Ford Focus ST — Performance choices

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

"Hot-hatch" enthusiasts demand precise steering, razor-sharp handing, and a large dose of performance from their small hatchback and we admit that we were enamored of the little lightning bolts in the past. Two years ago we fell in love with the sub-compact Ford Fiesta ST, and now we have discovered the slightly bigger Focus ST is a winner as well.

The Focus is an attractive car with a quality interior that lives above its pay grade, offering a lot of pluses in whatever trim level. But the star billing belongs to ST — or it did until the ultra-high-performance RS was introduced to North America this year with 350 horsepower, 350 pound-feet of torque and all-wheel drive.

As attractive as the RS appears, it might be out of reach with a starting price of $36,605 and an out-the-door price that can easily eclipse 40 grand. So if you can't make that work there is still the very solid ST that comes in at a bargain basement base price of $25,300.

It is outfitted with a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that delivers 252 horsepower and 270 pound-feet of torque mated to a slick-shifting extremely precise six-speed manual transmission. This translates to a 0-to-60 time in 6.3 seconds with a quarter mile time of 14.8 seconds @ 94.3 miles per hour, and stopping power measured at just 109 feet from 60 mph.

If the savvy shopper — or more relevantly the current ST owner who is a bit chagrinned because these ST numbers might fall a bit short of bragging rights among friends, Ford says has the answer with a factory-backed Mountune Performance Kit for 2015 and 2016 models that pushes horsepower to 270 and torque to 296 pound-feet. This translates, according to instrument testing of a major automotive magazine, to a 0-to-60 time of 6 seconds and a quarter-mile time of 14.6 seconds @ 96.4 mph, solid improvements over the stock ST.

The performance kit goes beyond raw performance including sharpening the already outstanding handling while nearly eliminating all vestiges of torque steer. The entire package is $5,102. But a total package purchase is not necessary. Broken down into various parts, the main one is the actual performance upgrade for $1,900. Another worthwhile add-on is the Quaife differential for $999, which really tames the torque steer monster.

But the stock ST is already a hot hatch winner so the owner who desires a little more of everything must decide it’s worth the cost. We would find it difficult to spend our 5 grand on the kit and pass up the $4,995 option that includes the new, superior, SYNC 3 enhanced voice recognition communications and entertainment system, SiriusXM satellite radio, dual zone climate control, Recaro 8-way power partial leather seats, and a Carbon Fiber Interior Accent Package.

The thing here is that the stock ST is a true driver's car with excellent acceleration. It comes with one of the most precise six-speed manual transmissions in existence (it’s the only transmission available). Steering feel is extraordinary, and the ST will bring a smile to your face on a winding rural road while at the same time delivering a firm, but pleasing ride quality.

Standard equipment for the base price includes 18-inch alloy wheels with summer tires, performance brakes, electronic limited-slip differential, a sport body kit, keyless entry and ignition, leather-wrapped tilt-and-telescoping steering wheel, rearview camera and a six-speaker sound system with CD player and USB port.

Standard safety features include antilock disc brakes, a full array of airbags, blindspot warning mirrors, the aforementioned rearview camera, and Ford's MyKey system that can be used to set electronic parameters for inexperienced drivers.

Perhaps the highlight of the Focus is the extremely attractive, quiet, and well laid-out cabin. The gauge cluster is clear and easy to read, and a small information screen in front of the driver imparts useful information. The ST also gets a set of three gauges at the top of the dash reading oil temperature, oil pressure and turbo boost. The optional SYNC 3 system features an eight-inch touchscreen that incorporates gestures such as swiping between pages or pinching to zoom that will feel familiar to smartphone and tablet users.

The standard front sport seats are comfortable. Optional Recaro seats are available, but you may find the side bolsters too confining. The rear seats are comfortable, but rear-seat legroom is limited. Storage space with the seats in use is good at 23.8 cubic feet. That expands to 44.8 cubic feet with the seatbacks folded.

Our test car with options carried a bottom line of $31,890 not including the performance kit.

Base price, $25,195; as driven, $31,890
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 270 @ 5,500 rpm
Torque: 296 pound-feet @ 2,500 rpm
Transmission: 6-speed manual
Drive: front wheel
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Length: 171.7 inches
Curb weight: 3,214 pounds
Turning circle: 39.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 23.8 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 44.8 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 12.4 gallons (premium recommended)
EPA rating: 32 highway, 23 city, 26 combined
0-60: 6.0 seconds

The Good
• Powerful turbocharged engine
• Excellent manual transmission
• Precise handling
• Attractive interior

The Bad
• Performance package costly

The Ugly
• Automatic transmission unavailable