NEWS

2015 Ford Focus ST: Cheap Speed Challenge Rematch

15Ford_FocusST_01_AB.jpg 2015 Ford Focus ST; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

How would the 2015 Ford Focus ST have performed in Cars.com’s $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge? It took a whole year to find out. When we invited automakers in 2014 to participate in the Cheap Speed Challenge, we expected the Focus. But Ford gave us a head-scratcher in the Fiesta ST, an undersized car in a group that (mostly) included larger compacts like the Subaru WRX, Volkswagen GTI and Kia Forte SX turbo.

Related: The $30,000 Cheap Speed Challenge

The Focus ST was a likelier choice in terms of size and price, and it took until this year, when we ran one at the same racetracks we used for Cheap Speed as part of the Performance Coupe Challenge, to envision how the Fiesta’s big brother would have fared.

The Fiesta ST

The Fiesta ST was among the smallest Cheap Speed cars, shorter and narrower than every other contender save the gumdrop-shaped Fiat 500 Abarth, which had two fewer doors. Its curb weight (2,720 pounds) was the second lightest of the group, and its tiny turbo engine cranked out the second-lowest horsepower (197).

If the Fiesta ST seemed like an odd choice, our test car’s lime-sherbet green paint job signaled as much. Had Ford brought a knife to a gunfight?

It turns out it didn’t.

Horsepower isn’t everything. The ST’s 1.6-liter four-cylinder kicked out a solid 202 pounds-feet of torque, and the whole of it propelled the hatchback to 60 mph in 7.61 seconds and through the quarter-mile in 15.72 seconds at 92.3 mph at Illinois’ Byron Dragway. Both were midpack numbers among the eight cars tested. Most editors called the Fiesta ST’s confining seats and punishing ride a liability on the road, but at Autobahn Country Club’s racetrack in suburban Chicago, the car’s impossibly good handling won a chorus of praise. In the end, Ford’s stick-shift speedster landed a podium finish behind the GTI and WRX.

15Ford_FocusST_02_AB.jpg 2015 Ford Focus ST; | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

The Focus ST

It’s doubtful the Focus ST, also with a stick, would have done as well. The car’s turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes an extra 55 hp and 68 pounds-feet of torque versus the Fiesta ST (for 252 hp and 270 pounds-feet total), but it still sends all that power through the front wheels. Cue the torque steer.

“It’s so hard to combat [torque steer] when you have torque, and torque is worth having,” Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder said. “But I do think it’s worse here than in any car I can think of. Truly any.”

The acceleration payoff was less than expected. The Focus ST has some extra go, but also extra girth — another 503 pounds versus the Fiesta ST. We managed 15.10 seconds at 93.7 mph at Byron Dragway in the Focus ST. That’s quicker than the Fiesta ST, but the difference felt more modest in practice.

“Even with the higher output, the Focus doesn’t feel as quick,” Wiesenfelder said. And Managing Editor David Thomas quipped that the Focus ST’s output “does not feel like 252 horsepower.”

Senior Editor Mike Hanley, who logged off-track seat time in both the Fiesta ST and Focus ST, liked the Focus ST’s precise shifter but noted that engine power was “not as immediate as I thought it’d be.”

Handling, meanwhile, was a world apart.

The Fiesta ST was a track machine, sliding its tail like no front-drive car should be capable of. But the Focus ST hung the nose at every turn, scrubbing its Goodyear Eagle F1 P235/40R18s against pervasive understeer. You could bring the tail around with some timely midcorner lift-throttle, but it lacked the Fiesta ST’s “raucousness,” as Wiesenfelder put it.

Significant body roll, fade-prone brakes and under-bolstered seats put three more nails in the coffin.

“After one or so laps [at Autobahn], I was worried that the Focus was too unstable for all those tight turns,” Thomas said. “After I felt it out, I started to have more fun with it. But the steering wasn’t tight enough for such a course, and the rubber didn’t really give much grip either.”

Wiesenfelder had some handling praise, at least.

The Focus ST lacked the Fiesta ST’s “excellent mix of rawness and controllability,” he said, but that’s “not to say it’s not controllable. I was impressed in that regard. Every time it got unsettled, I just lifted and/or corrected a bit and it got back in line. The sport stability mode lets you have fun without putting yourself in peril. As always, the steering is a high point in this car.”

15Ford_FocusST_03_MFR.jpg 2015 Ford Focus ST; | Manufacturer Image

Editors agreed the Focus ST was better off the track.

“What this car does that the Fiesta doesn’t is preserve your spine,” Wiesenfelder said. “That was the appalling characteristic of the Fiesta, and probably what kept it from a higher score.”

Thomas bemoaned the Focus ST’s noise levels “with both wind and road noise” but dubbed ride quality “decent,” and Hanley was impressed with the “overall refinement” of the Focus ST.

“Its suspension handles bumps well without resulting in a harsh ride,” he said.

The Verdict

Ford does offer no-charge 16-inch wheels for 2015 Fiesta ST versus our 2014 tester’s 17s, which might improve ride comfort. But editors still agree that the Fiesta ST, not the Focus ST, is Ford’s true econo-rocket.

“Without a doubt, the Fiesta was the car to send last year,” Wiesenfelder said. “I suspect [the Focus ST’s] larger size (a shortcoming for the Fiesta) wouldn’t have compensated enough for its lesser ‘wheeeee!’ factor. Could have placed the same, or even lower.”

“The [Focus ST] would have lost on the track to many of the cars,” Thomas concluded. “The all-around aspects might have played well. Still, I can’t see it ever beating the WRX or GTI in any way.”

“The Fiesta is just a much more engaging, fun-to-drive car thanks to great steering and a light-on-its-feet feel,” Hanley said. “The Focus has neither of those things, and seems to emphasize refinement over driving fun.”

He summed it up: “For similar money, I like the new VW GTI more.”

Latest expert reviews