Christopher Little

Instigator: 2016 Ford Focus ST

The hot hatch Cold War has gone hot again. With horsepower levels reaching 300 or more and all-wheel-drive now part of the equation, the VW Golf R and Ford Focus RS are on a path towards mutually assured destruction. But it didn’t have to be this way. VW was quite content being the only player in the US market until Ford figured out it could unify its Focus platform globally. That shift in development paved the way for the original instigator, the Focus ST, to go on sale in the US in 2012. We’ve tried to get our hands on one several times, stymied by accidents and schedule changes several times. Now, shortly after the ST received a mid-cycle update, we finally have our chance.

Ford Focus ST 1

For 2015, the Focus ST was given a mid-cycle refresh. Visually, new front and rear fascias now include HID headlamps with LED running lights. Inside, a redesigned center console, center stack, and flat-bottom steering wheel improve the look and feel of the major touchpoints. Beyond the looks, Ford has altered the Focus ST’s feel with new front springs, stiffer front shock absorbers, and a retuned power steering system. 2016 also adds the improved Sync 3 software.

Ford Focus ST 4

Setting aside the Tangerine Scream hue and racing stripes for a moment, the ST takes a good thing and makes it better. The already handsome Focus hatchback sits lower on its retuned suspension. Larger wheels allow for a glimpse at the red brake calipers. A rear spoiler sits high off the rear glass. These are all things that define the hot hatch stereotype and Ford has checked all the boxes. If you want understated, this isn’t the hatchback for you. Factor back in the bumblebee paint scheme and the Focus ST draws extra attention.

Ford Focus ST 6

Inside, Ford has done some work to make the ST feel unique. A unique wheel gives you something nice to hold on to and the accessory gauges on top of the dash dance as you thrash at the controls. The optional equipment package adds in a host of extra upgrades. In the name of sport, the standard front seats are replaced with a heavily bolstered set of Recaro-made units. If you opt for the most expensive equipment package, you’ll even get some genuine carbon fiber trim and ST-branded shift knob. The problem here is that the interior materials are more suited for a $19,000 compact car than this high-end hot hatchback. Your $32,000 can go a lot farther these days. But odds are you’ll be willing to overlook this if you’re in for the excitement. Just know that strapping into the Focus ST’s Recaro seats will require a gym membership. Instead of stay-put snug, your hips and torso will feel like they’ve been hugged by a boa constrictor after a few hundred miles.

Front differential technology has come a long way in a short amount of time. There’s barely a twitch of torque steer from this Focus ST as you launch off the line. Contrast that to the wrist-breaking reaction of the old Mazdaspeed 3’s wheel in a similar scenario and the Ford feels downright civil…sometimes. Just like the Fiesta ST, the Focus ST has an overboost feature when you tap the ESC button and engage the sport setting. 252 horsepower from the 2.0L EcoBoost four-cylinder are trying to make their way to the pavement. When the turbo kicks in, the front tires are likely to lose grip and trigger the traction control. That’s the 270 lb-ft torque arriving after a brief wait at 2500rpm. You can solve the traction control problem by turning everything off. When you do, you’ll be spinning the front tires in first and second gear. This, of course, is what the hot hatch persona is all about.

Ford Focus ST 2

The Focus’ retuned suspension and recalibrated steering rack give the confidence and the control required to have a blast through the back roads. It doesn’t feel quite as nimble and darty as its little brother, but it has a much higher limit in terms of grip. That means you can still have plenty of fun, but you might find yourself in trouble with the law if you don’t keep your head about you. Demerits? Unlike the Fiesta ST’s raucous blend of intake and exhaust sounds, the Focus ST disappoints. It’s simply too quiet for our ears. In terms of drivability, the clutch pedal lacks a clear engagement point and the 6-speed manual’s throws are a bit on the long side. With a little practice, however, you’ll have the right gear at the right revs all the time.

Ford Focus ST 8

Ford has struck a nerve in the US market. While many want to literally move up, opting for some compact crossover instead of a true hatchback, there’s still people like us; drivers who care about performance and practicality. This is their car. The Focus ST blends the sportiest design available in the US with a playful engine and a suspension tuning that brings it all together. In contrast to the stoic German GTI, this Euro-grown upstart feels younger and more energetic. We also can’t overlook the fact that it paved the way for the new Focus RS. In both ways, then, the Focus ST was worth our wait.

-Christopher Little

2016 Ford Focus ST
$24,425
Tangerine Scream $595
Exterior Stripe – Black $495
Equipment Group 402A $4,995
18″ Machined-Aluminum Wheel with Black Painted Pockets $495
Destination Charges $875
As Tested MSRP $31,880

Related: Fiesta on Fire: 2014 Ford Fiesta ST

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