O Brave New World, that has such automobiles in it! Welcome to the twenty-seven-thousand-dollar, mainstream-brand, non-specialty-model compact car. Open the door. All but the most perversely sybaritic will find their list of requirements fulfilled. A direct-injection engine teams with a twin-clutch transmission to deliver up to forty miles per gallon. We grip a steering wheel with brash aluminum trim and a half-dozen complex controls. The instrument panel has an LCD screen which surpasses the optional hardware in cars like the Audi A5, while the center stack has better resolution than your netbook. Everything you can see or touch feels ready to challenge your neighbor’s G35 or 328i for perceived quality.
The Ford Focus Titanium is, theoretically, the direct descendant of the 1981 Ford Escort “world car”, but on the road it feels much more closely related to the old Nissan Primera, known to us as the Infiniti G20. Size, power-to-weight-ratio, steering response… only the mandatory high beltline and chunky A-pillar of modern automobiles spoil the illusion. If you are truly a fan of “European-style” motoring, you can quit reading this review and go order a Focus Titanium five-door hatch right now. It’s everything you’ve wanted, and you will simply adore the day it darts around near-luxury barges like the Lexus ES350 while beating them on style, features, fuel economy, and price.
The rest of us are unlikely to buy any twenty-seven-grand compact, particularly one that has a domestic nameplate bolted to its nose. What happens when you cut ten thousand dollars’ worth of content out of the car, swap the hipster-cred five-door for the people-will-actually-buy-it four-door, and leave the dual-clutch transmission behind in favor of a plain manual transmission? Let’s find out.
Matthew 20:16 tells us that “the last shall be first”. A missed connecting flight put me dead last on the ground at the Ford preview event in Los Angeles last week, but I was richly rewarded for my dilatory arrival in a few different ways. First, I missed a bus trip with the socially awkward penguins of the blogger media — and I wouldn’t say I was “missing” that, Bob. Secondly, because I got to the start of the press drive after everyone else had left, I had no “media partner” with whom to swap seats. Instead, I got twice the drive time everybody else did, and with stalwart Ford engineers in the passenger seat instead of easily-terrified journos. Finally, I had the good fortune to arrive just as an unwanted five-speed base “SE” sedan did, which meant I would have a chance to drive Ford’s little wondercar in what could be its least-convincing configuration. Off we go.
Ten miles into the drive, heading for Topanga Canyon Boulevard, and I’m thinking about a Corolla. Not the current Corolla, mind you: that thing’s a God-damned disaster. I’m remembering the 1992 car, the “little LS400”, the Corolla that was assembled to obsessive levels of precision and rolled down the road like it cost twice the number on the window sticker. That was a great car, and so is this new Focus. It’s as quiet as it needs to be and there is precision in the machine. It’s recognizably German from the driver’s seat the same way the Cruze is recognizably Korean from across the street, and it has the same sense of dignified poverty one used to find in a 318i.
Much was made in the media presentation about the “torque vectoring” system which, like Volkswagen’s ASR and other similar setups, uses the brakes to simulate the action of a limited-slip differential. On corner exit, I found that it was too easily confused, leading to a wig-wag as the computer tossed power back and forth between the front wheels. There’s no substitute for a true limited-slip differential, and “torque vectoring” is no exception. To be fair, however, I was pretty far up the grip ladder when experiencing this phenomenon, and I couldn’t duplicate it in the second Focus I drove later on in the day.
The rest of the drivetrain, however, is just peachy. The transmission has just five forward gears instead of the fashionable six, but it works well with the two-liter Duratec, now turning out 160 horsepower. I found myself shifting five hundred revs short of the mechanical redline just to keep the engine boiling down the very tight switchbacks in our test road. In terms of outright pace, I’m not sure this car is any faster than the 2009 Focus SES Sport five-speed I drove around Autobahn Country Club for two days a couple years back; the extra power and wider torque band are absorbed by the ten-percent weight gain between the old and new models. At least the Focus is still substantially lighter than the Cruze.
