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In our July 2012 issue, we compared two-door performance cars that can be had for under $28,000 to find out which one returns the best driving bang for the buck. In the end, the Subaru BRZ came out on top, beating such greats as the Mustang V-6, the prototypical hot hatch VW GTI, and even the king of the budget sports cars, the Mazda Miata. At the time of the comparison, the Focus ST was still just a blip on the radar, and, because of the two extra doors, would have been a sidebar at best. Now that it’s here, and since the BRZ has conquered the two-door competitors, we wanted to see how these two stack up.
First, the obvious differences between Focus and BRZ: front drive versus rear, four door versus two, turbocharged versus naturally aspirated. On paper, these two enthusiast machines couldn’t be farther apart, but their mission is the same. Both aim to provide the daily driving enjoyment of a far more expensive car without bankrupting the average track-day enthusiast.
The first order of business is determining which is better on the streets. Each car was evaluated over 112 miles of Orange and L.A. County streets and freeways, then we snaked into the Angeles Forest mountains and onto one of the finest driving roads on the planet. Following a thorough real-world evaluation, we spent a day at the Streets of Willow racetrack with pro driver Randy Pobst. Streets is a technical track that offers a good blend of low-speed kinks mixed with two long stretches that allow you to wind the car out. The back straight isn’t about relaxing, however, as it ends in a blind crest with a quick chicane dropping out from under your tires that causes a seat-pucker moment in anything faster than a golf cart.
Ford Focus ST
The everyday rally car
The Ford is the definite extrovert here. The big front valence, the Tangerine Scream paint, and rear wing add up to a look straight out of a WRC stage. The upright seating position, unbelievably quick steering, and the intake noise pumped into the cabin add to the experience. The ST’s turbocharger helps crank out an extra 119 lb-ft of torque over the BRZ’s 151. The pair of 2.0-liters aren’t quite as far apart in power, with the Subaru winding out 200 hp at 7000 rpm, but the Ford’s 252 hp comes at merely 5500 rpm, 900 rpm below the Subaru’s torque peak. The big disparity in motivation is almost matched on our scales. The Subaru weighs just 2754 pounds, while the Ford spins the dial up to 3193.
On the road, the Focus ST is a bit of a handful. Associate editor Rory Jurnecka noted, “There’s plenty of torque steer, and the steering feels hugely artificial. It seems to get worse with the active torque steer assistance.” The brakes are also grabby and the steering darty, and it’s more addictive than espresso. This is an old-school hot hatch. It’s made for hooning and doesn’t know the meaning of the word compromise. It’s also a little foggy on subtlety, maturity, and, thankfully, understeer.
In the canyon, the ST turns in ferociously. The quick steering coupled with no perceptible understeer makes you recalibrate your driving style. Flicks of the wrist bend the little hatch around turns like a slot car. So little steering lock is required that it becomes tough to smoothly unwind coming out of tight turns. You end up braking into the turn, getting around it, and then standing on the gas. Getting on the gas early gets the torque vectoring to kick in, grabbing the inside brake, and shooting you toward the inside of the turn, but the torque steer keeps you from unwinding the wheel. You aren’t so much flowing with road as cutting it into sections. Brake, turn, and now accelerate.
The track allowed us to get further into the Focus ST’s abilities without fear of flight or legal fight. Randy immediately noticed the Ford’s ability to change direction: “I haven’t driven a front-drive race car that rotates like this. I turn it in and let the back end slide around, and then get on the gas when I want to straighten out.”
The car just doesn’t understeer — the faster you turn in, the faster it rotates. It definitely has a learning curve, and I imagine quite a few STs will be wadded up by novice drivers, but it is certainly rewarding.
We all were impressed right up to the point when the car started overheating. We had noticed the oil temperature gauge creeping up in the canyon, but didn’t think much of it. On the track, however, the oil gauge continued to climb until the coolant temp started climbing as well.
We were still able to get a clean lap out of the ST, clicking off a 1:29.27 time. The term “best-handling front-drive ever” kept circling the pits among the drivers.
