Car reviews - Ford - Focus - range
Extra engine performance and driveability, quality of transmissions, refinement advances, quality interior materials, cabin quietness, extra interior space, involving handling, ride quality, equipment levels, safety features, value equation, rally image
Room for improvement
Less edgy exterior design, non-descript interior design, steering less sharp than before
15 Jun 2005
BACK in 1981 the then all-new Laser came just at the right time for a Ford that was climbing out of a sales trough and into the history books as the first maker to halt Holden's 29-year market reign.
Toyota's Corolla, Nissan/Datsun's Pulsar and the Mitsubishi Lancer were ageing while Holden's baby, though still very popular in TE Gemini guise, suffered in performance and dynamics by comparison.
Only the small Ford's closely related Mazda 323 cousin came close to matching its appeal.
Sound familiar? The same situation virtually applies now. And today all the planets could be aligned for another Ford blitz in the soaring small car segment.
For starters the Focus fulsomely addresses its flawed predecessors' three main problem areas.
There's now a much more powerful and spirited four-cylinder engine (107kW Duratec) in place of the languid 85kW (or 96kW for that matter) Zetec lump that dated back to 1989.
It's a smooth and tractable revver, providing much-needed torque in the lower ranges whether mated to the wonderful five-speed manual gearbox (1970s Escort owners might recognise how sweet a shifter this is) or the adequate four-speed auto with a sequential shift pattern.
Plus the Duratec is impressively muted from noise as well as buzzes and zizzes from the occupant's point of view.
Sure, it lacks the sheer sizzle of the lighter 100kW Corolla, but the Focus' refinement trade-off makes this engine the current class leader this side of VW's brilliant $30K Golf 2.0 FSI.
Speaking of which, looking about the cabin, the at-times gloomy oddball presentation of the LR is ousted for an admittedly non-descript item that at least screams 21st Century.
It also obviously adheres to the Golf formula of soft-feel surfaces, quality metallic-look surface trim and sober Teutonic symmetry. It's pretty, inoffensive and totally innocuous - and it works extremely well.
Better still, the cabin's makeover ushers in a new dimension of space for a small Ford since the oddly cab-forward body (from some angles the A-pillars seem to weirdly envelop the front wheel-arches) liberates a whole lot of space.
Plenty of it is applied for heads, legs and shoulders at the front (plus a reasonable amount for rear occupants).
In fact, the roomy inside vies with the comfortable seats, good all-round vision and attention to detail (that Ford calls "Surprise and delight") like an MP3 connection in the glovebox as The Most Improved Aspect in the latest Focus.
The final trinity of Focus improvements is a tie between its value for money quotient, particularly in base CL guise, and the fact that the sedan, though still conservative, doesn't look like a daggy design afterthought anymore.
For the former point, gone are the days of only a single front airbag and no power windows when most of the Ford's rivals go the extra supplementary restraint system at the very least.
More importantly the CL doesn't feel like a poverty model, since the smart interior accenting is carried right down to it from the impressively higher-specced LX.
This is vital because nowadays a base Focus seems like good value against the well equipped Astra and Mazda3 when the old one had you hankering for LX and upwards.
On the subject of the second point (design), the sedan is finally acceptable to look at, but some might find the toned-down styling that made the original hatchback versions so sensationally sharp a disappointment.
Conversely, the five-door Focus looks better than the (unavailable locally for the moment) three-door hatch, when the opposite was true for the outgoing car.
Finally, Ford needs to be commended for not messing too much with how well the old Focus drives.
Despite steering that, sadly for enthusiasts, is a tad less sharp than before, nothing short of a Mini Cooper can compete for just how fluid and smooth the handling and roadholding are.
This has always been an absolutely pleasurable driver's car to punt along a twisty road now there's a high degree of isolation from noise and vibration, as well as comfort and space, to add to these qualities. And then, don't forget, there's that impressive engine.
If it still feels like the LS Focus needs more power it's because of that old motoring chestnut of a well-executed chassis that can easily handle more power. For everyday driving needs the Focus is just fine.
So that's a brief introduction to a small car that deserves to reinstate Ford among the small car leaders.
Against the Mazda3 it's a more refined, quieter and involving to drive it outperforms, out-handles and out-rides the Astra and it's convincingly larger and more mature than the Corolla.
There's no reason why it should fail then.
However, Ford needs to ensure the dealers are right behind this car - and that the necessary youth-baiting but somewhat twee advertising and marketing devised for the new model doesn't dilute the sophistication and savvy the Focus has accumulated in spades (even against the iconic Golf).
And that, in a related point, Ford still continues to communicate just how great a driver's car this still is.
The old David Bowie "Heroes" rally car TV ad now has plenty of non-car enthusiasts out there thinking that the Focus is a rally car. Ford should seriously build on this reputation. Manufacturers like Hyundai would kill for it.
With all these in place, history certainly does deserve to repeat for the latest small Ford.
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