I had just finished complaining to my friend Bruce about the Focus ST's bland exterior when a guy in a Mercedes-Benz M-Class pulled beside us and asked, "Is that the new Focus?"
We said yes, and he said, "Nice."
He's right, every 2005 Focus looks better now, thanks to a new grille, a new hood and new fenders, but this is the Focus ST - the sporty new model added to replace the discontinued SVT Focus - and it doesn't look the part.
First off, the SVT Focus was a snappy Euro-style hatchback; the ST is a sedately styled sedan. The ST does sport a few extra bits, like ground-effects fascia, 16-inch alloy wheels and a chrome-tipped exhaust, but you'd have to be a discerning car watcher to notice them.
Happily, the ST is far more entertaining to drive than it is to behold. The 151-horsepower 2.3-liter inline four-cylinder and five-speed manual tranny work well in tandem, and the performance-tuned suspension is lively, allowing only modest body lean in corners. The steering is quick and responsive, and the handling is spirited. Power is missing down low, but comes on nicely when the engine spins to the upper rpms. Torque peaks at 154 pound-feet at 4250 rpm.
The Focus range includes four body styles: a three-door hatchback (ZX3), a four-door sedan (SX4), a five-door hatchback (ZX5), and a station wagon (ZX4). The ST comes only as a four-door sedan, and it's the only Focus to get the PZEV-rated 151-hp 2.3-liter engine. Powering the other models is a PZEV-rated 136-hp 2.0-liter engine. Fuel mileage for my tester was an admirable 23 mpg in the city, and 32 mpg on the highway.
For 2005, the Focus interior has been upgraded to offer more storage and a more ergonomic dashboard. Hard plastic still abounds, however, and while the ST classes things up with a leather-wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, sport seats and silver gauge surrounds, the overall ambience is still pretty down-market.
Of course I'd be easier on the ST were it not the SVT's replacement. But a new car should be equal to or better than the model it replaces, and the ST isn't.
Priced at $19,330, the SVT Focus boasted 170 horsepower, a six-speed manual transmission, 17-inch wheels and a hatchback body. The $17,705 Focus ST has 151 horsepower, a five-speed tranny, 16-inch wheels, and a sedan body.
Judged on its own merits, the Focus ST is a fine little runabout. It's fun to drive, fuel efficient, affordably priced and comes standard with surprising stuff like a tilt and telescoping steering wheel and a 6-disc CD and MP3 player. But this "sport sedan" lacks the snappy looks and versatility of the ZX3 and ZX5 hatchbacks. There are better comparably priced compacts out there, including the Focus's corporate cousin, the Mazda3, which rides on the same platform as the European Focus, and is better looking and more powerful than the ST.