What else is there to say about this affordable SE model? The seats are solid and supportive, the air-conditioner doesn’t absolutely soak power from the engine when it’s running, and you can get away with a little bit of left-foot braking before the ECU cuts throttle on you. I didn’t experience any brake fade, but I was deliberately preserving them most of the time since the penalty for boiled fluid while driving down a canyon road can be nontrivial.
A hundred or so miles later, I arrived at the “car change” area just as most of my colleagues, who started an hour or so ahead of me, were leaving. It must be nice to never be in a hurry when you’re driving, is all I can say. Time to upgrade to the aforementioned Focus Titanium five-door with the PowerShift gearbox.
The myFordTouch system is so complex, and so frequently updated in these early stages of its deployment to the public, that I’ve yet to drive two cars which operated identically in terms of response and available features. This one was pretty quick to perform the requested tasks, but it also took fifty-three minutes to index my 13,165-song iPod Classic. Not to worry; you can browse the iPod from the moment you plug it in, you just can’t talk to it until that indexing is complete. As a system, myFordTouch is very far from perfect, but it’s so far ahead of anything else available that bitching about response time or the fact that it understands “Vladimir Ashkenazy” but stumbles over “Renee Fleming” is simply beyond the point. Not only is this the undoubted future of in-car electronics, it’s also upgradeable over time, so today’s problems may eventually be as irrelevant as the old “Ping Of Death” is to Windows 7 users.
The PowerShift gearbox isn’t quite as futuristic, since Volkswagen beat Ford to the punch by a few years on offering a twin-clutcher in this class, but since both GM and Hyundai backed away from offering anything but a fluid-pumper in their new compacts, it still qualifies as a “bold move”. There are three basic ways to operate it:
- Leave it in “D”. This is probably the best idea.
- Select “S” and it will hold its gear down hills and on entry to corners where you are using the brake. If you’re in a hurry, it might be worthwhile, but don’t be “that guy” who drives around in “S” all time, okay?
- Select “S” and then use the up-down button on the shift lever to change gears. This has already been the subject of much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the press. To listen to Dan Edmunds et al, you would think that they are only a set of paddle shifters away from winning a race, and that’s only true if “set of paddle shifters” is a magic code phrase for “talent, coordination, and ten years of uninterrupted driving instruction”. Nope, I think Ford has it right this time. The target market for this car doesn’t want to bother with paddles and there’s a Focus ST coming to serve the go-fast guys.
Those of you who are interested in a bit of the old maximum street speed would be well-advised to buy a Cg-Lock and two-pedal your way down fast roads. The PowerShift will reliably grab the lower gear when presented with a throttle roll on corner exit and it does it quick-like. After about twenty minutes of self-shifting I decided to let the transmission do its job and our over-the-road pace didn’t suffer one bit.
Almost any small car looks good on California back roads, but the Focus Titanium puts enough rubber on the road for the actual cornering limits to be pretty high. More importantly, it’s a fundamentally stable platform. Rebound damping is adequate — and that is almost never the case in cars without an explicit sporting intent. Dry-road ABS engagement is predictable; this is a good car in which to learn the art of brake modulation. If you cannot average sixty or seventy miles per hour down a twisty road in the Focus, you aren’t trying very hard.
I will go to my grave thinking the 2008 Focus was the right car at the right time, regardless of what the mouth-breathers think. It was affordable, it was well-made in a way that the previous version was not, and it has provided dependable service for a few hundred thousand customers. There simply wasn’t a market for $27,000 Ford compacts then. There may not be one now, either. You can buy a pretty decent V-6 Fusion for that kind of money, and most Americans are likely to do just that.
With this new Focus, and the arrival of the premium-priced Fiesta, Ford’s clearly decided to stop competing on price in this end of the market. It’s probably a smart move; a German-engineered, Michigan-made car simply can’t fight a Monroney battle with Korean compacts assembled using Korean or non-UAW Southern labor. If anybody buys this new Focus, it won’t be because it’s a cheap car. Rather, they’ll buy because it’s good. Is it good? Yes. Right now, it’s the best compact car you can buy here, no matter which model you choose.