Payne: The naughty, hot-hatch Focus ST
There’s no winter so cold that a hot hatch can’t warm up.
It’s March in Detroit. Mid-winter break. Halfway to spring. Halfway? In my native South, March means short pants, blossoms exploding on cherry trees, sports cars gleaming with Turtle Wax.
Not Michigan. The groundhog sees six more weeks of testing rugged, all-wheel-drive SUVs, large sedans and pickups. So imagine my surprise to see a Ford Focus ST tester show up in my driveway. Black racing stripes down the hood. Recaro seats. Twin pipes out back. “Tangerine Scream” yellow paint practically melting two inches of snow off my driveway.
As good as SUVs are these days — see my recent rave reviews of the nimble Audi Q7, Ford Edge, and Cadillac XT5 — every garage should have a hot hatch in it. Like the family SUV, its five doors provide practical space and storage. But it also allows you to misbehave without taking out a whole block of mailboxes.
The ST is particularly naughty.
The proper hot hatch is the Volkswagen Golf GTI. The 2015 North American Car of the Year. A civilized pet that has been engineered to perfection by its German trainers. No torque steer. Perfect gearbox. Groomed, conservative design. You’d never see a GTI with racing stripes. The ST, by contrast, is the snarling Rottweiler you picked up from the pound.
It makes you nervous just looking at it. The huge, gaping mouth. You almost expect a little foam around the lips. Raked rear spoiler. It boasts a ferocious, 30 more horsepower than the GTI yet refuses to tame torque steer despite helpful spring-and-shock suspension tweaks that have improved cornering attitude. Stomp on the car’s accelerator and the leather-wrapped, flat-bottomed steering wheel practically rips out of your hand like a Rottweiler’s leash when he’s spied a bunny rabbit. The front tires squirm. The car darts back and forth across the road. It’s a hoot.
Still, 30 more beans does not translate into quicker zero-60 times than its German competition (6.3 second ST vs. 6.1 GTI according to our friends at Car & Driver). Credit Wolfsburg engineering that has made the Golf-on-’roids a perennial Car & Driver Top Ten pick. That masters-in-engineering also translates to smoother shifting, build quality, cornering, and ... a sticker price at about a grand north of my Focus ST’s very affordable $31, 035.
Where the fearsome Focus excels is in the rear-view mirror. Plant yourself on someone’s bumper and they’ll break out in a cold sweat. Upgraded in 2015 to look even more menacing than before (if that’s possible), you can practically feel the Rottweiler breathing on your neck. The GTI, meanwhile, looks like, well, a Golf. Conservative, stealthy. Only its signature wheels give it away at a profile view.
Inside and out, the ST is infectiously naughty.
True, the cabin is a model of excellent ergonomics — typical of the Ford brand. The SYNC 3 console system is intuitive. Voice recognition excellent. Recaro seats fit like a glove. Excellent rear-seat head room thanks to the squared-off hatch. ST this even has a posh, heated steering wheel for goodness sake — heated all the way around (unlike, ahem, a recent Lexus I drove) for that warm and cuddly feeling on a wintry night. Ahhh, civilization.
Then I gaze down at the carbon-fiber shifter knob and matching handbrake. Naughty, naughty. In no time I am searching for an unplowed parking lot.
Let me explain. The transition to electronic parking brakes is one of the (rare) tragedies of the modern digital age. Yes, the little pull-up tabs are more space efficient than their handbrake forebears, but the pull-ups are handier for emergency stops and parking lot donuts. Especially snowy parking lots.
Locating one within miles of home, I stabbed the throttle (pedals are notably close together for quick foot work — whether misbehaving in winter or doing heel-and-toe downshifts on a Waterford Raceway track day in summer), yanked the parking brake and spun like a top.
Passersby must have smiled. Tangerine Scream tri-coat. Racing stripes. Mouth-breather. Sure, boys gotta have fun. If I had been in a conservative, civilized-looking GTI they probably would have worried.
These day, STs come with an all-season tire option — not just the summer gummies of yore. For a mere $30 you can have any-season confidence, – though you will sacrifice the limits of summer performance. What isn’t sacrificed is rear trunk space. Focuses, including the ST, can fold their rear seats flat making for a cavernous cargo hold just like their crossover cousins.
All the utility of an SUV, all the fun of a small supercar. Hot hatches warm my heart.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Or Twitter: @HenryEPayne
2016 Ford Focus ST
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger hatchback
Price: $24,425 base ($31,910 as tested)
Powerplant: 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 252 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Performance: 0-60 mph, 6.3 seconds (Car & Driver est.); top speed, 150 mph (drag limited)
Weight: 3,248 pounds
Fuel economy: EPA 22 mpg city / 31 mpg highway / 25 combined
Highs: Aggressive wardrobe; A hoot to drive
Lows: Torque steer; Ticket magnet