By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Back in 1987, my souped-up ’78 V-8 Camaro almost got smoked by a four-cylinder Dodge Omni. Only it wasn’t just an Omni.
It was an Omni GLH-S.
The GLH-S was a souped-up version of the Omni — which was ordinarily a slow-motion econo-box. The idea was simple: Take an inexpensive small car, goose its engine with a turbocharger — and then go have some fun.
Same deal with the Ford Focus ST. Watch out for those letters — because if you see them, you’re not dealing with a run-of-the-mill Focus economy compact.
WHAT IT IS
The Focus ST is the hot rod version of the Focus five-door hatchback wagon. It comes standard with a turbocharged version of the 2.0 liter engine used in the regular Focus — its output jump-started by almost 100 hp (to 252 from 160). In addition to the steroid-enhanced engine, the ST also comes with a six-speed manual transmission (vs. a five-speed in the regular Focus) a limited slip differential and numerous additional functional and aesthetic upgrades — including Recaro sport buckets, an accessory gauge package, upgraded brakes, body kit — and more.
The price is $24,115 — slightly less than the MSRP of its main rival, the MazdaSpeed3 — which starts at $24,200 — and about $1,500 less than a Mini Cooper Countryman S four-door wagon, which starts at $25,600.
Other, less direct competition includes the also-pricier (and AWD) Subaru WRX — which starts at $25,795.
Ford added the ST package to the Focus line this year (2013), so the 2014 receives only minor changes — including contrast-color red powder-coated brake calipers and a ceramic gray eighteen-inch wheel package.
Frankenstein unbound — the 2.0 turbo puts the power down through the front-wheels-only . . .and through a manual gearbox only.
Much more than just a goosed engine stuffed into an economy car. Order the ST and you get a comprehensive package.
Quicker than a Countryman S.
More fuel-efficient than a Speed3.
More subtle than a WRX. No foot-high wings or 747-size air scoops.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Three inches less backseat legroom than in the Speed3.
Could be a lot quicker — if it were lighter.
MyKey electronic big brother is creepy — and isn’t optional.
UNDER THE HOOD
The heart of the ST is a forced-induction (turbocharged) 2.0 liter engine that’s the same size as the 2.0 engine in the regular Focus, but makes 252 hp (and 270 ft.-lbs. of torque) vs. 160 hp (and 146 ft.-lbs. of torque). The engine also features overboost (21 PSI max) and an electronically controlled over-rev feature that lets the engine spin — briefly — all the way up to 6,800 RPM, 300 revs over the normal redline of 6,500 RPM. Inside, there are forged steel connecting rods to handle the stress.
This wolverine of an engine is paired exclusively with a heavy-duty Getrag six-speed manual transmission.
If you want an automatic, you want a different car.
Also included is a performance-calibrated version of Ford’s AdvanceTrac traction-stability control — which can be turned completely off, by the way — and a torque-vectoring system that applies braking force to the inner wheel during high-speed cornering to reduce the inherent understeering tendencies of a FWD-based layout.
Performance is good — zero to 60 in about 6.5 seconds — which is almost a full second quicker than the smaller-engined (1.6 liter) and less powerful (181 hp) Mini Cooper Countryman S and just a few tenths less quick than the slightly speedier (6.3 seconds to 60) slightly stronger (263 hp) MazdaSpeed3.
A Subaru WRX (2.5 liters, 265 hp) smokes all three of them — zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds — but being AWD (vs. FWD) it’s a very different experience (for good and bad) which I’ll get into below.
One area where the ST stands head and shoulders above its performance-equivalent competition is fuel-efficiency. The window sticker says 23 city, 32 highway — noticeably better than the Speed3’s 18 city, 25 highway. The Mini Countryman S does better at the pump — 26 city, 32 highway — but it ought to, given it’s much less powerful — and a lot less quick.
The WRX is also thirsty — 19 city, 25 highway — but, it is the quickest of the bunch — and that makes up for a lot.
I averaged 25.3 MPG during my week-long ST test drive. That’s less than 1 MPG off the EPA’s published figure of 26 average.
Given the car — and given how I drove it — that’s a pretty decent number.
