While it's easy to find a good, sensibly-sized and relatively fuel-efficient small car, it's really hard to find much personality.
At the same time, you could argue, Americans haven't seemed to want much charm behind the wheel. The first-generation Focus, for instance, came in a wide range of body styles (including three- and five-door hatchbacks), and had a standard of ride and handling arguably better than anything in its class at the time, but it became a sore reality after a few years that Americans weren't willing to pay for small-car sophistication. A couple of refreshes cut body styles from the lineup and left the Focus feeling a little more refined, but also more conservative.
Times have definitely changed since then—and they've definitely changed since the last time Ford went to the drawing board for its last 2007 refresh of the Focus, when the vehicle lost all its hatchback styles, gained Sync connectivity as a central selling point, but lost its hatchback body styles, became more conservative-looking, and lost even more of the dynamic spirit of that original Focus.
While Hyundai has simplified its Elantra down to just a handful of build combinations, Ford is offering a wide range of possibilities for the 2012 Focus, to serve as everything from basic transportation (for those who still think of small cars as 'economy cars') to a small family's primary vehicle—or even a surprisingly sophisticated sport sedan.
Two shapely body styles
Now, shoppers have two beautiful body styles—a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback—from which to choose. They're both rakish and sleek, and while the profile of the Focus sedan is uncommon (and remarkably close to that of the recently introduced Chevrolet Cruze, as well as the Elantra), the distinction is in the details. Both models have Ford's kinetic design attributes, with the rising beltline that's become par, but accented here with some nice creases and curves—including a subtle curve that runs from the headlights all the way to the taillights, just below the beltline, and a sharper crease that starts after the front wheelwell and runs through the door handles. Taillamps are huge and form much of the rear corners on both vehicles. Thankfully, Ford's saccharine chrome louvered grille, from several of its larger vehicles, and which we never warmed up to, hasn't been carried over here.
Inside, the design is complex—incorporating a cockpit-like instrument panel arrangement, with a thick center stack, some nice surface sculpting, and vertically-oriented vents. Trims and finishes look classy and inviting, and there's a nicely tailored look to the entire interior that extends to door trim and even seats. The turquoise-colored gauge pointers are a nice touch.
While turbocharged EcoBoost power is on the way, the Focus lineup includes a single engine now, an all-new 2.0-liter direct-injected four-cylinder making 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque; that's 20 hp and 10 pound-feet than before, though when you correct for the 200-300-pound weight gain of the new Focus it's no big bump. The new mill has Ti-VCT variable valve timing, though, and can be paired with either a five-speed manual gearbox or six-speed PowerShift dual-clutch automatic.
Engine is very smooth, but needs to be revved
The engine settles to one of the smoothest idles we've noted in a small-car; direct-injection engines can be rather noisy at idle—sounding almost a little diesel-like at times—but engineers have done a great job here in masking those sounds.
Although the new engine carries the Duratec name, it has a very different character than the other U.S.-market powerplants that get that moniker; in short, you have to rev this engine to tap into its perky side. It's in a few rare instances—like coming out of a tight corner in third when we should have been in second—that the new engine's relative (and surprising, given the valve system) lack of low-rev torque is highlighted. The engine feels nearly lifeless below 2,000 rpm, but rev it above 3,000 and it really begins to hit its stride; peak torque is at 4,450 rpm. Luckily it's refined and entirely lacking the boominess that used to be a small-car norm. But Ford has done a good job in making the Focus feel light-footed off the line, with low first-gear ratios in either gearbox, and the dual-clutch gearbox does a great job keeping the revs high and uninterrupted. Take off, foot to the floor, and the Focus feels quick.
Overall, the calibration of the PowerShift automatic feels much more relaxed in the Focus than in the Fiesta, where we've criticized it for being a little lurchy and lumpy at times. Whether it's the Focus's additional weight, the engine's additional torque, or the software recalibration an engineer told us it got, the gearbox feels much more at ease here—more responsive, too.
PowerShift better than in Fiesta
If you want to do the shifting yourself, you have to make do with a little +/- button on the side of the shift knob; rather than slamming the knob in one direction or another, or clicking a paddle-shifter, you might just miss your shift as you hunt for the button. Fortunately, the PowerShift transmission does come with a Sport ('S') mode, just below Drive, which smartly holds revs for grades and corners, holds upshifts significantly longer, and downshifts a gear with the slightest tap of the brake pedal. Just don't leave it in Drive on hilly canyon roads, as we tried briefly, as it will hunt around indecisively. It's also odd that no matter what your selection, Ford seems to have dialed engine braking out completely. And on the subject of brakes, there's nothing to complain about; S and SE models come with rear-drums instead of discs (in the name of cost-cutting), but pedal feel and stopping power felt about the same at legal speeds.
The other option for shifting yourself is the five-speed manual gearbox—which is only offered on S and SE, not SEL or Titanium, by the way. The linkage is sweet, if a bit long, and while the clutch feel is soft for easygoing normal driving it felt if anything a bit too soft for strong launches. A taller fifth gear would also be helpful; with revs hanging around the 3,000-rpm click at 70 mpg—significantly higher than the PowerShift's sixth gear—we could see how highway fuel economy could be a bit lower.
The Focus proved economical in some of the least economical driving conditions. We saw 22 mpg in about 50 miles of driving up canyon roads, with more up than down, in a PowerShift vehicle, then 28 mpg in about 70 miles of more twisties followed by creeping-and-racing LA freeway driving. Ford has backtracked a little bit—or refined its message, it might say—about the Focus's 40-mpg mileage claim. Just as with the Fiesta, the Focus will achieve that number with an SFE package, only offered initially on the sedan.
Ride and handling? Awesome.
While the powertrain requires a little diligence, the ride-and-handling compromises are about the best it gets. The Focus handles as well as—or better than—the most deft handler in the class, the Mazda3, with a suspension that doesn't crash and bang over rough transitions, nor punishes over heaves or potholes. Ford's electric power steering system provides nice weighting and it performs well, providing precise control but not transmitting much feel of the road. The electric steering system is awesome in transitions, too, never binding up or feeling off its game. While the suspension allows a bit of give, it loads and unloads in the most transparent, predictable way possible, yet isolates you from harshness. On one of the tightest stretches of roads with a Titanium sedan, we felt like the Focus was on our side, filtering out what we didn't need to know but keeping our line tight and neat. And on boulevards and freeways, the ride is on the firm side compared to other compacts like the Cruze, Elantra, and Corolla, but not enough to ever be punishing.
The Focus is extremely comfortable inside—glovelike when fitted with the Sport package, which our Titanium test vehicle included. The moderately bolstered seats proved perfect for holding us in place in the twisties, for all the grip that the excellent Michelin Pilot Sport SP3 summer performance tires could provide. Whether you choose the sedan or hatchback, you get back seat accommodations that are virtually the same, with just enough legroom and headroom to fit even those over six feet. With the leather upholstery, the back seats are trimmed like those of a high-end German luxury car, with exposed stitching and true bolstering for outboard occupants.
Cargo holds in the hatch and sedan are both ample with large openings, but seat-folding was a little disappointing. For one, you can't release the back seats remotely, as you can in some other vehicles; the other thing is that the back seats don't fold completely flat, and unless the front seats are slid far forward, the headrests get in the way.
Although the vehicles we sampled in Southern California weren't yet production vehicles, the Ford Focus has a sense of solidity and build quality inside that far surpasses that of the previous model, as well as most other cars in this class. Door close with a nice, satisfying thunk, and door grabs, trim, and center console all seem solidly attached.
Touch screen or not?
Depending on which trim you get, the Focus has two quite different instrument panels. While MyFord Touch—the touch-screen system that's offered in the 2011 Ford Explorer and Edge and 2011 Lincoln MKX—is standard on the Focus Titanium and optional on the SEL, other models get a modestly retouched version of the Fiesta's control layout—including the oddly angled, V-shaped arrangement. Top and center on those models, instead, is a more colorful, higher-contrast screen that definitely beats the orange monochrome Fiesta screen.
Just as in those other models, MyFord touch provides control of entertainment, communication, climate functions, and more, and in these models, in place of the two smaller gauge-cluster screens that you find in the Edge, Explorer, and MKX, the Focus gets a single smaller one. Just below the touch-screen, deceptively, is a very large dial in the middle of the dash that you might would serve some function in navigating screen functions, but it's only for sound-system volume.
There are a number of redundancies. Throughout the line, Ford has moved a host of functions to the steering wheel, and we're going to have to wait for a longer drive to report back on whether they serve in making it easier or more confusing. And MyFord Touch includes an extended set of Sync voice commands.
Essentially, Ford is giving shoppers a choice this time around as to whether they want a basic small car or a much more sophisticated one with all the features and options of a larger one. Prices on the Focus range from $16,995, including destination, for the base Focus S, up to about $27k for a loaded Titanium. S models are quite basic, but they do include air conditioning, CD sound, and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel. SE models add cruise control, larger wheels, fog lamps, and Ford's MyKey system, while SEL trims get SYNC, dual-zone climate control, and upgraded trims. At the top of the line, the Titanium earns you MyFord Touch, an upgraded ten-speaker Sony sound system, HD Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, sport seats, a sport suspension, and sport wheels with summer performance tires. A number of the Titanium's features—including the Sport package—are optional on the SEL.
Active parking, in a small car
One segment-exclusive feature that will be available in the Titanium is Active Park Assist—that's the system Ford has offered on several more expensive models that essentially allows the car to steer itself into a spot while you modulate the brake. In a city-savvy small car like the Focus—rather than one that's more likely to be valet-parked—it finally makes sense.
Overall the Focus feels way sportier and more charismatic than most vehicles in this class, and it stands out on a lot of levels. Interior in Focus looks better than Elantra, but doesn't necessarily feel better. Elantra might have it in features for the dollar, and the Chevrolet Cruze is a strong entry for comfort-oriented buyers, but in features and performance, the U.S.-built Focus is on top.
Post fuel spikes and economic woes, are Americans finally ready to embrace well-equipped small cars—especially those with a little more personality? If so, the new 2012 Ford Focus provides the most compelling proposition yet.
This story originally appeared at The Car Connection