Ford Focus ST cuts into Volkswagen GTI dominance

The 2013 Ford Focus ST hatchback, which churns The 2013 Ford Focus ST hatchback, which churns out 252 horsepower behind its honeycomb-mesh trapezoidal grille, has been running at about 5 percent of total Focus sales, ahead of the 3 percent to 4 percent mix that the company expected, Amy Marentic, global marketing manager for Ford cars, told Bloomberg News. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company

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SOUTHFIELD, Mich. - Stan Visnesky wanted to spice up his daily drive with a souped-up small hatchback. Rather than go for a more popular and pricey road rocket from Germanys Volkswagen, Visnesky bought Ford Focus ST.

"Its definitely a steal," said Visnesky, 26, of Dettford, N.J. He paid $27,000 in December for his black Focus ST with racing seats and touch-screen controls. "For anything around the same specs, youd be paying probably more than $30,000."

Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally had many triumphs to discuss May 9 at his seventh annual meeting at the helm of the No. 2 U.S. automaker. Ford is on a winning streak with its new Fusion mid-size sedan complementing the F-Series truck line.

Now Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford also is appealing to more young male buyers in a corner of the market ruled for the past 30 years by Volkswagen: racy little hatchbacks.

The Focus ST is helping Ford steal young, influential buyers from VW and Japanese automakers. Hot hatches attract auto enthusiasts who then act as brand ambassadors. These young buyers are sought after by carmakers because they have the power toelevate a brands image, including mainstream models, said Jeff Schuster, an analyst with researcher LMC Automotive in Troy. Sales of Fords entire Focus line rose 16 percent last month.

"Youre talking about an aspirational vehicle for someone entering the market," Schuster said in a telephone interview.

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The Focus ST hatchback, which churns out 252 horsepower behind its honeycomb-mesh trapezoidal grille, has been running at about 5 percent of total Focus sales, ahead of the 3 percent to 4 percent mix that the company expected, said Amy Marentic,global marketing manager for Ford cars.

In Europe, Focus ST was the top-selling hot hatch in 2012s fourth quarter, beating Wolfsburg, Germany-based Volkswagens GTI, a juiced-up version of its Golf model, according to R.L. Polk & Co.

Top enthusiast publications from Britains Auto Express and Top Gear to Denmarks Bilmagasinet and the U.S.s Car and Driver are giving the nod to Focus ST over segment stalwart GTI. Car and Driver said in its November 2012 issue: "Allow us to dab atear as our trusty friend suffers this defeat."

"The GTIs a great product, but were winning most of the comparisons, and we have more power," Marentic said in a telephone interview.

Ford first showed the Focus ST at the 2010 Paris Motor Show as part of the introduction of the redesigned Focus compact car line, the first global product from Mulallys so-called One Ford strategy. Implemented after his arrival from Boeing in 2006,the plan called for Ford to slash duplicative efforts such as engineering different cars for various global markets. For example, the previous generation Focus that Ford sold in the U.S. wasnt the same car as the Focus model sold in Europe.

The moves by Mulally, 67, are paying dividends. Ford has earned $35.2 billion the past four years after losing $30.1 billion from 2006 through 2008. Ford now bills the Focus as the top-selling global nameplate, citing data from Southfield-basedresearcher Polk. Toyota, using different methodology, has disputed Fords assertion and said its Corolla is the best-seller.

In the U.S., Ford, General Motors and Chrysler, with their most competitive lineup from top to bottom in a generation, all gained market share in the first quarter for the first time in 20 years and exceeded analysts sales estimates last month,leading the industry to its best April since 2007.

Mulallys global engineering approach allows Ford to load its cars with features. Rather than spending superfluously on engineering groups in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, one global team based mostly in Europe brought the Focus ST to life, said JamalHameedi, chief engineer for Fords Special Vehicle Team, known as SVT.

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That allowed for the development of technology to amplify the roar of the Focus STs engine, an important attribute to the driving connoisseurs who buy hot hatches. A device known as an active sound symposer, a tube attached to the cars intakemanifold, uses an electronically controlled valve that opens and closes in response to engine speed and gear position. A similar system gives the Ford Mustang its throaty growl.

"Thats stuff that we never would have been able to afford in the prior business model," Hameedi said. "We can hire a team of engineers to really deliver a very special sound inside the cabin and go into areas we never wouldve touched before."

Ford was criticized by enthusiasts in the past for denying U.S. buyers its European performance cars or for watering them down by taking away essential features to keep prices low.

"When the new Focus came, it was a return to its European roots," Don Sherman, technical director for Car and Driver, said in a telephone interview. "Ford got its act back together again, fortunately."

Car and Drivers November comparison test between Focus ST and Volkswagen GTI was one of the closest in the magazines history, Sherman said. The margin of victory was one point out of a potential 240 points.

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"Even though the ST is the slightly larger and heavier hatch, it thumps the GTIs agility with quicker, tighter steering," the magazine said. "Considering how long and how well VW has raced slot cars, thats a colossal achievement."

VW isnt rolling over. Its boosting the power on a new version of the GTI debuting in the U.S. next year, the seventh generation of the model that arrived in 1983. It will have 258 pound-feet of torque, up from 207, and 210 horsepower, from 200.

"The new GTI takes the performance aspect to the next level, with having the most power ever," Andres Valbuena, a Volkswagen product planning manager, said in a telephone interview. "Its a lot more aggressive on the track or in the performancedriving aspects, but it still keeps all the composure. Thats what really separates us."

The U.S. is the GTIs No. 1 market, said Valbuena, who has a 1992 GTI in his garage. It has remained a strong seller in the U.S. even as VWs fortunes have waxed and waned. The companys U.S. sales fell 4.5 percent last month and are up 3.7 percentthis year to 180,146 vehicles. It is targeting 1 million annual sales in the U.S. by 2018, part of a plan to become the worlds top-selling automaker, surpassing GM and Toyota.

Michael Comora, 16, a high school junior in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Fla., fits the profile of an aspirational buyer. His first car, bought in June, is a metallic blue GTI, with the cars distinctive plaid seats.

"My dad writes the checks, but I did the negotiating and everything with the dealer," Comora, a subscriber to Road & Track, Motor Trend and Car and Driver, said from his hot hatch last week after seeing Iron Man 3. "I first noticed the GTI was thekind of car I wanted when I was 11 or 12."

New Focus ST owner Visnesky was sold by power and price.

"The GTI is comparable and its a nice, sporty-looking hot hatch, but its 50 less horsepower and its actually more expensive," he said. "Winding roads are the best fun in it. Dropping it into second or third gear, its fun to get into that, justhear the turbo roar and just go."

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