Row your own—soundtrack provided
Another way that Ford is saving money with the ST is by offering it only with one transmission—a six-speed manual gearbox that's a little notchy, with throws that we thought were a little too long fore-aft but close and tight side-to-side. Drivability is a big plus, though; the ST’s clutch takeup is about as smooth as it gets in a performance model. Ratios span a wide range, with fifth and sixth quite tall (we saw about 2,600 rpm at 70 mph).
The ST gets a stylish central-outlet exhaust that's visible from afar, but you can't hear the ST all that much from the outside. Raspy, boomy engine notes can get very fatiguing for more than a short drive, so Ford opted for an innovative solution: the so-called Sound Symposer. Essentially, Ford designed a resonating chamber (meant to carry over some character from the raspy five-cylinder of the Euro-only last-generation ST) just below the intake flow; when you press the accelerator to a particular level, in a particular rev range, a flap opens, allowing low-frequency sound from the chamber to be piped back within the instrument panel. During more relaxed driving or cruising, it's quiet and refined—and it can pass tight European exhaust-note regulations—while also inspiring during performance driving.
We've found the base-engine versions of the Focus to offer handling that's sharper and more engaging compared to ordinary compacts but nowhere close to performance-car caliber. To give the ST more of an enthusiast feel—and something special, dynamically—Ford has made some serious changes to its suspension and steering. In addition to a stiffer calibration, and a setup that's lowered 10 mm, Ford upgraded the rear suspension knuckles, and moved the (thicker) rear stabilizer mounting points about three inches out on each side—adding more than six inches of width altogether.
The wider rollbar mounting, along with a completely different variable-ratio steering rack, add up to a sort of one-two punch on tight hairpins. Go smoothly into a wider corner with a lot of speed and the ST will understeer predictably—though you can back off with your right foot and neutralize it momentarily. Pitch it harder into a tighter corner—or intentionally go in a little too hot—and all four wheels will drift to a degree, controllably. And on the tightest corners, the wide rollbar setup makes it feel as if, just at the moment more weight is going to transfer to the back, that wide stabilizer bar spots you, keeping you back on course. All the while, the variable-ratio system keeps the ST feeling stable and confident on straight roads and gradual sweepers, yet allowing you to go into tight corners with bite, as well as through series of esses without losing your hand placement on the wheel.
Confident in back, scrambling in front
But of course when exiting corners you do have to be careful; as a high-powered front-wheel-drive car, the ST has front wheels that scramble madly for traction on full-throttle exits. Electronic systems (Cornering Under Steer Control, Torque Vectoring Control, and electronic stability control) all help smooth out the behavior, but you still need to have both hands firmly on the wheel—and plan on holding tight if the road surface is choppy.
The stability system does come in three different modes: normal, Sport, and a full off setting (for track use). But even in normal mode the system was relatively unobtrusive, we found.