Car reviews - Ford - Focus
Punchy three-cylinder engine, good body control, relatively comfortable ride, sharp looks, wagon versatility, brilliant infotainment
Room for improvement
Stubborn transmission in manual mode, slippery tyres, numb steering, cheap cabin plastics, no rear air vents, premium positioning
Ford prepares for sales success with much improved, all-new Focus small car
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14 Dec 2018
IT WASN’T that long ago that smalls cars were the most popular type of vehicle in Australia. However, buyers have since gone mad for mid-size SUVs. Nonetheless, the former’s sub-$40,000 segment is still the second largest, so it remains important to a brand like Ford.
The Focus is synonymous with this segment and has now entered its fourth generation. All-new from the ground up and available in wagon guise for the first time in Australia, Ford’s latest model is looking to climb the sales ladder. We’ve put it to test to see how it stacks up.
It’s not often that a brand gets to do a clean-sheet design for an established model, but Ford has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and produced the fourth generation of the Focus small car.
Lighter, stiffer and more aerodynamic than before, the Focus debuts an all-new platform for Ford, and after our brief first drive on local roads, it can only mean some very good things are to come from the Blue Oval.
While we weren’t convinced of the new model’s styling when it was revealed earlier this year, seeing it in the metal has quickly changed our mind. It’s definitely more conservative than some of its rivals, but is still attractive to the eye like a Volkswagen Golf.
Jump inside, though, and this physical attraction doesn’t quite carry over. The cabin’s design is quite basic, largely adopting a horizontal theme that is far from inspiring. Inevitably, some conservatism from the exterior is shared internally, but just not as well.
The Focus’ cabin has some cheap-feeling materials, namely the shiny hard plastics that adorn all of its lower areas. While they are contrasted with soft-touch trim on the dashboard and front door shoulders, it also doesn’t look premium.
Up front, Ford’s 8.0-inch touchscreen Sync3 infotainment system is still brilliant due to its ease of use, and now ‘floats’ proudly above the centre stack’s central air vents and climate controls, while a cool-looking rotary dial acts as the gear selector instead a traditional lever.
The second row is a bit grim, though, with no central air vents or USB ports to service rear passengers. Also, the front row’s unusual-looking door inserts are even less appealing in the rear, where they are instead made of – you guess it – hard plastic.
Nonetheless, there is plenty of space for occupants to get comfortable in, with decent amounts of legroom provided behind our circa-180cm driving position. Similarly, toe-room is plentiful, but only about an inch of headroom is offered with the panoramic sunroof fitted.
The interior story changes when you move to the cargo area where the hatch and wagon naturally differ. The latter is the real standout, providing up to 1653L of storage capacity (including underfloor) with its split-fold rear bench stowed via a manual release latch.
In its fourth generation, the Focus has a new heart, with an all-aluminium 1.5-litre EcoBoost turbocharged three-cylinder engine sitting under its bonnet. Producing 134kW of power at 6000rpm and 240Nm of torque at 1600rpm, it offers surprisingly punchy performance.
This is a rorty unit with a pleasing exhaust note – something you wouldn’t expect in a non-performance model. The powertrain is very responsive to throttle inputs and provides good punch when on boost and making the most of Sir Isaac’s best.
Also new is the standard eight-speed torque-converter automatic transmission, which is a very smooth operator. Able to adapt to the current driving style, this unit is very perceptive and can change its approach from cruisy to spirited without much fuss.
However, engage the transmission’s manual mode and frustration abounds. Unless engine speeds are below 3000rpm, it will stubbornly refuse to downshift when called upon via the steering wheel’s annoyingly small paddle-shifters, even in the Sport driving mode.
Time for a confession: the Focus’ SUV-inspired Active and flagship Titanium variants won’t enter showrooms until the first half of next year – and we are yet to sample the entry-level Trend – so we’ve only been testing its ST-Line grade in hatch and wagon forms.
Why is this important, though? Well, the ST-Line rides 10mm lower than the Titanium and Trend, while the Active is 30mm higher than the pair. Also, the hatch uses a torsion beam for its rear suspension, while the wagon instead has an independent multi-link setup.
While the torsion beam is often viewed as a cost-cutting measure that negatively impacts dynamics, Ford has bucked this trend with the Focus, which was previously multi-link-only. Ride quality cannot be separated on highway runs, with both proving to be comfortable.
Minor differences can be felt, though, when driving over deeper potholes and broken sections of tarmac, where the hatch’s rear end can become unsettled, even if it does rebound quickly. In either case, composure is maintained on coarse country roads.
The ST-Line also sets itself apart with a sportier tune for its electric power steering. This set-up completes the trifecta by being well-weighted, direct and quick. But it feels quite numb as feedback from the front wheels is muted, even though the chassis is clearly capable.
As a front-wheel-drive vehicle, the Focus cannot resist the obvious occupational hazard: understeer. This tendency to run wide when cornering at speed can prove problematic when navigating the tight, twisty stuff. Turning in nice and early is often necessary.
This issue is exacerbated in wet conditions, such as those we’ve been driving the Focus in. Grip from the ST-Line hatch’s 215/50 R17 Continental ContiSportContact 5 tyres is often underwhelming when pushed hard on slippery surfaces. It is best to exercise caution, then.
In all other regards, the Focus is a confident handler, exhibiting strong body control when put through its paces. Roll and pitch are both limited as it stays planted through corners, seemingly up for most challenges. Make no mistake, this is a seriously good steer.
So, time to address the elephant in the room: the pricing structure. The Focus has again followed the Golf’s lead – and more recently, the new Toyota Corolla – and pushed itself upmarket, with the Trend kicking off the action from a very premium $25,990 before on-road costs and rising to $34,490 for the Titanium.
While all variants come loaded with standard equipment, including advanced driver-assist systems like autonomous emergency braking and lane-keep assist, there is clearly an opportunity for the Ambiente grade to return and lower the Focus’ entry-level cost.
Similarly, there’s plenty of room to move above the Titanium, and we’re not talking about the luxury-focused Vignale variant that Australia misses out on. Yes, the ST and RS will inevitably surface during in this fourth-generation lifecycle, and we seriously cannot wait.
The new Focus, even in its most ‘vanilla’ of forms, is really, really good. In fact, the bones are there for something really, really great. Now all we have to do is cross our fingers and toes and hope that Ford Performance delivers in the only way it knows how. Stay tuned.
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