For sport compact buyers who prioritize handling over acceleration, the SVT Focus
was hard to beat. Unfortunately, Ford has decided that SVT will only sell expensive, high-horsepower vehicles in the future, and the $20,000 170-horsepower SVT Focus didnt fit. The 2004 will be the last model year, and it has already come to an end.
But all is not lost. For 2005 Ford has mildly freshened the Focus. The largest change is a new instrument panel. To fill the SVTs shoes a new ST trim will be offered. Initially at least the ST will only be available in four-door sedan form, perhaps to prevent buyers remorse on the part of those who bought an SVT, which was only available as a hatch with three or five doors.
Why is there risk of remorse? Well, the ST adopts the SVTs suspension tuning, includes similar well-bolstered seats, adds a torqier (though lower horsepower) engine, and, best of all, carries a lower price tag.
This seems like a winning formula. But the ST faces some tough competition from the Mazda3, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, and (perhaps) the soon to appear Toyota Corolla XRS. I havent driven the Toyota yet, but to get an idea of how the ST compares to the other two I took one for a test drive.
For 2005 the Focus front end has been mildly restyled. The new lamps and grille are a bit squarer and more upright. The old front ends greater rake didnt mesh well with the styling of the sedan or wagon, so for those bodystyles this is an especially welcome change.
With either front end, the sedan is a much less interesting, much less special design than the hatches. Its not a bad looking car, but with its slab sides and blocky rear looks much more suited to a rental car fleet. The ST comes with 16-inch alloys that do not look as good on the car as even the 16s in previous years, much less the very nice thin-spoked 17s standard on the SVT. People who bought an SVT based substantially on its looks will feel no remorse in this department.
Among competitors, the Lancer has an even stronger econobox appearance, while the 3 looks considerably more upscale even with its overly abrupt trunk.
Inside the Ford Focus ST, nice touches include red-stitched black leather on the steering wheel and shift knob. The standard seats resemble those in the SVT, with red dots on charcoal in their inserts and in the door panels. Unlike the SVT, the bolsters are upholstered in cloth, not leather. These seats are tastefully sporty, unlike the garish orange units in the first-year Sentra SE. The car I drove had the optional charcoal leather with gray suede in place of the red-dotted cloth. Very nice.
If only the new instrument panel measured up to the seats and steering wheel. It will please those for whom the old asymmetrical design was too weird. But most people will find its extremely plain design boring. Hard plastics are used both on the instrument panel and doors. Though the Mazda3s interior also makes extensive use of hard plastic, it looks much more upscale. The Lancer fares a bit better than the Focus in the interior materials department, but not by enough to count.
No matter how many times I test drive a Focus its driving position seems unusual. You sit a few inches higher than average in this car. While this affords an excellent view over the instrument panel, it detracts from the sportiness of the car. The driving positions in the other two cars are more conventional--the top of their instrument panels is much nearer the driver's line of sight--with the 3s the sportiest of the bunch.
Many reviewers have found the Ford Focus seats uncomfortable. Ive never had a problem with them though. The STs feel firmer than I recall from the last SVT I sat in (though they might be unchanged--the owner of that SVT was on the heavy side). As in the Lancer, firm side bolsters provide very good lateral support. The 3s seats do less well here, though better than those in the Protegé that preceded it.
The Focus ST like every 2005 Focus has a single, difficult to reach manual control on the front face of the cushion that simultaneously changes the seat's height and tilt (rearward tilt is greatest with the seat in its lowest position). I prefer the separate controls for front and rear height in my Protege5, which allow tilt and height to be separately adjusted. But the Protégé is no longer available. The 3 has only a single control for height. I cannot recall if the Lancers height adjustment used one knob or two. A Hyundai Accent provides separate controls, though, so it's clearly not a budget-busting feature.
The Focus front seat has limited rearward travel, such that I positioned it all the way back despite being only 5-9. I do like to drive with the seat further back than most people my height, but those over six feet might wish for more rearward travel.
The Ford Focus rear seat remains very comfortable for a compact. Knee room is a bit tight with the front seat all the way back, but the cushion is well off the floor, providing very good thigh support and minimizing the need for said knee room.
The sedans trunk is tall and deep, but on the narrow side, especially with the Audiophile package's subwoofer filling considerable space on the left. The seatbacks fold in two sections. Sadly, the cushion tilts as a single piece, so if you want a flat load floor you cannot carry even one person in the rear seat.
Interior storage is decent. The compartment in the insufficiently padded center armrest is small, but it is supplemented by another in the dash to the left of the steering column that can hold a dozen or so CDs.
On the Road
Ive been impressed by the smoothness of the 160-horsepower 2.3-liter in Mazdas cars, but not with its verve. Oddly, the 145-horsepower version in the Ford Ford ST feels punchier at lower revs despite lacking the Mazdas variable valve timing. The specs back up my impressions. The Mazda version produces its peak torque of 150 foot-pounds at 4500 RPM, while the Ford version produces 149 at 4250. Horsepower peaks are even more telling: 5750 vs. 6500 RPM.
The exhaust is louder in the Ford, which lends the engine a sportier character and make it feel spunkier than it is. Thankfully its not loud enough to be obnoxious, unlike that in the turbo Neon, but some might find its droning while cruising down the road a bit unwelcome. I didn't mind it. All in all I actually prefer Fords less powerful version of the 2.3, though I like the 2.4 in the Lancer better than either.
As for the SVTs 2.0, I didnt miss its extra 25 horses. Produced at 7000 RPM, theyd come in handy in ten-tenths driving, but for anything less the torquier 2.3 (149 foot-pounds at 4250 RPM vs. 145 at 5500) works better.
