Selling an SUV in today’s market is financial suicide. Residual values have dropped by double digits— and that was just last week. Buyers who somehow managed to complete the SUV exodus better watch out for the next auto da fe: fully-loaded versions of entry-level whips. Expect a serious depreciation hit for these luxury econoboxes at trade-in time. Still, checking the options list wisely works wonders for your driving pleasure. To wit: the lame duck Ford Focus.
Too bad the new Focus doesn’t come standard with beer goggles. Farago insists the Blue Oval’s smallest player hails from the same mold as the Chrysler Sebring. I beg to differ. Ford recovered from the car’s ungainly proportions by beating them with a beautification stick. Sure, the sedan’s tall and goofy profile remains, but the band saw-trimmed bumpers and yacht-like swage lines add enough aesthetic flair to keep my lunch down.
The options help too: the chrome-plated door handles, mirrors and tailpipe add visual justification for the (faux) fender vents’ existence, stopping short of true integration of form. The trim taillights are a clever step away from most automaker’s amoeba-fetish, and the headlights’ geometric details provide a safe refuge for displaced GORF junkies. Even the Focus’ rear bumper relief-cum-trunk handle justifies the hood’s obscure Mister T homage. I pity the fool; the Sebring wishes it was this cool.
While the base by name and nature Focus is no place like home, the upgrades make it a modern interpretation of the 1970s Bro-ham fetish. Now the center stack’s silver trim extends to the dash’s corners, gauges get a Scionistic attitude adjustment and the smooth-operator vent registers move up market with chrome accents.
Adding a thumpin’ subwoofer and in-car SYNCronization to a respectable entertainment system may not have been a stroke of genius, but it’s an arrhythmia of extra attitude. Surprisingly enough, the extra fun includes a button-intensive, leather-wrapped tiller. It’s a much-appreciated distraction, helping the grieving process for upscale SUV escapees.
Then again, the Focus is the Explorer Incarnate. And small cars riding high in the saddle are nothing but CUVs with non-climate controlled cargo holes. Maybe that’s fine: getting stuck in bumper to bumper traffic gives new appreciation for the Focus’ tall seating position.
Ditto the fairly quiet cabin. The Focus’ up-gauged side glass is a page (silently) taken from Buick’s gospel of Quiet Tuning, while its lightweight (2700 lbs.) frame smoothes over the harshest pavement lumps, bumps and undulating waves.
Adding to the respectable cruising stance is a 2.0-liter Duratec four-pot with 140 horses. The smooth revs are class-mandatory, but the extra kick above 5000rpm is almost VTEC in delivery. Then again, there’s still a wide ratio four-speed autobox holding the revs down (and keeping mpgs up), delaying crucial downshifts and effectively dropping the Focus out of its powerband. So it comes as no surprise that the runs to 60 are in the respectable but unflattering 8.5 second range.
Here’s the real shocker: the sky-high Focus stays “tall” in the twisty stuff. Body roll won’t defy the laws of physics, but understeer doesn’t kill the fun. While the last-gen Focus (MacPherson) strutted its way to glory on the promise of fun on the cheap, the new generation’s cadence is slower but more confident. The steering is still intuitive, never lacking road feel in its reassuring helm.
That said, the Focus’ dynamics depend on buying the right model and checking the right box. And the mandatory option for anyone young enough to read this site on a regular basis, or old enough to remember the original GTI, is the “European Inspired” rear sway bar. It’s standard on the SES models, optional on the SE trim level and unavailable on the base S.
If you do without, the Focus pitches and dives in anything harder than a congestion-soaked roundabout. With the bar, the fun-to-drive factor of the last-gen Focus is somewhat present and accounted for. Next, add the optional 16” wheels and upscale Pirelli rubber. The combo– which adds reasonable grip to the roll control– is only available on the SE models.
American pistonheads are collectively crying for the Euro-spec Focus, hoping it won’t be dumbed-down. Meanwhile, the stateside Focus has enough going for it to keep Sebring references at bay. But the upgrade known as the “SE Deluxe” package is compulsory. This combo includes all the exterior sizzle, interior accommodations and those sorely needed hi-po tire and suspension bits. So what of high-content, small car depreciation? At just $395 for the package, the bullet is dodged.
No doubt: these additions to focal fortitude make the Focus work. They help keep craptastic competitors like the Sebring and Cobalt at arms length, and stop the sniggering from Civic LX and Corolla LE owners. Why Ford didn’t make this package standard on the mid-grade SE is beyond me. Live and learn?