Instead of the media drive I opted to participate in Ford’s consumer event, dubbed ‘Focus ST Performance Academy.’ I’m a car guy. Which means I will always elect the event that allows me to bond with other car people. Grassroots events such as this are the future of automotive marketing and will become more prevalent as CMO’s realize the value of brand advocates.
When Ford opened registrations for the Focus ST Performance Academy most slots filled up in one day. Due to the popularity of the drive event more time slots were added and thankfully I was able to secure one. Saah-weet!
Ironically the drive was held at FedEx Field, a place notorious for disappointing people with sub-par performances (Sorry, Redskins fans). I arrived just after 2 p.m.
I took a stroll through the parking lot, curious to see what prospective ST owners drive to currently satisfy their automotive needs.
An M3 and WRX, both sporting blue painters tape numbers on their doors, were parked side-by-side at the entrance. Either they’d recently been racing or there’s a new trend I’m unacquainted with.
A collection of Honda S2000s (S2Ks in automotive lingo) were lined up in what can only be described as show car fashion. A few older Focus SVTs were scattered about and a caravan of Mustangs were just arriving.
Surprisingly a majority of the cars were “normal”, void of any performance derived nomenclature or signs of track use.
Once through registration, drivers received a pre-race brief and course walkthrough. Jonathan, our instructor, a racecar driver himself and a Ford product specialist walked our group through the do’s and don’ts of the drive.
Jonathan asked, “who in the group has ever raced before?” I murmured, “Xbox doesn’t count.” Not one hand in my group went up. I was surrounded by motoring noobs. As I witnessed stalled cars and smashed cones throughout the day it was evident that most of the attendees had NEVER participated in a vehicle performance event.
I want to stop and highlight this point because I believe it’s important. Ford was able to get people off their couches, away from Facebook and outdoors to not only drive a car, but put it through its paces on an autocross track.
Motorsport virginity is a real thing. For many of the attendees Ford was their ‘first kiss’ of motorsport. That’s a powerful thing. The kind of thing that sticks with you.
There were two courses available. The first course allowed drivers to become familiar with the car and the cones. Looking out into a sea of orange and green cones can be nerve-racking, especially for a track-virgin. This first go-around was a slow speed introduction, allowing drivers to become familiar with the shifting, braking, steering and overall science behind staying between the cones.
The second track was longer, had more turns and most importantly had a standing digital read out of your LAP TIME. Not to mention it had the Fastest Lap of the Day written under it in bright green marker.
Ford had two trim levels of the Focus ST on hand. The first trim commonly referred to as ST2 (201A by Ford) adds a 10-speaker Sony audio system complete with a little bump-in-the-trunk (10’’ subwoofer). The ST2 also upgrades the cloth Recaro seats, standard in the base trim, to a leather-trimmed version. The added bass and touch of leather add $2,385 to the base price bringing the car to $26,880. For $4,435 over the base price the ST3 (202A) package offers navigation, rear seat armrests, ambient lighting and an overhead storage compartment. ST3 also fully-wraps the Recaro seats in leather and includes a heated seat option. HIDs are only available on the ST3 package as well.
If I were buying the Focus ST I would opt for a base model car. Most of the additional features, aside from the HIDs, are comfort amenities. A good aftermarket HID-system can always be installed using the stock projector housings.
The Focus ST is only offered in a manual. I speculate this is because Ford doesn’t have a wet-clutch transmission that can handle the increased torque (270 ftlb).
Ford did have a Focus Titanium on-hand equipped with a Powershift auto for those who wanted to run the course but weren’t skilled in the art of row-your-own. Interestingly enough there were a few people who turned out the same track times in the Titanium car as they did in the ST.
The Recaro seats are inviting and athletic. Like most automotive seats sourced from Recaro they are designed for performance not comfort and are meant to hold you in place while cornering. That means for the average American physique, the Focus ST seats are going to be ‘tight.’ I overheard a few people claim the Recaros were ‘too snug.’ My advice to them would not have been nice.
A driver standing in front of me said to his co-pilot, “I’m glad it has a boost gauge so I know how much boost I’m using.” I was tempted to ask the guy if he knew how to fill up the boost tank (heavy sarcasm).
Once in the car…I drove. I didn’t have time to evaluate the pliability of dash materials or determine if SYNC would connect to my Zune (yes, I have a Zune). I just drove.
The Focus ST is a Front-Wheel-Drive rocket. Automakers in the profession of building quick FWD cars have always had one big obstacle to contend with – toque steer.
Ever pulled out in front of someone in a FWD car and taken off so fast the wheel jerks out of your hands? That’s torque steer. And the ST doesn’t have it.
According to Ford, “Enhanced Torque Vectoring Control applies steering pressure more aggressively and also adds cornering control, which applies torque to create a yaw effect based on the car’s understeer, both in power-on and power-off conditions.” While my track time was limited to three 30-second runs never once did I experience torque steer. Plenty of understeer (late braking on my part), but never torque steer.
In the corners the car was flat. I was expecting a bit more squish & roll, but surprisingly it was buttoned down nicely. I saw a few Foci taking corners on three wheels, likely being piloted by one of the few more experienced drivers.
Acceleration was notable, but not amazingly impressive. It was clear the electronic nannies were in full force to prevent wheel spin and torque steer. On the track power seemed always available, but I was only using two gears, first and second.
For this event drivers were instructed “once into second gear, to place your left foot on the dead pedal and roll on and off the throttle around the course. No clutching in the corners and no shifting.”
Small displacement turbo engines tend to lose their ommph and fun once at highway speed. I would be interested to see how the Focus ST performs in a 50-75mph sprint.
The Focus ST will do well. It has no American competitors. General Motors hasn’t pushed the Chevrolet Cruze into Cobalt SS territory and Chrysler has yet to confirm the Dodge Dart SRT.
While the Focus ST is aimed at darling hot hatches, like the Volkswagen GTI and the Mazda Speed3, I don’t think it was built to compete directly with those vehicles. Instead I see its entrance as two fold. Partly it is a byproduct of product homogenization, One Ford. Even the name ‘ST’ is a European Focus moniker. The American performance Focus had always carried the ‘SVT’ badge. Secondly, I think this product is an attempt to be relevant in a growing market that can only be described as – cool, affordable, techy, performance. Better know as GenY’s Go-Fast.
Ford has always played well in the blue-collar performance arena with the Mustang and the work-world has crowned Ford’s bread and butter, the F-150 King of Trucks. The Focus ST is Ford’s way of saying, “Hey. We can do more than drag race and tow. We can turn too!” This same strategy could also be driving Ford’s continued support of Global Rally Cross where Ken Block races a super modified Ford Fiesta.
Will the Focus ST be a record breaking sales success? Doubtful. But the car does have the recipe to change how enthusiasts and consumers see Ford and that is a win in and of itself.
Other photos taken at event: