, and Mazda’s new Mazda3 coming this fall, Ford needs to refocus (sorry…) on the interior in the next refresh, making the necessary upgrades sooner rather than later.

One upgrade on the option sheet is Recaro seating, and while anyone can appreciate their lateral support at a track, you’ll remember that 95% of the time you’re not on a track. Having just driven the Lexus IS F, we found the Lexus bucket adequately supportive in a corner, while far more comfortable during the 8-5 commute. Were it our ST we’d opt for the standard-spec seating – or save for the Lexus IS F.

Happily, under the ST hood is nothin’ but goodness. The 2.0 liter DOHC EcoBoost four delivers 252 horsepower (on premium fuel) @ 5,500 rpm, along with 270 lb-ft of torque @ 2,500 rpm. You can save thirty cents per gallon using regular unleaded, but if you want to compromise on horsepower why buy the ST? Regardless, the engine delivers anything and everything you want in appropriate power and tractability. Regrettably, towing isn’t recommended, so make arrangements to have the Airstream delivered to your campsite.

Connecting the ST’s prodigious power to the road is a 6-speed manual. Its throws, although reasonably precise, seem overly long, while 5th and 6th gears – both overdrives – maximize efficiency but minimize excitement. Thankfully, Ford’s Sport Steering System will keep you engaged even when the transmission isn’t. Less sensitive when driving in a straight line, road feel increases while cornering. We didn’t notice a particular deficit when doing the freeway thing, but enjoyed very much the ST’s tactile experience when entering or exiting a turn. ‘ST’ could very well mean ‘So Trackday’, as the Focus platform is just the ticket for weekend recreation.

Braking is provided by 4-wheel discs, 12.6 inches in diameter up front and 10.6 inches in the rear. Although no emergency stops were necessary (or performed), we were impressed by brake performance, feel and fade resistance throughout the test.

Enjoying a base price – with transportation – of under $25K, and an as-tested price of around $28K, the Focus ST is loaded with both performance and value. It’s the sweet spot in Ford’s U.S. automotive lineup, and may be the sweet spot in the hot hatch segment.  With appropriate apologies to Donovan, I’m just mad about Saffron, Saffron’s mad about me. I’m just mad about Saffron, She’s just mad about me.

Specifications follow…