In one area the 2.3 is clearly superior to the SVT powerplant: premium fuel is not necessary.
The Ford Focus ST is available only with a five-speed manual. The SVTs complicated, dual final drive six-speed no doubt cost much more, and in all honesty the extra ratio is not much needed with the torquier 2.3. Shifters have never been a Focus strong point, and this hasnt changed for 2005. Shifts are easy enough, with a mild notchiness going into gear that I like but others might not. But shift throws are far too long and feel in the vicinity of neutral too sloppy (were clearly working through cables here), especially compared to the excellent short-throw shifter in the Ralliart. The 3s shifter feels better than the Focus, and those who find shift effort in the Lancer too high (I dont) will find it the best of the three.
Traction control is standard on the ST, amazing since its not even available on the 3 and Lancer and was included in the seat heater package on the SVT. Although the engine is hardly torquey enough to make this feature of much use on dry roads, it could come in handy on slick surfaces.
In contrast to the shifter, handling has always been a Focus strong point, especially with the SVT, and the ST does not disappoint in this area. Although the steering wheels rim is a hair too thick, the systems feel and weighting are very good both on center and in hard turns. The car goes precisely where you point it, with less understeer than the typical front-driver. The 3 and Lancer also handle very well, though, and lean less in turns. The Lancers steering, with a very direct feel on center, is in my opinion the best of the three. Between the Focus and 3 its hard to say which is the better handler. The Ford Focus has a more playful feel, and its steering is more communicative, while the 3 feels more taut and controlled. My Protege5 feels more nimble than any of them, with an almost go-kart feel. But thats a relic of the past. Just about every compact strives to feel larger than it is these days.
The payoff for the STs extra lean in turns is the best ride quality of the bunch. In my first drive of the SVT, with similar suspension tuning, I found the ride overly harsh. Maybe it was the particular road I traveled, or that car's tires were overinflated, or the STs slightly higher profile (50- vs. 45-series) Pirelli P6 tires absorb the small stuff better. Whatever the reason, I found the STs ride almost cushy compared to that of the 3 and Lancer (though neither of those seemed harsh to me).
Wind noise levels are subdued, but even at moderate speeds exhaust and tire noises intrude somewhat. Thankfully even with five rather than the SVTs six speeds the engine turns only about 2450 RPM at 60, which bodes well for both fuel economy and comfort on the highway.
I liked driving the Focus ST very much, yet find myself writing a mixed review. Just a sign of how tough the competition is in this segment.
Ford Focus ST Price Comparisons and Pricing
For quick, up-to-date pricing, and especially user-specified price comparisons, check out the website I created: www.truedelta.com
. Why yet another vehicle pricing website? Well, I personally lacked the patience to keep using the others. They were too slow and required too much effort, especially when trying to compare prices. So I taught myself some programming and created a site where there is no need to dig through option packages, prerequisites, and the like one by one -- the TrueDelta
algorithm figures these out for you in one swift pass
The following prices are from when this review was originally written:
The Focus ST starts at $18,250. The car I drove included every option except the $350 side airbags: the $695 leather/suede seats, $115 heaters for said seats (a very low price), $455 Audiophile system with in-dash CD changer and subwoofer, $625 moonroof, and $125 alarm system. The total: $20,265.
How much cheaper is this than the 2004 SVT? The base price of the SVT is $900 higher. With sunroof and Audiophile package it lists for $21,145, or $1,435 more than the above ST. (Add heated seats to both and the gap widens by another $280 because traction control is standard on the ST but not on the SVT. On the other hand, the SVT has standard cloth/leather seats, so arguably the suede/leather option should be included in the ST's price.) Sticker to sticker the ST is the better deal.
In most aspects the ST really is an SVT for about $1,500 less. Its just about as much fun to drive, and as a bonus runs on regular. On the downside it is only available in relatively boring sedan form and between this and the smaller wheels doesn't look as sharp or special.
I found many things to like about the ST, most notably its engine, seats, and handling. But while the Mazda3s engine doesnt seem as energetic, it handles corners with less lean and looks much more upscale. For most people the Mazda is the one to buy.
For some, though, the Mitsubishi will be the surprising favorite. It has the most enjoyable engine and its steering and shifter feel fantastic. Shame about the styling, even more rental-car-like than the Focus sedans, but those who prioritize the driving experience will often prefer it to the others.
The Ford Focus STs best bet, as good as it is, is a larger rebate down the road. Making the ST available in hatch form with the SVTs wheels also wouldnt hurt, but it might upset SVT owners.
A Note on Ford Focus ST Reliability
I cannot practically cover reliability within the context of this review. However, many people are interested in such information, so I've started collecting my own data. Results, once they are available, will be posted to my site, www.truedelta.com, with updates every three months.
Unlike other sources, TrueDelta will clearly identify what difference it will make if you buy a Focus ST rather than another vehicle by providing "times in the shop" and "days in the shop" stats (among others). You will be able to specify the number of years, annual miles, and types of repairs to include in Ford Focus ST reliability comparisons.
Before I can report results, I need reliability data on all cars--not just the Focus ST--from people like you. To encourage participation, those who help provide the data will receive free access
to the site's reliability information. Non-participants will have to pay an access fee.
For the details, and to sign up, visit www.truedelta.com.
A link to this website and alphabetized links to my other vehicle reviews
can be found on my profile page
Some of my reviews of related vehicles:
Ford Focus SVT review
Hyundai Elantra GT review
Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart review
Nissan Sentra SE-R review
Toyota Corolla XRS review
Amount Paid (US$):
Model and Options:
ST with all but side airbags