After eight years of watching Europe have all the fun with small, fast cars, we're finally getting our piece of the hot-hatch action from Ford.
Consider the 2013 Focus ST the spiritual successor to the SVT Focus, the sleeper Ford made from 2002 to 2004. The ST targets well-established pocket rockets including the MazdaSpeed3, Volkswagen GTI and Subaru WRX.
The Ford carries plenty of firepower to the fight: 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque, directed through a six-speed manual transmission to the front wheels. The EcoBoost engine is a fine one: turbocharged, direct-injected and unafraid of its 6,500-rpm redline.
The ST starts at $24,495, including destination, and can climb to $30,000 with all the trimmings. Our tester rang in at $28,903, with options like Ford's Sync touch-screen entertainment system, a Sony audio system, heated Recaro leather seats and LED exterior lights.
That's in line with other cars in the segment. The VW has significantly less power but adds a sunroof for about the same money. A similarly equipped MazdaSpeed3 actually runs about $1,500 less.
All Focus ST models come with exterior upgrades including fog lights, 18-inch alloy wheels, a rear spoiler, twin center-mounted exhaust tips and more aggressive front and rear body treatments.
In addition to the (rather ugly) Recaro seats, the ST's interior offers a trio of hard-to-read gauges showing oil temperature and pressure -- and, of course, turbo boost. (What good is hot hatch without a boost gauge to show off to your friends?)
Less obvious changes include a sport-tuned suspension and larger front brakes.
All this tweaking produces an entertaining car, but with one inescapable gremlin: torque steer, the inevitable result of pushing gobs of horsepower through a front-wheel-drive setup.
But the ST is a hoot in almost all driving conditions. The EcoBoost engine stays composed, delivering plenty of low-end torque and linear power all the way to the redline.
The ST needs 5.9 seconds to get from zero to 60 mph, according to Motor Trend, plenty competitive for this segment. It's identical to the WRX hatchback, 0.1 of a second more than the MazdaSpeed3 needed, and 0.2 of a second less than the GTI.
The six-speed shifter action is light enough for everyday traffic, but the throws are a tad long and the shifts feel a bit vague.
The ST exerts a healthy grip on the road, with minimal body roll. The standard traction control has a sport setting that can be disabled, which allows you to shake the tail loose in a turn.
But it's in turns that the torque steer becomes a nuisance. Go anywhere near the throttle in a curve, and you're challenged to an arm-wrestling match. The car's torque-steer compensation system only makes things worse. There's nothing smooth about putting the ST into a turn at its limits.
Compounding the issue is a dull throttle that needs too much prodding before it wakes up. A car tuned like this ST should have a go pedal that's more eager to actually go.
Despite these quirks, many drivers will find more than enough reasons to plunk down their cash for the ST. It gives Ford a legitimate player in a fun and competitive segment.
But if it's my signature on the check for a fun-to-drive hatchback, it's Subaru that would get my money. The deciding factor: all-wheel drive. The current generation of Subaru's hatchback is getting old, and its gearbox is down to one speed, but its neutral grip makes it much more predictable in situations where you really don't want any surprises.
The Times' take: Ford is back in the hot-hatch segment.
Highs: A smooth engine that fears no redline.
Lows: Torque steer ruins some of the fun.
Vehicle type: Four-door hatchback
Base price: $24,495, including destination
Price as tested: $28,930
Powertrain: 2.0-liter, direct-injected, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, front-wheel-drive
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Horsepower: 252 at 5,500 rpm
Torque: 270 pound-feet at 2,500 RPM
Zero-60 mph: 5.9 seconds, according to Motor Trend
Quarter mile: 14.6 seconds at 95.9 mpg, according to Motor Trend
Fuel economy: 23/32 mpg, city/highway. Observed: 16.5 over 160 hard miles of testing
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