It’s 90 percent exotic
The more astute readers have probably already noticed that this is, in fact, our long-term BRZ. Over the past few months, we’ve been impressed with how comfortable and easy it is to drive on the street. The seating position is all sports car. Driving next to big rigs eyeball to axle feels a bit less secure than in the upright ST, but in the canyons, the BRZ is more Le Mans racer to the Focus’ rally car. Steering wheel, shifter, and pedals are all exactly where you want them and operate in the same intuitive manner. While we kept trying to get the seat and steering wheel right in the Focus, everything just falls into place in the BRZ.
Corners are combined into one carving motion like stretching a string up and down the mountain’s curves. It feels like a 9/10ths-scale front-engine Ferrari as it dances from apex to apex. The Ford is faster, but the Subaru moves around with balanced sliding motions — no drifting, just enough rotation to let you know it’s alive and you’re actually driving. In direct contrast to the Ford’s, the steering here communicates everything the front tires are doing; the brakes are easy to modulate; even the notchiness of the shifter adds to the mechanical romance of the BRZ.
Randy fell in love with the BRZ during our $28K comparison, and absence had only made his heart grow fonder. “What a great little car. So balanced. So intuitive.” His lap time was noticeably slower in the BRZ at 1:30.32, but that didn’t necessarily make it any less fun. Surprisingly, the BRZ feels more stable than the front-drive Ford. You can position it more easily, and it isn’t so harrowing. The Ford would be tough to wrangle at the limit with other cars around, where you feel like you could squeeze between two cars while drifting the BRZ.
In the end, the champ drives off with another title. We regard the Focus ST as one of the best examples of front-drive cars North America has ever seen, but we can’t get past its lack of steering feel, torque-steer, and boy-racer attitude. We think it’s one hell of a deal if you buy the base car without all the toys. Our tester was $28,170 with the slightly disappointing Recaro seats and the troublesome Sync infotainment system that crashed and required rebooting on three occasions during our time with the car. The BRZ came in at $28,265, just $95 dearer than the Ford. If it were my money, I would probably stick with the base car here as well, skipping the leather and the rear spoiler. From the artificial steering to the piped-in engine noise, the Focus is definitely built for the video-game generation who may not know or appreciate what a true sports car feels like. We hope they can give the lower horsepower and less flashy Subaru a chance and discover what it’s like to connect with a car.
|2013 Ford Focus ST||2013 Subaru BRZ|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, RWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Flat-4, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||122.0 cu in/1999 cc||121.9 cu in/1998 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||252 hp @ 5500 rpm||200 hp @ 7000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||270 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm||151 lb-ft @ 6400 rpm|
|REDLINE||6500 rpm||7450 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.7 lb/hp||13.7 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multilink, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 10.6-in disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 11.6-in vented disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||7.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/40R18 95Y Goodyear Eagle F1||215/45R17 87W Michelin Primacy HP|
|WHEELBASE||104.3 in||101.2 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/60.4 in||59.8/60.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||171.7 x 71.8 x 58.4 in||166.7 x 69.9 x 50.6 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.4 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3193 lb||2754 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST, F/R||60/40%||55/45%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.3/37.9 in||37.1/35.0 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.9/33.2 in||41.9/29.9 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.6/53.7 in||53.1/45.3 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||23.8 cu ft||6.9 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.4 sec||2.3 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3||3.4|
|QUARTER MILE||14.6 sec @ 95.9 mph||15.0 sec @ 93.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||112 ft||120 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.96 g (avg)||0.90 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.4 sec @ 0.70 g (avg)||26.3 sec @ 0.68 g (avg)|
|1.55-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||01:29.3||01:30.3|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2350 rpm||2600 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$28,170||$28,265|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain, driver knee|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 mi||5 yrs/60,000 mi|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 mi||3 yrs/36,000 mi|
|FUEL CAPACITY||12.4 gal||13.2 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||23/32 mpg||22/30 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||147/105 kW-hrs/100 mi||153/112 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.74 lb/mi||0.78 lb/mi|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|