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Car reviews - Ford - Focus - Sport 5-dr hatch

Launch Story

Ford logo2 Sep 2011

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

THIRD time lucky?

Ford has struggled to find real success in the soaring small car segment in Australia.

Though lauded abroad, the first Focus of 2002 could not emulate the boom Laser years of the 1980s, while the second-generation model released here in mid-2005 came closer but still couldn’t crack it despite rave reviews locally.

Enter Focus MkIII – a clean-sheet redesign if ever there was one, with only seven per cent carryover componentry underneath (including, not disappointingly, the pioneering multi-link rear suspension system) and a whole new look inside and out.

Clearly, Ford hopes that the change is as good as a holiday for buyers who would otherwise choose the Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, Holden Cruze, Hyundai i30, Mitsubishi Lancer, Volkswagen Golf, Subaru Impreza and Honda Civic, or one of more than 30 other small-car protagonists. The stakes are high, but then so are the potential sales.

Lucky then that the fresh styling works, for the LW series is a handsome and well-proportioned piece of work, possessing undeniable road presence, courtesy of the Kinetic design kick Ford is currently on.

Whether it is the five-door hatch or four-door sedan, this is like no Focus that has come before, although somehow it still says ‘Ford’ with a hefty Euro accent. Perhaps it’s the Fiesta-esque themes at play.

A stylish wagon may join the fray later on but only if enough of you ask for one, but higher-performance Focus ST and more efficient Econetic derivatives are definitely in the pipeline.

Inside, three things immediately hit you: the ultra-modern layout, ample occupant space and high-quality ambience. Entry is easy, vision out is good thanks to that glassy turret, and inviting – even intriguing – surfaces abound.

At last the driving position has changed so very tall drivers can now lower the seat base right down the four-spoke steering wheel feels as good as it looks there are scores of storage choices and absolutely no squeaks or rattles were detected in the German-made examples we drove.

Colour and co-ordination abound, with contrasting metallic trim and enough switches and buttons to make even the lowlier versions – the aptly titled Ambiente and mid-level Trend that Ford believes will find the biggest share of customers – seem more upmarket than it really is.

Existing Focus owners will be astonished!

Move up to the, err, the sporty Sport and flagship Titanium variants and the climate-control air-conditioning controls, black dash finish and iDrive-style upper-console menu controller (on the latter only) turn these into proper premium propositions.

Option up with new driver-assist technologies like radar-controlled cruise and automatic self-parking and you could safely call the Titanium a proper little luxury runabout. Too bad an integrated satellite-navigation system isn’t available, however.

Familiarisation is necessary for the dashboard’s presentation is busy – again, in the fashion of the existing Fiesta. Some will miss the lack of a digital speed readout. Rear-seat passengers will notice the AWOL air-vents – they’re coming when production switches to Thailand later in 2012. And there are annoying upper-dash reflections in the windscreen.

Nevertheless, somebody at Ford Germany obviously took a long, hard look at the Golf and thought: “Das is classy and good to touch but boring to behold, so our Focus vill be like zis but also more fascinating even!” Indeed.

Better still, the Focus’ march upmarket isn’t just visual.

What was once a boom box of road noise in the earlier LR to LV versions is now an eerily hushed environment, especially on the smallest (16-inch with Continental) tyres. Again, owners of the old model won’t believe their ears, although the larger the rim the louder it all becomes.

Speaking of wheels, Ford now offers bigger items – extending to 18s on Titanium – so cargo capacity varies according to size. Having a smaller space-saver tyre obviously equals more luggage room while the opposite applies when the floor is set higher to accommodate a bulkier alloy unit.

That is to be expected. But the sedan’s primitive gooseneck hinges represent a retrograde step. There’s no pull-down handle either, so prepare to get dirty fingers. A strap solution is also coming, apparently.

Still, it is the way things operate at the other end that makes the Focus something quite special.

Let’s begin with one of the most controversial – the switch from hydraulic to electric power steering for the rack-and-pinion system on all models except the as-yet-unavailable Ambiente 1.6-litre Powershift model (due here by year’s end), due to right-hand drive engine packaging issues.

Some overseas drive reports have lamented the lack of interactivity and sharpness compared to Focus II, but if this is true we couldn’t tell. Not on inner-urban Melbourne streets. Not on faster suburban arterials. And certainly not in the winding and at-times demanding roads beyond Healesville and surrounding rural areas, including inconsistently-surfaced mountainous paths.

