Ford’s new EcoBoost-powered Focus ST, billed as the company’s first “global performance” model, ups the stakes in the hot hatch segment with a heady combination of vigorous performance, excellent handling, eye-catching looks and impressive fuel economy. We drove it in the south of France and emerged harmlessly infatuated.
They probably had a good laugh over at Ford’s marketing department when someone came up with this name for a paint option: would you believe Tangerine Scream? Anyway, there was no mistaking its bold livery as we followed the leading Focus ST through the treacherous hairpins and switchbacks of the Côte d’Azur, where apparently deaf cyclists and irresponsible cellphone users posed almost as big a danger as the narrow roads and precipitous cliffs.
Let’s say it right up front: this car is destined to significantly improve Ford’s image (and concomitantly, its fortunes) in the realm occupied by warm-blooded motorists. Why do we say this? For starters, there’s the gutsy, flexible, deliciously rorty (our choice from several definitions: “boisterous and high-spirited”) powerplant – a 2-litre, 4-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost engine producing a useful 184 kW. Driven in anger, or perhaps we should say “high spirits”, this car feels as if it has a far bigger engine under the bonnet.
It performs its magic through a combination of high-pressure direct injection, low-inertia turbocharging, twin-independent variable cam timing, redesigned intake and exhaust systems, and unique calibration. The 0-100 km/h sprint is accomplished in 6,5 seconds and top speed is just under 250 km/h. If you care about fuel consumption (and don’t we all?), you should know that it returns a distinctly frugal 7,2 l/100 km, representing a 20 per cent improvement over the previous Focus ST.
Apparently some people groan when they encounter the word “torque” in a car review, dismissing it as unnecessarily “technical”; however, this is silly. When we tell you that the Focus ST’s engine has a broad, flat torque curve peaking at 360 N.m, it means that it’s equipped to accelerate with great enthusiasm and propel you up steep hills with nary a protest. (In short, lots of torque is a good thing.) Not that the Focus ST seemed to need it on the twisty roads of southern France; the slickshifting manual transmission, with its revised ratios, extracted more than adequate punch across the range.
We loved the steering, which employs a variable-ratio rack that reduces sensitivity when driving in a straight line and increases it when cornering, allowing for comfortable highway cruising as well as needlesharp turns on hairpins. One of these was a first-gear bend that gave us an opportunity to appreciate the car’s tight turning circle; without it, we would undoubtedly have encroached on someone else’s, equally narrow piece of mountain pass (this, it goes without saying, could have been messy).
Specially calibrated for the new Ford Focus, the steering system detects and counters torque steer with a more aggressively pitched version of Ford’s torque steer compensation technology. It doesn’t disappear entirely, but then again, most of us need to be reminded that flooring the gas pedal in first or second gear brings a few relevant phenomena into play.
Want to feel in control? The Electronic Stability Programme (ESP) offers three modes: you can turn it on for a tuned version of the system found throughout the Focus range, opt for a reduced or wide-slip mode that disables traction control and activates ESP only when absolutely necessary, or switch it off altogether. The torque-vectoring system (there is no mechanical differential) applies brake torque to the inner wheel through a corner to reduce understeer. The result is a car that holds its line, delivers outstanding feedback, and goes around corners like a sure-footed gazelle. More reassurance comes from a revised rear suspension with a number of new parts – including uprated suspension knuckles and a new anti-roll bar – developed especially for the ST.
Then there’s the auditory treat. Dieter Schwarz, the amiable engineering manager for performance cars at Ford Europe, says they went to a great deal of trouble to tune the “soundtrack” emanating from the engine, exhaust and intake system. To get there, they solicited feedback from a variety of people – organising clinics and introducing measurables – with the express intention of making the car deliver the right noises, both inside and outside the cabin, under hard acceleration. It worked: the sound is glorious.
Will the new Focus ST resonate with South African drivers? Yes. Will it stir their blood and shake up the hot hatch market? Damn right it will.
The Focus ST 5-door hatch will be launched in South Africa in November, to be followed “some time” next year by the Focus EcoSport, equipped with the 1-litre, 91 kW EcoBoost engine.
Heart of a giant
By the time we got to experience Ford’s game-changing 1-litre EcoBoost engine on the highways and byways of Germany, we already knew it had won an International Engine of the Year accolade, so something technically impressive was clearly on the cards. What we didn’t expect was a diminutive machine with the heart of a giant…
In determining the winner of the International Engine of the Year showdown, the judges consider such factors as drivability, performance, economy, refinement and the successful application of advanced engine technology. The 1-litre EcoBoost engine ended up receiving 28 per cent more points than its closest rival and the highest score of any engine in the history of the competition. Reinforcing this success, a Ford Focus powered by the same engine recently set 16 new world speed records over two days at the CERAM test circuit in Mortefontaine, France.
Okay, here’s what makes it different and rather special. Developed at Ford’s Dunton Technical Centre in the UK, it has three cylinders and displaces just 1 litre (the size of the average superbike engine). It’s equipped with direct fuel injection, variable valve timing on both intake and exhaust, and a compact turbocharger with a tiny, low-inertia impeller that spins at a formidable 248 000 r/min, resulting in negligible turbo lag.
That’s just for starters. An advanced split cooling system plus the use of a cast-iron block cuts the amount of warm-up energy required by as much as 50 per cent, thereby slightly reducing fuel consumption. The two glass-reinforced drive belts are immersed in oil to deliver a quieter, more efficient operation (we’re told they will last for the lifetime of the engine).
Ford’s engineers compensated for the three-cylinder configuration by deliberately unbalancing the flywheel and pulley rather than adding energy-draining balancer shafts. It works: the engine runs smoothly and revs freely, as we discovered on our test drive in and around the German city of Cologne. In fact, we were astonished by its get-up-and-go, which resembled that of a 1,6-litre engine at the very least, and we were more than satisfied with the flexibility and low-end torque.
Then there’s the miserly fuel consumption: the 74 kW version delivers best-in-class fuel efficiency of 4,8 litres/100 km and CO2 emissions of 109 g/km; its more powerful sibling gets pretty close to that number. Aside from performing sterling work in the Focus, the 1-litre – the fourth in Ford’s family of EcoBoost engines – will provide fuel-efficient power for two other models in the company’s European product range, the C-MAX and all-new B-MAX.
Interestingly, Ford of Europe plans to triple its annual production of vehicles equipped with EcoBoost engines to about 480 000 by 2015. The company expects more than 300 000 of those vehicles to be equipped with the 1-litre version.
2013 Ford Focus Electric
What’s new: Runs on electrons, thanks to a 105 kW electric motor and 23 kWh lithium-ion battery pack.
Neat trick: With a 240-volt 32-amp charger, re-energising the battery takes just four hours.
Driving character: Drives like the impressively refined and sprightly Focus, though a little lighter on the sprite.
Roadblock: Like all EVs, trip planning is critical. The range is about 120 km.
Possible alternative: A more affordable Focus that can refuel in under 5 minutes and go 640 km on a tank.
Coming to SA?: Er… don’t hold your breath.