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Finally, there’s some cheese in that FDIC-insured fridge of yours. All those years of Taco Tuesdays and Top Ramen have paid off, and it’s time to hit up your local car dealer. You’ve decided that, above all, your next steed will be fun. It will also be stylish and packed with technology. You immediately think “coupe.” But then you remember that shuttling friends, family, and pets are your reality. And while you have a few Benjamins, you’re no Donald Trump. You need to stick to a budget.
Buh-bye, Miss Curvaceous Coupe.
Enter this speedy squad. The Mazdaspeed3, Ford Focus ST, and Subaru WRX Special Edition are tuned and tested for fun, fast, and practical deployment. Each has a turbocharged four-cylinder making at least 250 horsepower, a manual gearbox, and a capacious backseat and trunk. They’re stylish and relatively cheap, with base prices of around $25,000.
Of course, there are other vehicles in this segment. A few – such as Hyundai’s Veloster and Mini’s JCW Cooper – are underpowered compared to this trio. Others, such as Volkswagen’s Golf R, have all the grunt, but cost around $10,000 more.
To find out which of these three turbo transports best fits the bill, we put them through our usual program of instrumented and real-world tests, and, as a bonus, lapped them around the 1.55-mile Streets of Willow Raceway with our favorite racing driver, Randy Pobst, behind the wheel.
Few cars draw as many eyeballs as a rumbling orange sedan with a 5000-point font on its flanks. This WRX’s striking scheme comes courtesy of its Special Edition designation. Aside from the funky paint, the package adds black-tinged wheels, exterior mirrors, a headliner, and some matching orange interior. Executive editor Ron Kiino liked the look-at-me color, but made note of the dated interior, which hasn’t really changed since 2008. Associate online editor Benson Kong agreed. “It’s some very odd equipment packaging: You get a shift knob from the base Impreza, a sunroof, and an archaic-looking head unit.”
With a bellowing 2.5-liter boxer and minimal sound-deadening tech, the WRX’s interior is unabashedly loud, and after spending more than a week in it, most of us grew tired of the flatulent-esque exhaust. But its muscular frame is rather awesome, with bulging shoulders and thighs, a squat ride, and gaping front inlets. Further specialness comes from mean-looking quad tailpipes peering from a rear diffuser.
Styling lines galore make the Mazdaspeed3 the busiest-looking contender. Yet, it’s a fit, eager-to-dance form, with blackened 18-inch alloys, headlamp housings, and mirrors adding bad-boy flair. Pick the optional Technology Package ($2485) and you’ll no longer fuss with a tiny navigation screen perched atop the dash. Instead, you’ll get a 5.8-inch TomTom navigation, though Kong didn’t care for its lazy responsiveness. Also included are bi-xenon headlamps, blind spot monitoring, and push-button start.
“I was surprised at how securely the modest-looking seats hugged me,” noted Kong. “They’re on par with the Ford’s Recaros.” Kiino thought otherwise. “It’s loud and rough-riding in there. To me, it was the crudest of the three.”
Comfortable, stylish, and replete with storage and technology, the Ford’s cabin is an admirable passenger cocoon. Equip it like our tester with the ST2 Package ($2385) and you’ll get MyFordTouch and partial leather Recaro seats. Like the Fusion and other Foci, the ST’s space feels tight in a fitted suit sort of manner, but with 23.8 cu-ft of cargo space, it trumps the Mazdaspeed3’s trunk by an amazing 6.8 cu-ft.
Its attractive kinetic design lines change little for ST duty. Redone flanks, grille, LED DRLs, diffuser, and spoiler make the “I’m special” statement better than any humongous decals or flowing Nagare cues. Its silver 18-inchers say “I can play,” and the gummy 235/40R-18 Goodyears prove the point.
As expected, when the path turned curvy, smiles emerged. The 265-horse WRX with its rally-derived suspension rolled and teetered from corner entry to exit. Its grip, however, was astonishing, thanks to a symmetrical all-wheel drive splitting torque 50/50 between its axles, and a viscous coupling locking center differential limiting wheel slip. When we flattened its throttle we noticed a substantial, linear, protein-packed torque trove. When jabbed, speed came in a surprising hurry – it’s the hastiest of the bunch with a 4.7-second sprint to 60 mph and quarter-mile run in 13.5 seconds at 100 mph. But you’ll be rotating a lackadaisical helm, and rowing a stick that feels no different than that of the base Impreza.
