There is a fervent resurgence of manual transmissions taking place in our region at the moment. And by fervent resurgence I mean you are able to buy maybe three of four cars with a manual gearbox.
Hey, always take whatever you can get…
One is the Toyota 86, obviously, although lately I’ve been seeing too many with the bigger wheels and kitschy plastic aero-aids on the C-pillar — dead giveaways for top-spec cars, and therefore automatic gearboxes. We try to stay away from them in public. I’ve heard that automatics can be contagious.
Then there’s the Opel Corsa OPC, which isn’t even on sale yet, but will be very shortly for Dh83K. And finally, Skoda will be releasing a hot 220bhp Octavia RS later this year, priced a little over Dh100K.
The new 2013 Ford Focus ST, too, comes exclusively with a six-speed manual transmission, but don’t let that deter you in any way if you’re more inclined to automatics.
The ultimate hot-hatch shoot-out of 2013 in Dubai
What’s a torque converter? In the ST, that’ll be the differential. Double-clutch? Yes, it’s got one of those too; just dip the leftmost pedal twice on every gear change, if you like. See? It’s all things to all men.
The Focus ST has an automatic gearbox in other less sarcastic ways too. For example, when you’re in sixth you can just leave it there for all overtaking manoeuvres, because 366Nm of torque from 2,500rpm is plenty. On your way rowing gears through the H-gate you have the optional use of a U-gate (free of charge); that means shifting in a first-third-fifth pattern because 366Nm of… Oh I’ve said that already. There’s lots of torque.
You know when you look at local classified ads online for hours at work, as you do, and you see a 1991 Nissan Cedric and it’s advertised as fully automatic? As opposed to what; two gears automatic, one manual and one psychic? Well the Focus ST is fully manual. Embrace it. Manual labour is good for the soul.
And it’s such a slick, affirmative ’box to shift too. Short throws, evenly spaced, and clicks satisfactorily into place when you drop it into gear. I just wish the clutch pedal wasn’t such a dead drop to the floor after the initial, and short, biting action. But like I said, take what you can get.
And you do get a lot else in the Focus ST. Most notably, plenty of cornering speed comes as standard equipment. All new Focus models handle superbly and turn-in with crisp affirmation, but the ST gains a lowered chassis, speed-sensitive steering and a trick electronic limited-slip differential with brake-actuated torque-vectoring. It’s also as tail happy as a front-wheel drive chassis can be.
With lightweight suspension components and stupendously grippy Goodyear tyres, the Focus ST is instant to latch on to your thinking, let alone your steering wheel application. I started getting carried away prematurely and began entering corners at a million kays an hour only to lift off abruptly and allow the car to immediately pivot into the turn.
A normal way to corner is to go in slightly slower than the car can take, and just keep on squeezing the loud pedal — no complaints from the tyres, just keep on turning and turning and turning and the car follows. Four doors, five seats, a sizeable boot, plenty of headroom, comfortable ride quality, quiet at cruising speeds, great infotainment system, strong air conditioning, nary a protest from any of the gauges or warning lights all week… Such a practical and affordable car just shouldn’t be able to handle so phenomenally well.
Just make sure you hang on to that four-spoke ST-exclusive steering wheel. Good thing the gear changes are so quick and precise, because you need both hands at three and nine o’clock thanks to the vicious torque steer. Ford has applied some electronic wizardry to mitigate torque steer, but the ST still pulls hard away from you in third gear and on a straight road. Relax too much and go too hard in the middle of a corner and it could yank itself out of your hands. Off the line the electronics also give it a much too inconsistent and clearly artificial feel of dealing with torque steer. Look, it’s got 252 horsepower and it’s front-wheel drive — it’s a miracle the ST handles as well as it does with only a few torque-overload issues and only at full throttle.
The engine is a peach, and sounds raspy and guttural, like a five-cylinder. It’s not tiring; the noises start stirring at over 3,500rpm or so. STs used to be five-pots of course, but this one’s a 2.0-litre Ecoboost four-cylinder, turbocharged to deliver its peak at a 5,500rpm. With plenty of road and a good launch you’ll see 0-100kph in 6.5 seconds and end up doing a top speed of 250kph.
Ford’s proud of its aluminium Ecoboost engine. I would be too, but lots of boasts are made of its economy and efficiency, thanks to high-pressure direct fuel injection, low-inertia turbocharging, variable valve timing and clever combustion chamber design.
It all adds up to a fuel economy figure of around 10 litres-per-100km, but the best I could do was closer to 12 and it’s more the car’s fault than mine. It’s just too addictive. The Focus ST is also no more aerodynamic than its main rival here, the Golf GTI, but it’s considerably heavier with a 1,462kg kerb weight. Still, with 56Nm of extra torque and a 45 horsepower premium, the ST is noticeably faster, even if GTIs feature lightning-quick DSG transmissions. Head to head the ST would pull away almost half a second quicker than a GTI from 0-100kph and keep leaving it behind on its way to a 12kph-higher top end.
The two rivals are also wildly different in feel. The ST is more alive, more characterful, and certainly a lot less mature with its red/black Recaro bucket seats and wild dashboard design. I must admit the GTI is quite a streamlined performance hatchback, by which I mean all its key components feel like a hard-working team, whereas the ST comes across as more of a collection of glory boys — each part of it wants to be the star of the team; the engine, the chassis, that diff, steering…
Yet like the GTI, it is hugely practical, despite that lower ride height and Y-spoke 18in wheels that look so easy to kerb. Wider frames will definitely struggle to fit in the deeply snug Recaro buckets, but there’s good room in the back and creature comforts like Ford’s SYNC (which is getting better), great visibility, comfortable placement of the handbrake and gear levers, parking sensors, USB and AUX inputs, strong automatic (and dual-zone) air conditioning and multiple airbags.
On a cruise, the heavier ST doesn’t skim over the surface looking to settle, like a Honda Civic Type R for example, but the suspension does bop up and down although the Eagle F1 tyres aren’t mercilessly no-profiled to make an issue out of it.
And with its superb handling and fun tail-happy chassis, still the one facet of the Focus ST that stands out the most is the price: Dh95,000. That’s it, one option, take it or leave it. (Take it.)
You might have to work hard with a manual transmission, but at that price you really don’t have to work hard for the car at all.