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2005 Ford Focus ZX4 ST Review


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Just Plain Fun - Really Plain Fun
By Steve Purdy
Detroit Bureau

SEE ALSO: New Car Buyer's Guide for Ford

Our pal Pete Olsen at Ford Media Services knew that I had recently reviewed the awesome Neon SRT-4 pocket rocket when he offered a ride in the Focus ZX4 ST. He cautioned me not to expect the little Ford to match up to the little Neon in pure performance so I tried to keep my expectations within reason. After all, the Neon has 230 horsepower, the Focus only 151. “The ST is a 5-speed, descended from the awesome SVT Focus, and great fun to drive. You’ll like it,” he insisted.

The Ford Focus has been a strong contender in the economy car class since its introduction in model year 2000. It evolved from the Escort, Ford’s first modern effort to develop a world car. Ford is proud to remind us that the Focus has been named to Car and Driver’s 10Best list five years in a row, named a Consumer Guide Best Buy 4 years running and to Automobile Magazine’s All-Star list 4 times. Substantial praise, indeed.

A groan of disappointment was heard throughout the enthusiast world at the demise of the 170 hp, great handling SVT Focus last year. Ford decided its Zetec engine was just too expensive to justify. So instead the super-efficient, clean running Mazda-based Duratec 2.3-litre four was pressed into service to keep a little sport and speed in the Focus line.

The ZX4 moniker just refers to the 4-door sedan version of the Focus and the ST designates the sport version. The ST package includes the bigger engine, 5-speed manual transmission, larger wheels and tires, performance-tuned suspension, noisier exhaust, 4-wheel disc brakes, ABS, Traction Control, sport seats, leather wrapped steering wheel, special instrument cluster, fog lamps, rear deck lid spoiler and a convenience package. All this can be had for a basic price of $17,930. Our test car was $20,215 with a few options: perimeter alarm at $125, heated seats at $115, 6-disc I/D W/MP3 W/Audiophile sound system at $455, side impact air bags at $350 and leather seats at $695. Standard delivery charge is $545 even if you live next door to the factory.

Pete was right. It was great fun to drive. Acceleration was amazing considering the less than stellar horsepower number. According to independent testing by our friends at Car and Driver Magazine the 0-60 time is 7.9 seconds - more than respectable. Torque - the grunt that we actually feel - is 154 ft.lbs, not a big number, but the 3.2-litre Duratec 23, dual-overhead-cam in-line 4-cylinder engine, combined with the light weight of this economy car - about 2400 lbs - launched the ST impressively onto the Southfield Freeway as I left the Ford compound in Dearborn. Though quiet inside I could hear the sport-tuned exhaust system and I imagined what it would sound like from outside the car.

Running through the gears getting up to speed was an initial struggle. The shifter wanted to balk at going from third to fourth. It seems that pulling straight back from third puts the shifter right between second and fourth. We must give it just a touch of encouragement to the right to get comfortably into fourth gear. Fourth to fifth and fifth back to fourth are smooth and easy. It took nearly all week to get used to this idiosyncrasy.

The chassis felt extremely competent, stiff and balanced. Suspension is independent both front and rear. Aggressive driving is easy. (By aggressive we don’t mean rude.) Dive into a tight corner or twisty bit of country road and the ST’s extra stiff struts and shocks (held over from the SVT) gave a feeling of solid and precise control. The grippy Pirelli P6s gave the surefooted ST that extra stick. I couldn’t even make them chirp on the cloverleaf entering the freeway.

Once at speed in top gear – on Detroit freeways that means around 80 mph – it felt like I needed another gear. A glance at the tachometer put that to rest. The revs were right where they ought to be.

The Focus ST is quite a nice car inside as well. The interior design is fresh and functional. The dash is attractive though certainly not a bold or stand out design. The special ST instrument cluster is slick. Some of the trim appeared just a tad tawdry, but after all, this is an entry level econo-box. The optional leather and suede seats are attractive and comfortable with adequate bolster. Driving position felt good, that is, upright with good view and all controls intuitive and at hand.

Our test car came with the optional seat heaters, as well. Now normally I love a hot tush and am prone to using the seat heaters even when the weather might not entirely justify it. These, though, were not particularly useful. They were extremely slow to warm up, they shut off too soon before getting nice and hot and the indicator light remained on after the heaters went off. Turning the switch off then back on did not turn the heaters back on. I don’t know if it is just a bad design or whether something was wrong with this one. You might want to think twice before ordering these seat heaters.

The Focus ST’s exterior styling is plainer than a loaf of white bread. The body trim has been updated to reflect the ongoing Ford styling trends and is pleasant enough, kind of like the preacher’s wife. We can see definite references to the new Five Hundred in some of its details, particularly the grille and front fascia. The only visual clue to my Focus’ sporty personality is the 16-inch 5-spoke machined aluminum wheels with Pirelli P-6 tires, the modest wing on the back and the leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob with red stitching. Otherwise the compact four-door sedan body style is uninspiring. The three and five-door hatchbacks are considerably more stylish, I think. Perhaps the bosses at Ford ought to think about adding the ST package to these models.

But, back to the driving experience – it’s surprisingly quick for a normally aspirated four-banger. The shifter, as previously indicated, takes some serious getting used to, but otherwise is great fun to operate. Normal around town driving can be a real hoot in this car – keeping the revs up, getting the mirrors just right and popping through traffic. Top speed is electronically limited to 120 mph. Oh drat!

Back seat space and cargo capacity are excellent for this category of car. The rear seat splits and folds at the usual 60/40 for maximum usefulness. Four adults will be perfectly comfortable in this Focus. Functionality is good with stowage, cup holders and hiding places up to standards of today. A bin located on the lower left of the dash holds six CDs. Slots in each front door pocket accommodate a water bottle. Sunglasses fit into an overhead compartment.

Anti-lock brakes and Traction Control are standard on the ST and optional on other models. Side air bags are optional. Smart air bags up front and all the other expected safety features are included. While we’ve not seen the crash test results from NHTSA on the Focus we expect them to be very good since the current generation Focus has been designed with crumple zones that will deflect energy away from the cabin.

Warrantee on the powertrain is a transferable 5-year/100,000-mile plan and includes towing and roadside assistance. Basic bumper-to-bumper coverage is 3year/36,000 miles.

The sticker claims 22 mpg city and 31 mpg highway. Our observed mileage in about 800 miles of mostly spirited driving was 23.5.

While the Neon SRT-4 may have the advantage with younger buyers who demand extreme pizzazz with their pocket rocket, the Focus ZX4 ST is for those who want great sporty performance in their economy car without attracting too much attention. Pete’s credibility is still intact.