It’s a classic question of sibling revelry: which of Ford’s poles-apart hot rods provides more real-world entertainment – the home-grown, mega-powered, Shelby Mustang GT500 pony car or its Euro-ferocious Focus ST hot hatch?
Last fall, during the AJAC Canadian Car of The Year TestFest, I drove Ford’s 662-hp Shelby GT500 and the 252-hp Focus ST back to back on the road and track. Which one would I have taken home if someone from Ford was feeling beneficent? Easy choice, the Focus ST.
The $61,999 Shelby is an over-muscled automotive gym-rat with steroidal styling. A car that may look dangerously cool, in a beefy, belligerent and decidedly retro way, but which can only display its prodigious capabilities (and they truly are) within the narrow confines of a racing circuit’s Armco perimeter – with somebody who knows what they’re doing behind the wheel.
On the road, its stopwatch-digit-blurring performance is virtually unusable by mere mortals. Don’t, for example, get caught in a rain shower with the electronic aids switched off, unless you are familiar with the terms “throttle-modulation” and “counter-steer.”
Its owners are destined to spend most of their time cruising around in something that’s really not all that nice inside, while experiencing the ride quality of an iron-tired baggage cart, and with its monstrously torquey, supercharged, 5.8-litre V-8 throttled right down and rumbling at just over idle. Perhaps making them wonder why it comes with a six-speed gearbox, when just one gear would be enough to cover the 0-100 km legal speed limit range.
The occasional surreptitious, police-paranoia-inducing squirt is all most owners will, and likely should indulge in – because this thing gets from a standstill to the legal limit in 4.4 seconds.
I suppose if you drive a car like this, whether it carries a Ford Shelby badge, Ferrari’s prancing horse, or Lamborghini’s raging bull, just knowing – and hoping those who note your passing do, too – you have all that performance at your command is neat. But for day-to-day driving enjoyment, it’s rather pointless.
The half-the-price ST on the other hand (base $29,999) is a street tough with a predilection to dice-and-slice through unsuspecting urban traffic, or commit unprovoked assaults on curvy back roads. And in colours other than Tangerine Scream, it can do this without drawing too much unwanted attention. Like the Shelby, it’s not subtle in the way it delivers its performance kick, but it still generates way more user-friendly fun.
Which is the reason I recall more positive comments about it than the Shelby, and why it won the AJAC 2013 Best Sports/Performance Car Under $50,000 category. The Shelby didn’t win the Over $50,000 segment it was entered in, losing to Porsche’s Boxster, a fast but also eminently driveable car.
The Shelby GT500 is the ultimate Blue Oval-badged expression of pure red-blooded, big-bore, supercharged American muscle. The Focus ST, put together by Ford’s Global Performance Vehicle division, has the well-blended blood of a European soccer hooligan being pumped, with plenty of turbo-boost, through its small-bore four’s injectors.
And, like a Euro soccer fan, it isn’t shy about being seen in bright team colours. In the test car’s case, the ($300) Tangerine Scream tri-coat was combined with other features unique to the ST: the grille, chin spoiler, trick aero-rocker panels, high-mounted rear spoiler, central dual exhaust outlets and ST badges. All of which suggests you should be circumspect if you’re doing anything the least bit naughty. Which you’ll tempted to do for a number of reasons.
Near the top of that list are the 2.0-litre, turbocharged, EcoBoost four-cylinder engine stuffed under the hood, and the six-speed manual gearbox that feeds its 252 hp and half-shaft-twisting 270 lb-ft of torque to the front wheels. In AJAC testing, it averaged 6.9 seconds from 0-100 km/h and 4.1 seconds from 80 km/h to 120 km/h. Fuel economy ratings are 8.9 litres/100 km city and 6.2 highway.
Tucked in the wheel-wells are Y-spoke alloy wheels, shod with P235R18 performance tires, bigger brakes, variable ratio electric power steering (that’s linked to a torque-steer-mitigation system) and revised front and rear suspension systems. All this is tuned to deliver in undiluted form the handling European enthusiasts expect from this kind of car (unlike some transplants from the past).
Climb in and you slip into form-fitting, full-leather upholstered (with red stitching) and heated Recaro bucket seats up front (there’s a 60/40-split rear seat that, when folded, provides 1,296 litres of space under the hatch, to haul that extra set of rims and tires etc. to weekend track day events). Then you grip a business-like, just-right-diameter, leather-wrapped steering wheel.
Equipment includes air conditioning, keyless entry and push-button start, trip computer, a decent audio system, alloy pedals, outside temp gauge and compass. The test car came with a $1,200 moonroof, a $1,000 technology package that added Sony audio and Ford MyTouch screen, plus dual-zone climate control.
Pleasantly sporty and comfortable enough surroundings, and all the good stuff you need and want in a compact hatchback to make duties like motoring to work, dropping the kiddies off at day care or grocery-getting more pleasant.
But twist the key and the sound emitted from those twin exhaust outlets is immediately wicked-grin-inducing. And toeing the alloy throttle pedal is akin to a soccer-thug picking up an empty beer bottle. Side-step the clutch, and it’s bar-room brawl time, as all that torque tries, successfully, to twist everything it's connected to into knots.
The ST isn’t just about power and torque though, it handles remarkably well for a front-driver, changing directions like a pointed-pistol on an autocross-style track, and hanging on to long curves tenaciously and in control. The brakes are strong too, with good feel.
Unlike the Shelby, the ST is a car you can use every day of the week, and that makes every drive entertaining no matter where you’re going in it. And it comes in race red, too.
2013 Ford Focus ST
Type: Four-door hyper-hatch
Base Price: $29,999; as tested, $34,150
Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, turbocharged, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 252 hp/ 270 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed manual
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 8.9 city/6.2 highway; premium recommended
Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf GTI, Subaru WRX, MazdaSpeed3, Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart, Mini Cooper JCW