By the way, it’s ok to use regular 87 octane unleaded — though premium is preferred.
ON THE ROAD
Ford is horning in on a type of driving experience that — up to now — has largely been the fiefdom of that pint-sized berserker, the MazdaSpeed3.
Unlike the controlled performance of the all-wheel-drive WRX, the Speed3’s turbo feeds power through the front wheels — which break traction like a ’69 SS 396 Chevelle fishtailing out of the high school parking lot. They skitter left-right as the tsunami of torque overcomes the ability of the tires to keep it all tied down. This loss of traction — and tire patches on the asphalt — may not be ideal if your object is the absolute best-possible timeslip.
But, damn — it’s fun.
And so — for the same reasons — is the ST.
Like the Speed3, the power (and torque) translates into rotational motion through the front wheels — which means it’s up to you and not a “sophisticated” AWD system to modulate throttle (and clutch) to keep those front tires from going up in smoke — balancing power against traction to get through the traps with the best ET.
This takes some practice — and skill — which (once acquired) leads to satisfaction. Add in the ST’s overboost capability — up to 21 psi of boost for a few seconds under WOT (assuming you filled up the tank with premium, which the computer will recognize and adjust all engine parameters for a Maximum Effort) and you’ll have your hands full.
But, you’ll be smiling the whole time.
Incidentally: Torque steer is much less an issue in the ST than it is in the Speed3, but both cars will challenge you in terms of making the front tires — which are soft-compound Goodyear Eagle F1 (and Y speed rated) “summer” tires in this case — last longer than a single summer.
Or hell — light ’em up, if you want to.
That’s big fun, too.
Ditto the heavy breathing Darth Vader inhaling sounds of the turbo two-point-oh. It brought back memories of my ’78 Z28 — the one that almost got beat by the Omni GLH-S. With the air cleaner lid flipped over, so the Quadrajet four barrel could suck air freely, you’d hear this vortex Banshee wailing sound — baaaaaaawuhhhhhaaahhhhhhhhhhhhh! — when the secondaries opened up.
Similar deal here — only this car is quicker than my old Z28 — with less than half the engine (just 122 cubes vs. 350) under its hood.
Give it a little pedal, see for yourself. Join me . . . you do not know the power of the Dark Side.
Trust me, you’ll like it!
The ST (like the Speed3) is an entirely different ride than something like the point-and-shoot WRX — which almost anyone can drive fast in a straight line. While the Soobie is the car I’d want if I were going to race for money, the ST is the car I’d want for the simple joy of driving.
Assuming, of course, the anti-teenager MyKey electronic overlord has been deactivated.
What’s this? It’s a way to electronically gimp the car — no faster than 80 MPH, can’t turn the TCS off — in order to keep your 16-year-old from learning the hard way (and on your dime) that 256 hp, FWD and no skills but lots of ‘tude often equals lots of bent metal. An Admin key lets you program in these and other settings — including a radio volume limiter, which might be even more valuable than the electronic hobbling of the car’s top speed.
But there’s a Dark Side to MyKey. I’ll get into that below… .
AT THE CURB
One of the things I like about the Focus ST is that it lets its performance do the talking — as opposed to calling attention to its performance potential with huge wings and air scoops. There’s no air scoop at all, in fact — and the airfoil on the rear liftgate is aesthetically unobtrusive. The ST was developed in keeping with the low profile/high impact philosophy of Ford’s SVT (Special Vehicles Team), which is a smart philosophy if you plan to do more than cruise the parking lots on Friday nights.
The front and rear clips are ST-specific, and there are other clues to the car’s enhanced capabilities — most noticeably the twin 2.5 inch exhaust tips snugged together out back. But it’s not a honey trap like the airfoiled/air-scooped WRX (and Speed3).
I’d rather be fast — than make an issue of how fast I might be.
Inside, it’s a different story. There, the ST upgrades are numerous — and very obvious. Most notable among these are the optionally available (part of the ST2 package) driver and passenger Recaro sport seats — with contrast color inserts and (in my car) bright red “ST” stitching.
Add five-point harness and you’re ready to race.
