I really liked my 2012 Ford Focus SE. It was practical, it was fuel efficient, and it was yellow. It was perfectly content on my daily commute, and surprisingly decent for the occasional motorsports event. But there was always that little voice in the back of my head that prodded, “wouldn’t you have way more fun if you had a turbocharger hanging off the side of the motor?”
In the dead of winter, I brought home the car that was to replace my 2012 Ford Focus SE: a yellow Ford Focus ST. Similar colors, same interior, same infotainment, but different bumpers and a turbo. Funny what a difference a single letter can make.
A difference in expectations
You may think that the Focus ST is targeted to driving enthusiasts like me, but you’re only partially correct.
Who does Ford imagine buying the Focus ST? It’s probably a car enthusiast that likes driving a stick, who likes feeling a rush of power when hitting the gas, and perhaps enjoys carving corners on his or her favorite mountain road. But let’s be real — for the vast majority of owners, perhaps the most frequent demand that would be regularly made on the car is joy of accelerating onto the freeway from an on-ramp or cloverleaf.
If this is what you think your customer will be doing, then you can make some choices. For example, you can have overboost, which temporarily raises the boost limit for about eight seconds for that extra rush of power. If you’re only going to be at “full” boost for seconds at a time, then you can size the intercooler to reflect that. If the car is going to see more freeway commuting miles than corner carving, then you direct more air around the wheel wells to help with better fuel economy. And if the car is only going to be occasionally asked to put down power when cornering, you can make the car cheaper and leave off the limited slip differential. You can use brake biasing to achieve wheel spin control instead.
That works for 99% of drivers out there. Great!
But it doesn’t work for me. I’m in the 1%, the idiots who take their cars to closed courses to enjoy life on the edge of tire adhesion.
The shortcomings of the Focus ST are well known among track rats. Engines heat soak easily. Lack of airflow to the brakes means that even with good pads and good fluid, it’s extremely easy to overheat the brakes. Then there’s the inconvenient fact that you’re putting down 240 horsepower through an open diff, with brake biasing attempting to reign in wheel spin, and getting worse and worse at its job as the session goes on because the front brakes never, ever get a chance to cool off.
Which is a shame, because the suspension is pretty well done. The car rotates very easily, which is rare to find in any FWD car straight from the factory.
I took the Focus ST to Grattan, lapping with some friends who brought their cars out there, and was blown away at how well the Focus ST could attack corners, and how easy it was to chase down older V8 Mustangs down the front straight. It also quickly became clear that my brakes were a problem I had to manage, making it through the weekend almost without going off from brake fade. Almost.
The video above ends where it ends because I nearly went off at Turn 1 trying to slow the car down. I decided that that was the end of my weekend.
When I got back home, I had a chance to inspect the abuse I had wrought upon the car. I had one chunked tire, two ruined front brake discs, and a pair of brake calipers that looked decades old instead of six months old. I replaced the front brakes and the tires and never took the car to another track day again.
At least with autocross, the speeds weren’t super high, and the run format meant that it was possible to cool the car down between runs. Still, I wasn’t enjoying autocrossing the car either, as corner exit was always an exercise in patience, something that I sadly don’t have. I ran my Focus ST once at a National event and then never ran it again Nationally either. It would only come out to play at local events when my Miata was down.
I also took the car rallycrossing and, for the first time ever, on the frozen lakes for ice runs. Still, the same problems I’d run into when autocrossing the car were there when driving the car sideways.
On one run with the Saginaw Valley Region winter ice runs event, I had a friend ride shotgun with me. At the end, he stepped out of the car and immediately noticed the smell of burning brakes, and beckoned me to check it out for myself. Yep, the brakes were burning hot, even in the cold of winter. Well, I had just run a three mile course in which the front wheels were constantly spinning at an indicated 75 mph on the speedometer, so yeah, three minutes of nonstop front brake usage from a computer that’s wondering what the hell is going on would result in cooked brakes…
Practical considerations, or lack thereof
As I noted in my closing statement of the Focus SE COAL, “I had taken a car that was good at 95% of the things I needed it to do — be a comfy daily driver — and not so good at the 5% of everything else — be a race car — and swapped it for a car that was the diametric opposite.”
Leaving aside the realization (as I was typing the above) that the Focus ST also wasn’t a very good race car, it definitely fell short on the “things a daily driver should be.”
First and foremost, it didn’t have heated seats, which I quickly learned was something I really, really liked in a winter driver. My Focus ST had the exact same seat frame and cushions (the “Sport” seats in the regular Focus trims), it just didn’t have the seat heaters that my Focus SE had.
Secondly, the Focus ST was expensive to keep around. As a cheap hot hatch with a lot of power frequently purchased by young folks with more dollars than common sense, insurance on the Focus ST was pricey. And as Michigan has some of the highest auto insurance rates in the US, and I live basically next door to Detroit proper, my car insurance payment for the Focus ST alone was more expensive than my Miata and my Mustang combined.
If I wanted all of the horses under the hood, I had to feed the Focus ST premium fuel. The large 18″ wheels meant that I had sticker shock whenever I went to replace the summer tires.
Get this: I ultimately preferred the Focus SE on the street to my Focus ST.
Sure, power is nice. But you can never reach a Focus ST’s limits anywhere but a closed circuit. And when you do get on a closed circuit, the Focus ST is a square peg going into a round hole. With the Focus SE, I could (and frequently did) wring the motor all the way out to redline, chattering the narrow tires on the on-ramp as I went full bonzai merging onto freeway traffic. Now that is a lot of fun.
And the irony is not lost on me that the Focus SE handled a track weekend with perfect aplomb whereas the Focus ST couldn’t.
Dropping the ST
After about two years of ownership, I sold the Focus ST. I must have sold it for far too little money, as I sold it to a DC Region autocrosser, who then took the car to a dealership and traded it in on a new Focus ST, getting more on the trade-in than I did in the private party sale.
I didn’t care. Once I had made up my mind, I had no desire to keep the car around, so I ditched it and ditched it quickly. And replaced it with something that was a lot more fun…