Yes, this is a $27,340 Ford Focus. And nav would add another $795. How could a Ford Focus possibly be worth this much? Read on.
As with the smaller Fiesta, there’s a whole lot going on in the exterior design of the 2012 Ford Focus. But all of the curves and creases manage to come together to form a coherent whole the looks both upscale and sporty—especially in the top Titanium trim with the $595 18-inch alloys and $495 “yellow blaze metallic tri-coat” paint. Some would prefer cleaner, simpler lines, but among the current crop of compacts this one looks the best to my eyes. Unlike many complicated designs, it shouldn’t age badly, as the proportions are good and none of the many details seems excessive or extraneous. (The large tail lights come closest to crossing this line.)
Inside the Focus, aesthetic complexity continues, and not quite as successfully as with the exterior. The design struggles to successfully combine both gunmetal and piano black trim, chrome highlights, contrasting stitching on the seats, and a prominent multicolored display. Like the exterior, the interior looks both upscale and aggressively sporty. In the upper trim levels materials and construction are as good as they get in this segment, and far, far ahead of those in the new Honda Civic. But on repetitive commutes or long drives it can help for an interior to be calming. This one is always sharply dressed for a night on the town. It’s not a place to kick back and relax.
Reviews of Ford’s latest-and-greatest controls have been mixed, at best. The touchscreen display looks fantastic—competitors’ control systems appear dated in comparison—and it’s fun to play with. But it isn’t easy to operate while driving. A very good voice control system reduces the need to use the touchscreen, but this isn’t a valid excuse. Luckily, well-designed knobs and buttons are provided for the HVAC controls and heated seats. There’s a physical power control for the audio system, but I couldn’t initially find it—it’s the small button beneath the left side of the CD slot.
As in the new Honda Civic, though for different reasons, the instrument panel is surprisingly tall. I had to crank the drivers seat up to comfortably see over it. Thankfully, the windshield isn’t laid back as far as some, and the pillars flanking it aren’t overly thick. Spotter mirrors aid rearward visibility; a good thing, as the rear deck is high. The front seats are outstanding, with both abundant padding for comfort and large, firm bolsters for lateral support. Perhaps Ford learned a thing or two from Volvo?
A disadvantage of the large front seats: there’s barely enough room behind them for the average adult. This could be a deal killer for some. A shame, as the rear seat is mounted high off the floor—for good thigh support and forward visibility—and nicely shaped. The trunk is a little larger than the class average, though conventional hinges do cut into the usable space.
Fire up the four and get going, and the initial impression is of a heavy, well-insulated car. As speed climbs the car feels lighter and more compact, but never quite tossable. Even with the Titanium’s sport suspension and the optional ultra-low-profile high performance tires ride quality is very good, only getting a touch abrupt over some minor bumps. The quantity and quality of the noise that enters the cabin suggest a premium car. The new Focus sounds and feels like money.
Even optioned for best performance, the handling of the new Focus isn’t overtly sporty. Like some high-end European sedans the new Focus feels a bit lazy in casual driving, but rises to the occasion on a challenging road. The 235/40WR18 Michelin Pilot Sport 3 summer treads that attend the optional 18-inch wheels provide a ton of grip, and the well-damped chassis has composure to spare. Perhaps due to the sport suspension there’s none of the on-center squishiness that afflicts the Fiesta. The steering feels quick and well-weighted around town—but borders on twitchy at highway speeds. As is almost always the case, feedback through the thick, heavily-padded rim could be better. For a direct, delicate feel and nuanced feedback, a Mazda3 remains the way to go. Though certainly fun to drive, the Focus Titanium is a luxury sedan first and a sport sedan second.
The powertrain could be the car’s weakest link. The direct-injected 2.0-liter four kicks out a very respectable 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm, but it has to contend with over 3,000 pounds of curb weight. Consequently, while acceleration is easily adequate, it’s short of thrilling. The sound of the engine is also a bit out of line with the rest of the car. Though not unpleasant, and largely suppressed, the high-pitched whir is clearly that of a smallish four, and would seem more appropriate is a less luxurious, lighter-feeling car.
While a five-speed manual is offered in the lower trim levels, a six-speed dual-dry-clutch automated manual is mandatory with the SEL and Titanium. This transmission didn’t behave well when I sampled it in a Fiesta, with overly frequent, sometimes clunky shifts. This time around Ford’s new box behaved much better, more or less mimicking a conventional automatic. What it didn’t do: contribute to a sporty driving experience with lightning quick, firm shifts the way Volkswagen’s dual-wet-clutch DSG does. Unlike in the Fiesta, it is at least possible to manually select gears via a rocker switch on the shift knob. While this should do for grades and such, shifting via the lever would be better and paddles flanking the steering wheel would be ideal.
With the manually-shiftable dual-clutch transmission, the Focus earns EPA ratings of 27 city and 37 highway, very good numbers for such a well-equipped, rock-solid, reasonably quick sedan. The Hyundai Elantra does a couple mpg better, but it has a less refined, less granitic feel to it. The Focus weighs a couple hundred pounds more, and this has benefits as well as costs.
Reliability could be an issue. Based on responses to TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey, the smaller Ford Fiesta has gotten off to a rocky start. Many of the reported repairs involved a poorly functioning electrical ground, because of which the car would not start or the transmission would not go into gear. In a few cases the dual-clutch transmission shared with the Focus suffered a major failure. Hopefully Ford spent more time working the bugs out of the 2012 Focus.
Then, of course, there’s the price. The sticker only tops $27,000 if you get the top-level Titanium trim and load it up with options—many of which are not even available on competitors. For the features included and the car’s premium look and feel, the price isn’t out of line. Equip the new Focus SE like the $21,255 2012 Honda Civic EX, and it lists for $21,165. The main outlier: an Elantra Limited lists for $20,700, and includes heated leather in both rows. Even after adjusting for feature differences using TrueDelta’s car price comparison tool, the Hyundai is about $1,300 less at MSRP and $700 less invoice-to-invoice (Ford dealers have larger margins to play with). The Ford’s higher price seems justified: it rides and handles better than the Hyundai, and simply looks and feels like a more expensive car.
Overall, the new Ford Focus is very impressive, with the look, feel, and features of a premium car, but also very good fuel economy. By most metrics it’s the best car in an increasingly competitive segment. The Mazda3 remains more fun to drive, and the Elantra costs a little less. But most people care more about ride than handling, and will be willing to pay a little more for the Ford’s advantages over the Hyundai. The big question mark: reliability. Time will tell. With owners’ help, TrueDelta—and TTAC—will have initial reliability stats for the new Focus in November.
Frank Cianciolo, an excellent salesperson at Avis Ford in Southfield, MI, provided the car for this review. Frank can be reached at 248-226-2555.
Michael Karesh operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.