Focus pocus: Ford 'overclocks' the 2013 Focus ST

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Thanks to its ‘overclocked’ engine, you might be seeing the back end of the 2013 Focus ST very frequently.

Sometimes I enjoy getting grease under my fingernails while pumping more horsepower into my ’93 Mazda Miata. But there are many times when I just wish the car had been faster out of the box. Judging by the new turbocharged, 6-speed Ford Focus ST, someone at Ford feels the same way.

The 2013 Ford Focus ST is hardly the first vehicle to offer a turbocharger or a performance mode in its ECU (Engine Control Unit, the computer that controls the ignition and fuel flow), but it’s probably the first car that hypes those features in computer terms. Ford likens the Focus ST to being “overclocked,” and the company will be showing it off at the E3 gaming conference in June. I’m guessing that’s a good marketing move; there's a large audience who understand computer-tech terms such as overclocking (running CPUs/GPUs faster than spec), but don't necessarily understand retarding spark and boosting the atmospheric pressure/fuel-to-air ratio in an automobile engine’s combustion chambers.

All the Focus ST’s juice is courtesy of a turbocharged (18.4 PSI max—yowser!) 2.0 liter EcoBoost engine and the way the company has programmed the ECU that controls it. Just to be crystal clear, the processor in the ECU isn’t overclocked, but that ECU is helping to “overclock” the engine. Without going into the particulars of fuel maps and spark tables, the ECU puts more air and fuel into the engine to create more-violent explosions when the driver desires. More violent explosions, more power. It only does this when it senses you’re in a real hurry to get going or pass someone. Otherwise, the ECU plays it Scrooge-like with the air/fuel mixtures so it can both meet emission standards and get decent gas mileage. EPA certification hasn’t been finished, so Ford was unable to provide miles-per-gallon numbers, but I’d guess it’s somewhere in the high 20s.

The Focus ST’s appearance is heavily slanted towards the youthful enthusiast of any technology. In terms of computers, the Focus ST’s styling is to that of a normal vehicle as a gaming PC appearance is to a boring beige business PC. The car is available with two-tone, pseudo-racing Recaro seats, an aftermarket-like auxiliary instrument cluster with a boost gauge (to display how many pounds per square Inch the turbo’s pumping at), 18-inch rims, and a sexy exhaust.

But style is one thing; much laughter will ensue if your car is a poser. I haven’t driven a Focus ST, but I can tell you for a fact that no one laughs at 252 horsepower (HP) in a 3200-pound vehicle. That’s one horsepower for every 12.7 pounds of car, which should make most domestic vehicles look like they’re standing still. My turbocharged Miata—which regularly surprises Mustangs and the like—has a power to weight ratio of 14.5. The Focus ST’s most recognizable competitor in the U.S., Volkswagen’s GTI, is about the same weight, but its top option is 200HP, or about 16 pounds per horse. The John Cooper Works Mini is around 12.9, but it also costs about $5000 more than the Focus ST.

Base-stickered at just under $25,000, the Focus ST costs about the same as the VW GTI and considerably cheaper than a comparably fast Mini. I can’t say how the Focus ST will handle, but I’ve heard and read rumors that it isn’t half bad. Considering it’s a front-wheel drive vehicle, you’ll probably feel a little light in the posterior, but just chalk that up to another Focus ST thrill. The acceleration alone will make this car a kick in the pants to drive and for the price—wow.

I’ve done about the same thing to my car as Ford has to the Focus ST. However, I’m only running 6 PSI without an intercooler (a radiator for the intake air to keep it cool) or the other advanced features of the EcoBoost engine system. My base add-on system cost me about $2,500 with an aftermarket ECU. To run 18.4 PSI like the Focus ST, we’re talking something like $7,500 and possibly more, as my car would need beefier drivetrain components to handle all the extra power. In addition, if you’re not wrenching yourself, figure another couple grand for installation. Oh, did I mention you’re also trashing the factory warranty by adding your own turbo? The Focus ST carries a 3-year, 36,000 mile warranty—not bad for a car that some drivers will be trying very hard to break.

Now, if only the top came down…

Note: Overclocking your computer results in, at worst, a dead computer. An overclocked car, driven the wrong way, will result in a dead you (or worse, a dead someone else). Cars like this are cool, but they’re not toys.

Addendum: A couple of readers rightfully pointed out that I didn't discuss Mazda's Mazdaspeed 3 which bears probably the closest resemblance to a Focus ST in both appearance and performance. This was my overzealously editing to avoid the appearance of being a Mazda fanboy, and forgetting to put the references back in. My apologies to Mazda and readers, and don't overlook that worthy competitor.

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