NICE, France – The wait is over for those wondering if a domestic auto maker would enter the segment for high-powered hot hatchbacks with a viable alternative to European and Asian offerings.

Available this fall, the ’13 Ford Focus ST can go head-to-head with every competitor, and acute European tuning makes the car feel like a much more-expensive BMW.

During a recent test drive here, there is little to dislike about the Focus ST. And with a starting price of $24,495, it provides tremendous bang for the buck.

At the center of it all is an exquisite 2.0L direct-injection turbocharged EcoBoost inline 4-cyl. engine that churns out 252 hp and 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) of torque, while achieving a remarkable 32 mpg (7.3 L/100 km) on the highway.

The engine is a perfect match for the Focus ST. While not overwhelmingly powerful, it is capable of a top speed of 154 mph (248 km/h) and can sprint from 0-62 mph (100 km/h) in 6.4 seconds.

The potent powerplant won a Ward’s 10 Best Engines award in 2012 in the Ford Edge, and it also motivates the even larger Ford Explorer, which has an extra 1,225 lbs. (555 kg) of curb-weight over the Focus ST.

In this new high-performance application, the EcoBoost 2.0L pulls hard, with very little noticeable torque steer, a common problem among powerful, lightweight front-wheel-drive vehicles.

Ford worked around torque steer with an innovative system aptly named torque-steer compensation.

Aggressive tuning of the vehicle’s electronic power-assist steering allows drivers to accelerate at full throttle without the car lurching in unintended directions. The system detects torque steer and communicates that to the EPAS software, which keeps the car in a straight line.

The Focus ST has a certain Jekyll and Hyde personality to it, but most of that is due to engine tuning. When pressed, the car is an absolute joy to drive and will put a smile on the faces of sports-car enthusiasts.

But it also has a timid side. While driving laid-back with a light foot, the car is a calm commuter.

That dual persona is accented by Ford’s “sound symposer.” This specially designed tube from Mann+Hummel transmits exhaust sounds directly into the passenger compartment under hard throttle.

Ford says many hours went into tuning the symposer to sound sporty and aggressive without irritating passengers.

The Focus ST comes with a standard 6-speed manual that matches beautifully with the EcoBoost 2.0L. There is no automatic transmission option available, which is a good thing because this car’s charm shows best when a third pedal is involved.

The 6-speed has short throws that could’ve been shortened further. But that’s a minor complaint.

The transmission still is one of the best manual gearboxes ever offered by Ford.

The auto maker says the transmission was specially revised to produce maximum punch from each throw. Mission accomplished.

The suspension is a bit tight for the average driver, but enthusiasts will appreciate the minimal body roll in corners. The drum-tight setup fits well on immaculate roads here, but uneven and rough pavement would prove bothersome.

The Focus ST offers the ability to switch electronic stability control settings.

The first setting works much the same on the base-level Focus, though Ford says it’s tuned to be nonintrusive in the ST.

The second setting, called “wide-slip mode,” turns off traction control, although the system is programmed to intrude when “absolutely necessary,” Ford says.

For trapeze artists who prefer no safety net, ESC can be turned off altogether.

We spent most of our time with ESC fully on given our unfamiliarity with the tight, twisting roads here. We selected wide-slip mode for an hour or so, and even with the ESC completely off the car felt well-planted and easy to fling around curves.

The exterior of the Focus ST resembles its base-model cousin, except for the sculpted side skirts, modified rear bumper, diffuser vents in the lower front fascia and roof spoiler. The styling effects work well, without being cartoonish.

Inside, Recaro seats are available in partial and full leather. The bolsters provide plenty of support during tight cornering but also prove comfortable during a nearly 4-hour test drive.

Other interior details include specially designed pedals, steering wheel and gearshift, as well as a dark-colored headliner and pillar trim.

Ford says the only competitor is the Volkswagen GTI, a car credited with creating the so-called “hot hatch” segment.

Ford’s offering stacks up well against the GTI, which produces 200 hp and 207 lb.-ft. (280 Nm) of torque from its 2.0L turbocharged inline 4-cyl. engine.

Although not offered in hatch form, the Honda Civic Si also may be cross-shopped against the Focus ST. The Civic Si is powered by a 2.3L inline 4-cyl. making 201 hp and 170 lb.-ft. (230 Nm) of torque.

On paper, the Mazdaspeed3 is king of the segment, with a 2.3L direct-injection turbo-4 making 263 hp and 280 lb.-ft. (380 Nm) of torque.

The Focus ST is a remarkable effort by Ford with a price most can afford.

At $24,495, the Focus ST costs the same as the high-end Focus Titanium, which has nearly all the same bells and whistles. But the Focus ST is much more fun to drive and offers nearly 100 more horsepower.

Ford says it expects to sell 60,000 units globally per year once production ramps up. That sales estimate might be on the conservative side, considering the Focus ST’s performance quotient and appeal to budget-minded enthusiasts.

bpope@wardsauto.com

 

’13 Ford Focus ST
Vehicle type 5-seat, 5-door hatchback
Engine 2.0L direct-injected turbocharged 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 252 hp @ 5,500 rpm
Torque 270 lb.-ft. (366 Nm) @ 2,500 rpm
Bore x stroke (mm) 87.3 x 83
Compression ratio 9.3:1
Transmission 6-speed manual
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 171.1 ins. (434.5 cm)
Overall width 71.8 ins. (182 cm)
Overall height 58.4 ins. (148 cm)
Curb weight 3,223 lbs. (1,462 kg)
Base price $24,495
Fuel economy 23/32 mpg (10.0-7.3 L/100 km)
Competition Volkswagen GTI, Civic Si, MazdaSpeed3
Pros Cons
Tight gearbox Shift throws could be shorter
Priced right Could cannibalize other Focus models
Taut suspension May be bothersome on rough roads