What exactly is a hot hatch and why do enthusiasts love them so much? According to Wikipedia a "Hot hatch" or "hot hatchback" is a high-performance derivative of a car body style consisting of a three- or five-door hatchback automobile. Vehicles of this class are based on family-oriented automobiles, and are equipped with an uprated more powerful internal combustion engine, improved suspension, and may also include additional 'aerodynamic' body parts and larger wheels and tires. In other words a hot hatch takes a basic economy car and dials up the performance, without compromising its versatility and practicality. For years the segment has been dominated by the Volkswagen GTI and today includes models like the Mazdaspeed3 and Subaru WRX. Ford has decided to take a stab at the segment, which it abandoned in 2004 when the last SVT Focus rolled off the line. Once again the Focus has been tapped as Ford's entry in the highly competitive "hot hatch" segment, but this time it's dubbed the Focus ST with "ST" standing for "sport technologies." We loved the 2002-2004 Focus SVT, but how well does the 2013 Focus ST stack up against the king of the class, the GTI?
The 2013 Focus ST is powered by a turbocharged 2.0L EcoBoost four-cylinder engine with 252 horsepower and 270 lb-ft. of torque. The four-cylinder engine is mated to a standard six-speed manual transmission. Compared to the GTI, the ST packs 52 more horsepower and 63 more lb-ft. of torque. The Focus ST also has seven more horsepower than the Mazdaspeed3, but the Mazda trumps the Focus ST with an additional 10 lb-ft. of torque. In back to back tests of the Focus ST and GTI you will immediately notice the extra power that the Focus ST gives you. Its rush of power and throaty sounds let you know that this isn't a standard Focus. It simply takes off, making you believe that its 6.2 second 0-60 mph time is a bit conservative. On paper the Focus ST's extra power will also get you from 0-60 mph in about .5 seconds faster than the less powerful GTI.The Focus ST is also slightly more fuel efficient with a 23 city/32 hwy mpg rating compared with 21 city/ 31 highway for the GTI. During our testing we averaged 24 mpg in the Focus ST.
Ford just didn't give the Focus ST a more powerful engine. Ford's engineers added a sport suspension that lowers the car .4 inches and a variable-ratio steering rack with electric power-assisted steering with torque steer compensation. The Focus ST's steering is decidedly quick and its suspension is firm, but not so firm that you can feel your organs bouncing around. On some of the twisty roads in San Francisco the Focus ST hunkered down and took everything we could throw at it. Our biggest complaint was the apparent torque steer under full throttle. The torque steer compensation system and electric steering setup are meant to keep the Focus ST's torque steer in check, but at many times this was not the case. Let's just say it scared a few of our friends in the back seat. Either way the Focus ST corners and steers faster than the GTI. It's larger brakes also do a great job of keeping everything under control.
On the outside the Focus ST stands out from the lesser powered Focus models with a unique front fascia, 18-inch wheels, a large rear spoiler and unique rear diffuser. The overall styling of the exterior is more aggressive than the GTI and quickly grabs attention. It also didn't hurt that our tester was painted in Tangerine Scream aka yellow. The interior is also equally as aggressive thanks to its Recaro seats and unique gauge cluster on top of the dash that displays boost pressure, oil temperature and oil pressure. The interior, especially with the two tone seats is anything but subtle and with the Focus ST's sound symposer box it's also not necessarily a quiet place to be. The sound symposer box channels the sounds of the engine into the interior by capturing internal engine oscillations and piping them through the interior under throttle. In part-throttle driving, the car's power is felt more than heard; under full throttle, the engine music is naturally amplified through the symposer box. At times it could be quite loud. During one drive we thought there was a motorcycle behind us, "Where is that motorcycle? It is so loud!" But upon further inspection we realized that we were actually the ones making all the noise, "oops!"
Is there really a definitive answer to the GTI vs Focus ST question? It all depends on who you are. Both vehicles are very different and succeed in different ways. At the end of the day we walked away impressed with the Focus ST, but also still love the GTI. We concluded that the Focus ST is perfect for a buyer in their 20s or early 30s that wants an all out performance car with its loud engine and look at me styling. The GTI's more subtle styling upgrades and more laid back turbocharged engine appeal to an older more "refined" buyer. The GTI may have less power and slower steering, but the whole package works so well, that it doesn't matter. Also most buyers in this segment that like the Focus ST will likely cross shop it against that GTI, but given the GTI's longer heritage, most diehard GTI fans will still find it hard to write a check for the Focus ST.
At the end of the day we have two models that continue to elevate the "hot hatch" segment and Ford's latest entry is at or near the top of the segment. Now we need Ford to release an all-wheel-drive version to go head to head with the Golf R. Also early next year the all-new seventh-generation 2015 GTI will arrive with more power and a lighter chassis, so the battle may not be as close anymore.
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