February 27, 2013

News & Features

Auto review: A hatchback marinated in hot sauce

New York Times News Service

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The 2013 Ford Focus ST shown here features a roof spoiler, 18-inch wheels and a paint color called Tangerine Scream. (Ford)

About a decade after sparking up its fondly recalled Focus SVT — then inexplicably setting it aside — Ford has rediscovered the smoky pleasure of a hot hatchback. It was worth the wait.

With the fine, largely German-engineered Focus as its bedrock, the ST sticks sharp elbows into a perennial benchmark, the Volkswagen GTI. And while the lavishly equipped Focus brings its own form of Euro sophistication, it adds a delightful layer of Yankee aggression.

That American edge may be only metaphorical. The Focus ST was developed under a German-born engineer, Jost Capito, when he was the head of Global Performance Vehicles at Ford. Capito, who has since left to manage VW motorsports, formerly led Porsche racing and Red Bull's Formula One team.

With minor tweaks, this Focus would be right at home on a track. I tested mine in Florida, where the ST was as loud, fast and sweat-inducing as a Miami nightclub — a bold counterpoint to the smooth GTI.

In contrast to the grinning air inlet of the Mazda 3, Ford turns the smile upside-down, giving the Focus a blackened glower that suits its character. Other attention-getters include a jutting roof spoiler, snowflake-shaped 18-inch wheels and a paint color called Tangerine Scream.

The hue seems more taxicab than tropical, but the Focus wore its maize coat proudly, even when it crashed a nighttime gaggle of Bentleys at the Breakers hotel in Palm Beach. The young valet who escorted the ST practically giggled when he handed me back the keys, making it clear whose car he favored.

The dashboard — black and bulging, all vents and sharp angles — is akin to Darth Vader's helmet breathing in your face. Three dashtop gauges display turbo boost, oil pressure and temperature. Recaro sport buckets are a teenage dream, with swollen bolsters, black ribbed inserts, contrasting yellow fabric and red-embossed STs on the headrests. But as with every Focus, the footwells are confining.

While Ford's troublesome MyFord Touch infotainment unit has drawn deserved complaints, one of its strong points is rarely mentioned: the voice commands are pretty slick. Just recite a street address, hands-free, and boom — the system has you locked in and on your way.

"Locked in" also describes the car's performance. Like the Mazdaspeed 3, the ST holds a power and speed advantage over most pocket rockets.

Despite Ford's mechanical and computerized countermeasures, mashing the gas pedal produces roller-coaster waves of torque steer, yanking the wheel in your hands. But give Ford credit for not sanitizing the experience; it's up to the pilot to keep a foot to the floor and hang on tight.

Steering, tire grip and suspension balance are all remarkable for a front-drive car in this class. And the handling assumes skill on the driver's part. The Focus acts more like a rear-drive sports car, avoiding the plodding understeer that scrubs the front tires and kills the joy.

Lift off the throttle on corners and the rear end pivots into a thrilling yet easily controllable slide. I can't think of another front-drive car that's so easy and fun to pivot around its axis.

The Focus ST gives up some refinement to the GTI, but that's also true to its nature. The shifter isn't perfect, but it is eager and effective. Full-throttle shifts at redline send jarring clunks through the powertrain. Another disadvantage is the trucklike turning circle of 39.4 feet. Ford's capless fuel filler — just insert nozzle and pump — is an innovation every automaker might emulate. But the 12.4-gallon tank quickly runs dry.

For neighborhood ruffians who want a vaguely obnoxious hot hatch as a play partner, take my advice: write a check to the Ford dealer before your parents demand the money for rent.

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