It would appear that your humble author has become quite the compact-car reviewer lately, with drives of the 2012 Sentra, 2013 Sentra, Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3s (not reviewed at TTAC), Hyundai Elantra, and Chevy Cruze under my Allen-Edmonds belt. I’ve also driven the current Focus, proclaiming it as the best compact car available, but that was more than two years ago. Time to renew my acquaintance with the Focus, then.
The Focus SE I drove last time was a base-equipment, manual-transmission model, but the car I chose from the Alamo line up at the Orlando airport was an optioned-up double-clutcher. As we’ll see, that makes more than a little difference.
With just 8600 miles showing on the odometer, my white Focus SE (replicated through Ford’s build-your-own system in the above photo because my Droid4 didn’t survive the trip to Malaysia I took just prior to arriving in Orlando) still looked and smelled new. The PowerShift transmission, on the other hand, already felt tired. The spectacle of an overturned Ford Explorer and its four astoundingly overweight previous occupants created an hour-long traffic jam between MCO and DisneyWorld, giving the Focus plenty of chances to demonstrate the shuddering stutter with which it moved forward a few feet at a time. The ninety-four degree heat was just within the capability of the Ford’s A/C system to handle, but it did seem to be a bit too much for the PowerShift.
It’s a habit of mine while sitting in a jam to use both feet to advance the car through traffic. My Town Car works very well with that, as do most torque-converter automatics. The Focus, on the other hand, reacts to pressure on both pedals, however mild, with a variety of odd stalling-esque behaviors. The car only really works if you operate the brake and accelerator separately and deliberately. It’s easier than driving a true stick-shift car in stop-and-go conditions, but the Focus will grind on any mechanically sympathetic nerve you possess as it clutches in and out. Once past the Explorer and the gawkers, it took a few shifts before the Focus smoothed back out.
There are paddles mounted to the Ford’s four-spoke wheel, but they don’t operate the PowerShift’s manual function. Instead, they control the cruise control and radio. If you want to shift the Focus yourself, you’ll need to operate a rocker button on the console shifter. Keep in mind, however, that you’re simply making a request by doing so, one that the car might or might not honor. This isn’t a GT-R, banging instant shifts that rock the cabin and jump the tach; it’s a computer simulation of a slushbox, stretching the shift out over the better part of a second.
What this Focus really needs is the six-speed manual from the Focus ST; it’s a decent shift and there’s something a little unnecessarily cheap about putting a five-speed in a compact car that sells at the Ford’s stout MSRP. In theory, the payoff of the PowerShift is increased economy, but the Focus never self-reported anything above a 33.5mpg average, even during a hundred-mile freeway cruise. A little bopping around Clearwater Beach saw that average drop to 29mpg. The competition produces better fuel-economy numbers with six-speed torque-converter automatics. Hell, the old Corolla did better during my time with the car, using a four-speed automatic.
So. The Focus SE doesn’t have a great transmission and it doesn’t get class-competitive fuel economy in my real-world use. What does it have going for it? Quite a bit, actually. It’s quiet on the road, and it both steers and rides well. The control interfaces all look and feel high-quality. Steering feel is extremely light but it’s precise. The seats are good and there’s little evidence of cost-cutting. Which is good, because there’s little evidence of cost-cutting on the window sticker, either.
The SE model of the Focus comes with a small screen SYNC system that probably doesn’t cost much less to make than the MyFordTouch screen fitted to the Titanium but certainly offers less functionality and aesthetic appeal. The equipment package fitted to my rental SE closes more than half of the price gap to the Titanium. You’d be best served by going the rest of the way, because the $22,995 Titanium sedan feels like it’s worth the money and this $21,730 SE sedan doesn’t. This is particularly true if you really want the PowerShift, because it’s a cost option on the SE and a free one on the Titanium.
The matter of the diabolical double-clutcher aside, I continue to prefer the Focus to the competitors in the segment. Inside and out, it looks and feels more expensive than the competition. It’s the most “Euro” of the available choices, even when those choices include the Mexican-built VW Jetta. Although I got my seat time in the Focus through a rental agency, it’s the least rental-feeling car you can buy for this kind of money. It really only falls down on fuel economy and sticker price.
The problem is that fuel economy and sticker price are pretty much the main drivers in this segment. If you don’t care about either, you can buy a Camry SE for a couple thousand bucks more and, ironically, enjoy very similar real-world economy along with more power and space. I’d suspect the market is creating a gap in real-world transaction prices, and sure enough TrueCar thinks that the discount on the Camry should be 12.79% compared to the 17.55% on the Focus. The Honda Civic is only being discounted nine percent according to the same site, which is a further data point to consider.
If you can get a Focus SE at a price with which you can live, it’s worth considering, but I’d prefer it with a stick shift. Not for the usual purist/enthusiast reasons, but just because the PowerShift continues to strike me as being a trifle delicate in real-world use. Great car, not-so-great automatic transmission. Hey, it’s a formula that worked for Acura, right?