The yin to the Subaru’s yang is a Race Rad 252-horse Focus ST. “Just an amazing experience – and I’d say that if it were RWD!” lauded Kiino. “The Delta Force of hot hatches,” declared Kong. Few front-wheel-drive cars behave as impressively and offer as much hold and reflex as the ST. Turn the thick wheel to receive a race-car-like, instantaneous, on-point rotation, a flat set, and four securely placed feet.
The test numbers back up our observations. Average lateral acceleration was 0.97 g, and it blasted around our figure eight in 25.5 seconds while averaging 0.73 g. With its maximum 270-lb-ft of EcoBoost torque accessible at 2500 rpm, and a crisp six-speed that’s engaged in just about any gear, the ST lunges from corners like a petrified rabbit from its den. No limited-slip? That’s a nonissue for this Focus, at least on real-world streets.
Whereas the Ford emphasizes cunning finesse, the Mazdaspeed3 emphasizes brute force. The powerful, boost-happy 263-horse 2.3-liter surges in its mid-range, which for Kiino “made smooth driving a challenge.” Still, work its turbo hard and you’ll be at the next bend posthaste, where tilting of the heavily weighted wheel reveals plowing tendencies, so leaning strongly into the assured binders is a must. And once you’re back on throttle, there’s a dose of torque steer.
Pick any of these three tasty, fun flavors and you’ll be entertained for years. Each has room for at least 11 cu-ft of cargo, achieves a minimum 0.91 g on the skidpad, and has a performance-focused ride. For its rough-around-the-edges performance and personality, meager comforts, and aged interior, the speedy WRX Special Edition brings up this group’s rear. For its everyday livability, potent mill, decent stick, and well-rounded amenity list, the Mazdaspeed3 fills our second-place slot. If you want the most style, athleticism, utility, and MPGs for your hard-earned buck, the Focus ST is your turbocharged treat.
Subaru WRX Special Edition
Lap Time: 1 min, 27.40 sec
“The Subaru handled the track’s big bumps fairly well. My favorite part was when it freed up a little bit at turn-in; it does sort of a rally drift. I got a nice rotation mid-corner when the car’s pointed at the apex. I wanted to use the all-wheel-drive traction at that point, but what I got was a lot of understeer, almost like a front-drive car. Not as bad, but almost.”
Ford Focus ST
Lap Time: 1 min, 28.40 sec
“It is the most lively American market front-wheel drive street car I’ve ever driven. You’d better have your car control down if you want to drive this Focus fast with the traction control off – corner entry is just how I want a front-wheel drive race car to handle. For me as a racer, I absolutely love it. When I entered a corner, the tail of the car immediately came out – but it’s not in a fearful way. It’s in a helpful way. It’s in an enthusiastic, enjoyable way. The ST rewards a modulated throttle with a good exit. It desperately needs a limited-slip. On a few corners, there was some inside wheel spin and torque steer.”
Lap Time: 1 min, 29.51 sec
“The Mazdaspeed3 feels more mature and more expensive, thanks to well-damped shocks and the overall solid feel of the structure. The downside to the car is that it has a lot more understeer – like all the time. I did feel a little torque steer going straight; didn’t feel it in the corners so much. The car had an even, broad spread of torque. However, it seemed lazy coming off the corners, not as powerful as it was when you were going straight.”
