MIDDLEBOROUGH—Some people buy a car for its technology, some for its styling, some for the nameplate’s prestige.
Then there is another group: buyers who want the best overall handling and performance package for the money when price is a major consideration.
Because that group includes most of us, the latest products from Ford’s Sport Technologies (ST) group—the 2014 Focus ST and 2014 Fiesta ST—are worth noting.
Ford brought both models to Gillette Stadium last weekend on the first stop of a 13-city public introductory tour that runs through September. During the visit, members of the New England Motor Press Association had an opportunity to drive the two vehicles over the roads of Southeastern Mass.
The Focus ST, available only as a five-door hatchback in the United States, develops 252 horsepower and 270 lb.-ft. of torque out of a 2.0-liter four-cylinder EcoBoost engine.
Ford is enjoying tremendous success with its EcoBoost engine program, gaining both performance and fuel efficiency by combining high-pressure direct injection, low-inertia turbocharging, and twin independent variable camshaft timing.
The Focus ST package only is available with a six-speed manual transmission, a clear indication that this isn’t intended as a mainstream vehicle. With “take rates’’ for manual gearboxes in the Focus running at a well-above-average 20 percent for hatchbacks and 15 percent for all Focus models, this clearly is an enthusiast’s car.
We found the transmission to be neatly mated to the engine, with the driver able to get a satisfying and sustained pull in any of the lower gears. Ford’s engineers spent a lot of time making sixth gear long enough to return 32 miles per gallon in highway driving. The Focus ST is rated at 23 in the city and 26 in combined driving.
Connected to that transmission is a wonderful exhaust note that gets ever raspier as the engine revs rise; however, that note isn’t heard by anyone outside of the car. Instead, Ford has a “sound symposer’’—basically a tube running off the intake manifold with a valve that opens at 3,000 rpm and delivers the robust tone into the cabin via a plastic tube.
“It goes to show that not all noise is bad,’’ says Ford marketing executive Michael Murphy. “We go to great lengths to cancel noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH), then work on tuning exhaust notes and stereo systems.’’
These STs hardly follow the old idea of gaining performance simply by dumping a bigger engine into a smaller car. Instead, these are the “European sedans’’ Americans long have wanted. In each, the chassis is tuned to maximize driving dynamics, as is Ford’s sport-tuned electronic steering. They’re easy to maneuver when parking but the variable ratio steering has good feel on twisty roads as well as the feel of old-time manual (non-power) steering in straight-line driving.
ST-badged wheels, pedals, and gearshift combine with darker materials on the pillars and headliner to give the cars a separate identity.
Outside, the ST stands apart from the basic Focus with a one-piece, all-black interpretation of Ford’s trapezoidal grille, diffuser-style vents, and sculpted side skirts.
But perhaps the biggest identifier of the ST will be some of the “Look at Me’’ colors—Tangerine Scream, Race Red, and Performance Blue on the Focus.
Pricing for the Focus ST starts at $24,910 (including destination). An ST2 upgrade package ($2,505) adds partial leather Recaro seats with dual-tone colors, upgraded Sony sound system, and automatic dual zone climate control.
Opt for the $4,840 upgrade ST3 package and get the MyFord Touch with 8-inch screen, navigation, full leather Recaro seats, heated mirrors, LED lighting, and HID headlamps.
Meanwhile, the smaller Fiesta ST has an MSRP of $22,195 (including destination) with only the optional ($1,995) Recaro package that offers partial leather heated seats and heated mirrors.
While there’s a bit of pricing overlap, Ford’s Tim Smith, an engineer with the SVT and ST programs, says the two cars are like brothers.
“The Focus is more refined and the Fiesta has a raspier tone and is geared for a younger demo,’’ he says. “The Focus might be faster in a straight line from 0 to 60, but the Fiesta would be quicker over an Autocross course.’’
This is the seventh generation of the Fiesta since it was launched in the late ’70s, but it’s the first one that hasn’t been dumbed down for the US market.
“It’s definitely the Fiesta for those who’ve always questioned, “Why can’t we get the car they have in Europe,’’ says Smith. “This Fiesta has minor tweaks for the US, but it’s been tuned so the driving dynamics are exactly the same.’’
Smith anticipates the ST buyers will be attracted by the cars’ performance qualities and looks but also by their rarity. “This is a customer who wants something special and it’s important to him that there will only be 4,000 to 5,000 built each year,’’ he says, “though he’ll also appreciate that each car is built on the lightest platform for that vehicle with the highest-output EcoBoost engine.’’
Besides the Performance Blue and Race Red, the Fiesta ST has a pair of unique colors, Green Envy and Molten Orange Metallic.
Color me jealous.