Eight years ago, when giant SUV's roamed this fair country virtually unchallenged, The Blue Oval slipped the Ford Focus into the American market. Now that gas prices have U.S. consumers thinking small, you'd think that FoMoCo would be battling Fits, Versas and Yari with an updated version of their Eurobox. Nope. As far as Ford’s engineers and PR department are concerned, the Focus has fallen off the face of the earth. Which might just work in your favor.
A quick reminder: the budget-minded Focus has always ranked among the roomiest, nimblest and sharpest-steering cars in its class. What’s more, the class has grown fatter during the Focus’, uh, golden years. And the Focus range includes a “sport” model priced within reach of poverty-stricken pistonheads: the $17,040 ZX4 ST.
From the curb, the Focus communicates a certain small-car geek chic. Once conspicuously gawky, its tall roof and bluff bodysides fit right in with 2007’s Stay-Puft Sentras, Spectras and Corollas. A 2005 freshening took the squint out of the Focus’s face, with wider, brighter headlamps and a puckered-up grille. The ST looks, um, cute.
Alas, “cute” turns to “crusty” upon popping the Focus’ doors. Perhaps feeling the effects a few (hundred) drunken choruses of “Workin’ in a Coal Mine,” Ford’s stylists trimmed the ST’s cabin in a black-lunged pastiche of hard, hollow plastics. Who knew there were that many shades of black? Even stranger: the colors and many of the textures don’t quite match from panel to panel. Buttons and bin lids feel tenuously affixed.
Fortunately, Ford blessed the ST with a fabulously foamy set of seats from which to survey the cabin’s car-nage. Unfortunately, these comfy thrones sit high off the floor, affording a loathsome “perched on a beach ball” sensation. Other ergonomic gripes: the swing-down center armrest is a shameless elbow-banger, the tach lacks a redline indicator and the entire pedal assembly jiggles when your Merrell snags the clutch.
Speaking of clutching, clutch you must (a pose-o-matic slushbox is not offered). Pity, then, that the five-speed manual lacks gearhead-grade tactility. The springy, long-travel clutch and numb, floppy shifter serve as constant reminders that you’re flying economy class.
The ST’s engine offers something of an upgrade. Though there are only 151 horses in its 2.3-liter stable, the ST’s Mazda-sourced four is a sweetheart. The mini-mill delivers sparkling throttle response, a dainty exhaust snort and a smooth, remarkably even flow of torque. Sixty miles per hour arrives after a brisk canter, in 7.9 unstressed seconds. According to the EPA, the little Focus that could burns a gallon of gas in 23 (city) or 32 (highway) miles.
Of course, all of this powertrain palaver misses the point of the Focus, and in particular, the ST: handling. Nudge its fat little leather-wrapped steering wheel off-center, and— Holy path control, Batman! This little Focus really turns! Yes Boy Wonder, we can revel in a mechanism that’s as sharp as the dashboard’s mold flashing. Course corrections Batman? Forget ‘em chum. With this helm, your first order is always the right one.
Ford could have specced teeth-chattering springs and shocks to drive home the ST’s sport-compact message. In fact, its long-travel suspenders are mild and resilient over the bumps. Combined with the booster-seat driving position, which (literally and figuratively) distances the driver from the contact patches, this supple tuning lends the ST a more mature, mass-market flavor than econoboxes aimed at Vin Diesel devotees. The all-season 205/50R-16 Pirellis, meanwhile, leave a thin margin for adrenal exuberance between speed limit and adhesion limit.
But if the ST’s flesh, er, rubber is weak, the spirit is willing. Dive into a corner on a trailing throttle and try not to smile. The Ford’s pudgy tail feints outward as the front tires scrabble for grip. Gathering it up is as easy as making the monthly payments. Just remember to brace yourself against the door panel– those comfy chairs have all the lateral support of a Barcalounger.
Does all of this make the Focus a competitive product, a viable alternative to the Camcordima? Not to Joe or Jane Average. In a typical dealer-lot once-over, they’ll survey the Focus’ cabin’s Tyco plastics, its spotty ergonomics and its weak features list— head-curtain air bags, an MP3 jack, and rear-seat headrests are all conspicuously absent— and make a “Bold Move” toward their nearest transplant retailer.
Let them flee. While occupying the humble end of the thrill scale, the ST represents a rare victory for enthusiasts. It supplies most of the qualities we crave in a budget ride, while flunking enough mainstream requirements to generate fire-sale prices. As of this writing, Ford offers a $2500 factory bribe on 2007 models. Make them an offer. You’ll find that purchasing an ST is like buying a car at Sam’s Club, only cheaper.