|2013 Ford Focus ST||2013 Mazdaspeed3 (Touring)||2013 Subaru WRX (Special Edition)|
|DRIVETRAIN LAYOUT||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, FWD||Front engine, AWD|
|ENGINE TYPE||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Turbocharged I-4, aluminum block/head||Turbocharged flat-4, aluminum block/heads|
|VALVETRAIN||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl||DOHC, 4 valves/cyl|
|DISPLACEMENT||122.0 cu in/1999 cc||138.0 cu in/2261 cc||149.9 cu in/2457 cc|
|POWER (SAE NET)||252 hp @ 5500 rpm||263 hp @ 5500 rpm||265 hp @ 6000 rpm|
|TORQUE (SAE NET)||270 lb-ft @ 2500 rpm||280 lb-ft @ 3000 rpm||244 lb-ft @ 4000 rpm|
|REDLINE||6500 rpm||6700 rpm||6500 rpm|
|WEIGHT TO POWER||12.7 lb/hp||12.3 lb/hp||12.1 lb/hp|
|TRANSMISSION||6-speed manual||6-speed manual||5-speed manual|
|AXLE/FINAL-DRIVE RATIO||4.06:1 (1-4), 2.96:1 (5-6,R)/2.79:1||4.19:1 (1-4), 3.53:1 (5-6,R)/2.79:1||3.90:1/2.88:1|
|SUSPENSION, FRONT; REAR||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; multi-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar||Struts, coil springs, anti-roll bar; control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar|
|POWER STEERING TYPE||Rack-assist electric||Electro-hydraulic||Belt-drive hydraulic|
|BRAKES, F;R||12.6-in vented disc; 10.6-in disc, ABS||12.6-in vented disc; 11.0-in disc, ABS||11.6-in vented disc; 11.3-in disc, ABS|
|WHEELS||8.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||7.5 x 18-in, cast aluminum||8.0 x 17-in, cast aluminum|
|TIRES||235/40R18 95Y Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetric 2||225/40R18 88Y Dunlop SP Sport 2050||235/45R17 94W Dunlop SP Sport 01|
|WHEELBASE||104.3 in||103.9 in||103.3 in|
|TRACK, F/R||61.2/60.4 in||60.4/60.0 in||60.2/60.6 in|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||171.7 x 71.8 x 58.4 in||177.6 x 69.7 x 57.5 in||180.3 x 70.7 x 58.1 in|
|TURNING CIRCLE||39.4 ft||36.0 ft||35.4 ft|
|CURB WEIGHT||3196 lb||3223 lb||3195 lb|
|WEIGHT DIST., F/R||60/40%||62/38%||57/43%|
|HEADROOM, F/R||38.3/37.9 in||38.9/38.0 in||40.3/37.6 in|
|LEGROOM, F/R||41.9/33.2 in||42.0/36.2 in||43.5/33.5 in|
|SHOULDER ROOM, F/R||55.6/53.7 in||54.9/54.0 in||54.8/53.2 in|
|CARGO VOLUME||23.8 cu ft||17.0 cu ft||11.3 cu ft|
|ACCELERATION TO MPH|
|0-30||2.3 sec||2.6 sec||1.4 sec|
|PASSING, 45-65 MPH||3.2||2.7||2.7|
|QUARTER MILE||14.6 sec @ 95.7 mph||14.3 sec @ 100.0 mph||13.5 sec @ 100.0 mph|
|BRAKING, 60-0 MPH||108 ft||117 ft||106 ft|
|LATERAL ACCELERATION||0.97 g (avg)||0.91 g (avg)||0.92 g (avg)|
|MT FIGURE EIGHT||25.5 sec @ 0.73 g (avg)||25.9 sec @ 0.71 g (avg)||25.6 sec @ 0.72 g (avg)|
|1.55-MI ROAD COURSE LAP||1:28.40||1:29.51||1:27.40|
|TOP-GEAR REVS @ 60 MPH||2300 rpm||2500 rpm||2400 rpm|
|PRICE AS TESTED||$27,675||$27,480||$29,565|
|AIRBAGS||Dual front, f/r side, f/r curtain, driver knee||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain||Dual front, front side, f/r curtain|
|BASIC WARRANTY||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|POWERTRAIN WARRANTY||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles||5 yrs/60,000 miles|
|ROADSIDE ASSISTANCE||5 yrs/60,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles||3 yrs/36,000 miles|
|FUEL CAPACITY||12.4 gal||15.9 gal||16.9 gal|
|EPA CITY/HWY ECON||23/32 mpg||18/25 mpg||19/25 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||147/105 kW-hrs/100 miles||187/135 kW-hrs/100 miles||177/135 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.74 lb/mile||0.94 lb/mile||0.91 lb/mile|
|MT FUEL ECONOMY (HIGHWAY TEST)||26.5 mpg||23.6 mpg||22.2 mpg|
|RECOMMENDED FUEL||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium||Unleaded premium|