All trims come standard with a 160 MPH speedo (standard Foci get 150) plus a three-gauge accessory cluster — oil temperature, turbo boost and oil pressure — mounted on top of the dash and canted toward the driver. Also aluminum pedals and shifter ball and a full complement of electric power assist (windows, locks, cruise control), plus Sync voice activation and a six-speaker audio rig.
To this you can add the Recaros — as well as a 10-speaker Sony stereo system, which comes packaged with an 8-inch touchscreen display and Ford’s MyTouch electronic interface. Navigation (and seat heaters for the Recaros) can be ordered on top of this.
It’s a high class environment — but not an older person friendly environment. I took our neighbor lady for a ride — she’s in her ’60s — and she needed a hand pulling herself out of the super-snug Recaros. It’s also not a very backseat passenger-friendly environment. There’s only 33.4 inches of legroom in the second row — and that makes for a tight squeeze. The Soobie WRX (33.5 inches) and Mini Countryman (33.8 inches) have the same deficit but in the Speed3, there’s 36.2 inches of second row legroom — which makes carrying adults back there a lot more feasible.
Speaking of feasible: Be aware that when you buy this car, it will be shod with single-minded summer tires. Read the paperwork that comes with the car. These shoes are not suitable for use when the temperature drops below 40 F — let alone for driving in snow. If you live in an area that’s not southern California-like, take into account that you will probably need to either buy an extra set of wheels/tires for winter driving — or drive something else in the winter.
The MyKey thing creeps me out.
This technology could — and I suspect, will be — used against adults and not merely teenagers in the very near future.
By insurance companies, for instance.
You may have seen ads for in-car, real-time monitoring of your driving habits (e.g., Progressive insurance). MyKey makes this factory equipment. Not only does the system — when enabled — limit the car’s speed, it records your speed. Each time you buzz the limiter, MyKey takes note — and this information can be downloaded and graphically displayed/read by parents.
Unfortunately, government — and big corporations — are rapidly assuming the role of parents to grown adults. From mandatory buckle-up laws to mandatory (or else) health insurance. You don’t own you — someone else does. Your actions might affect the collective — and therefore, bear monitoring.
Given that “speeding” is not only illegal — but (so we’re told) synonymous with “unsafe” driving — why should anyone be able to speed with impunity?
Cops can’t be everywhere — but MyKey can.
See where this headed?
Right now, MyKey is limited to Ford vehicles. And — for the present — it can be turned off.
But what happens when all new cars have a similar system? When it becomes possible — mandatory — for the insurance companies to insist you give them access to your real-time driving habits, so as to make sure you are driving “safely”?
Paranoid? You tell me. The government is already monitoring all of our e-mail and cell phone conversations. And a law was just recently passed requiring that all new cars be fitted with Event Data Recorders, a lower-tech version of MyKey.
With GPS — most newer cars have this, too — it is possible to send and receive data (and instructions), with (or without) your consent, from the moment you get behind the wheel to the moment you get where you’re going — and everywhere in between.
The government — and corporations — are eager to know about every last little thing we do — and appear determined to micromanage everything we do. Technology such as MyKey has made it technologically feasible to make “speeding” (and many other things besides) impossible.
Or perhaps worse — impossible to get away with.
Just for instance: The system can force you to “buckle up for safety.” Ignore it, and it shuts off the stereo. It could just as easily shut off the engine. And tattle on you to the cops — and the insurance mafia.
I wish we could throw MyKey in the woods — along with OnStar and the NSA.
THE BOTTOM LINE
That aside — and it’s not a small thing — this car hits all the marks. The hatchback wagon layout is good-looking as well as practical. The ST’s a more comprehensive performance package than the Speed3. I also think it’s more fun — and know for sure it costs less — than the WRX.
It also mops the floor with the Countryman S.
The performance potential of this car is probably tremendous, too. Ford hints at this pretty obviously in the special booklet that comes with the car. To wit:
“SAE certified performance ratings are achieved with 19.5 PSI, but up to 21 PSI can be delivered to maximize power, depending on fuel quality and atmospheric conditions.”
I’ll translate: the 252 hp rating is what you get at 19.5 pounds of boost. What about 21? What about 25?
Add an open element air cleaner. This — and that.
I just wish MyKey were optional.