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Ford's Focus ST is late to the party; does it still have a chance?

2013 Focus ST

2013 Focus ST Credit: AP

The long-anticipated 2013 Focus ST will be available to enthusiasts later this year, after a nearly 12 month delay. The ST, a performance-oriented version of the third generation Ford Focus is turbocharged unlike most models in the  Focus line.

That in itself doesn't make the ST unique or groundbreaking -- it's a small, sporty front-wheel-drive hatchback with forced induction. Sound familiar?

Here are a few of its predecessors:

-- The Volkswagen Golf GTI, the father of the sport compact went turbo in its fourth generation (MkIV).
-- The SRT4 Neon, arguably the impetus behind the decade's sport compact surge. The Neon was followed by the SRT4 Caliber, and soon to come SRT4 Dart.
-- The Chevrolet Cobalt SS, though not a hatchback, is still the fastest production front-wheel-drive car to lap the Nurburgring. It was first supercharged (05-06), then turbocharged (07-10).
-- The Mazda Mazdaspeed3 was one of the most popular turbo compacts, and also introduced an electronic torque limiting system for first and second gears. It was preceded by the Mazdaspeed Protege, the swan song for the Protege line.

All of these came before the Focus ST was even announced, so you might think Ford is a bit late to the party. The Cobalt SS is gone, but the Mazdaspeed3 and Golf GTI are still dominating the turbo compact market. Faced with these two juggernauts, it's hard to imagine that the Focus ST will have an easy time breaking into the market. And even if it does, there are two more new contenders at its heels -- the new SRT4 Dart and Hyundai Veloster turbo.

So what chance does the Focus ST have? On paper, the ST makes 252 BHP and 270 TQ -- solid numbers, even when pitted against the current king (Speed3). But physics has proven time and time again that sending that much power through the front wheels of a car usually produces undesirable results, i.e. torque steer.

The Speed3 employs an ECU command that limits torque output in first and second gears, the two most problematic for torque steer. It works to a satisfactory degree, but doesn't eliminate the inherent problem that big power plus front wheel drive equals. For the past year, Ford has been claiming that its "Revoknuckle" (earlier employed on the bonkers second generation Focus RS in Europe) will greatly alleviate torque steer in the new ST.

Blue Oval engineers have not quit there, however; Ford has just announced the "Overboost" feature of its 2.0L Ecoboost engine, but they're not billing it as a limiting measure like Mazda's system. Instead, Ford said in a press release that ST's engine "increases acceleration through factory 'overboost' turbo feature that extends torque curve from 3,000 rpm to 4,500 rpm for up to 15 seconds."

What that means in layman's terms is that you get a flatter torque curve, which any shop tuner will tell you is fantastic for street driving. Instead of the engine falling flat at lower revs and making poor power, the ST's "overboost" allows for more enjoyable and practical power curves.

In a nutshell, "overboost" is part of the Focus ST's engine tune -- Ford engineers have tweaked the ECU programming to allow for a consistent level of boost (psi) throughout the engine's range, giving it a flatter torque curve than other turbocharged compacts. The held level decreases the "surge" feeling often associated with turbocharged cars, caused by the slower spooling of most turbos and the accompanying "curve" of power. Such power curves can be more unpredictable, and sometimes even useless if you're in the wrong gear.

What Ford seeks to do is eliminate most of the guessing, and ultimately, it seems, make the ST behave more like a "normal," naturally aspirated car with quicker throttle response. This is the first such system used by Ford in the United States, but a similar feature was first implemented by Porsche three years ago in the 911's "Sport Chrono" package.

However, this is the first time such a system is in a front wheel drive production car -- and it might just give the Focus ST the edge it needs to be a serious player in the sport compact market. It'll need all the help it can get if Ford wants to take down the Speed3 and Golf GTI.

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