What we did find is beautifully weighted and informative steering that gives the driver confidence and control to charge up a twisty road without raising a sweat. Exceptional grip, coupled with a foursquare stance, enhanced this car’s already rock-solid reputation for smooth and responsive handling.

Furthermore, the suspension is tied-down enough to feel unshakable, yet the accompanying ride pliancy and discipline should be a lesson to all other car-makers. Yes, the 18-inch wheeled Titanium does have a palpably firmer edge to the way it soaks up the ridges, pot-holes and surface irregularities – and transmits a bit more tyre noise doing it – but even then the Ford is rooted firmly in comfort and possessed of poise.

What a blessed relief. We were expecting a dumbed-down Focus, but this European-tuned version (as opposed to the softer US versions we tried back in January) has it all sorted. So perhaps it was softer suspension that made the steering in the American versions we drove feel less sharp than before.

Surprise number two concerned the base petrol engine and five-speed manual gearbox pairing in the entry-level $21,990 Ambiente.

Even the weight of two adults and their luggage, with the air-con on, could not dampen the enthusiasm of this sweet-natured 92kW/159Nm 1.6-litre trier.

Be willing to row that slick shifter and the 1311kg hatch will never feel underpowered or strained, for it draws upon a broad band of torque as well as that responsive chassis to help it nip between gaps and zip through traffic.

We suspect the launch petrol cars were running on more expensive 98 RON premium unleaded, which does help, but the liveliness of the smallest engine came as a very pleasant surprise. The fact it has the lightest mass over the front wheels probably enhances its first-class dynamic behaviour as well.

All the Focus you could ever need is right there in the base package. On our initial acquaintance this clean little unit seems far more appealing than the lacklustre 1.8s found in the Corolla and Cruze.

After the brilliant Ambiente experience, we found the 125kW/202Nm 2.0-litre direct-injection GDi petrol four-pot engine in the Titanium hatch smooth, swift, and strong – while also displaying a keenness to visit the redline in five-speed manual guise (why no six-speeder, Ford?) – yet not truly outstanding in any one area.

Toweringly competent this may be, particularly when paired to the six-speed dual-clutch Powershift, but we are mystified by the latter’s awkward thumb-operated manual-shift toggle switch on the transmission knob. Why no paddles? As it stands the angle is just wrong for us.

And after the quiet and composed plushness of the Ambiente’s ride, the sexy 18-inch alloys ushered in a noisier, slightly harder attitude. Don’t get us wrong – the naturally aspirated 2.0 GDi is a fine engine with either gearbox – but we wonder whether the 1.6-litre Ecoboost turbo-petrol four available elsewhere (with six speeds for the manual, by the way) might be more apt for a thoroughly modern Euro like this.

No such qualms can be said of the diesel version, though.

Powered by a 120kW/340Nm 2.0 TDCi/Powershift drivetrain combo, the latest Focus gelled for us all over again, but this time as an uncannily quiet and super-smooth luxury grand tourer with a sizeable performance output to balance out the economy on offer.

We know it’s a cliché but there was no way we could tell there was a diesel belting out all that torque – and barely so standing outside an idling car.

The Focus diesel is all about creamy, punchy acceleration over a wide range of driving conditions, while the chassis has no trouble containing all that thrust, even on tight hairpin turns, and despite the hefty 1520kg and 1537kg kerb weights of the Sport sedan and Titanium hatch models respectively.

We cannot wait to drive the TDCi against the Golf 2.0 TDI to see which is the finer diesel application, for it will be very close indeed. In fact, the all-new BMW 1 Series and Mercedes B-class will both have to pull something special out of their hats to edge ahead of the latest Focus.

So on first acquaintances on Australian roads, it’s clear the new Focus has been radically overhauled inside and out, and now features an inviting, quiet interior and an interesting array of engines, but with the brand’s long-held dynamic superiority still firmly intact.

Unbelievable value for money is the Ambiente’s calling card – and we sure didn’t see that coming – while the Titanium TDCi Powershift is the very essence of the contemporary Euro compact GT.

So the third try’s a charm then. From our first outing in most of the range, the new LW series appears to have what it takes for the Focus to finally be king of the small-car class.

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