D. Alexander is back with another reader review. If you’d like to be where he is — and I don’t mean flexing your maxed-out biceps in the company of a bunch of attractive people, as he’s always doing on Facebook, but rather on these hallowed pages — let me know! — JB
Nothing makes you appreciate your own car quite like giving it up for a day. I recently put about a hundred miles on a 2013 Ford Focus SE sedan. Since my daily is a late-model Nissan Maxima, the gilded Altima that I once reviewed for this site, that’s my (unfair) benchmark for this review.
Powertrains and handling tend to blow my skirt up, but let’s start with the interior.
I’m very much in the mold of ‘give me good seats or get off my lawn.’ Ford scores points here: not too wide, exceptional lumbar support, and attractive leather. A two-hour stint behind the wheel left my persnickety back much as it started. Cushioning is up to Volvo’s standard, though for lack of vertical lift, some folks might find the seats too low. I was more enamored with the steering wheel shift, a criminally underequipped feature that keeps the long-legged and short-armed among us from fiddling with the seatback every two miles.
Passengers too slow to claim the front won’t be left with a penalty box. I’m six feet and change with 50 Cent’s driving posture. Setting the driver’s side to preference imposes on rear seat room, so I was surprised to discover that I could actually fit behind myself. The headliner bopped me getting in and my knees bumped into the side of the front seat, but I had an inch to spare when they were centered in the seatback.
The rest of the interior reminds me of a Sonata in style and quality of execution: consistent, avant-garde, and with no egregiously cheap pieces. Mash the dash (something only a car reviewer or crash-launched occupant would do) and soft foam pushes back. I was disappointed only by the hard plastic on either side of the driver’s footwell, because I splay my legs out in seats without side bolsters. The knee contact points became unpleasant after an hour or so.
This particular Focus was, despite the stitched leather (or faux-stitched; who knows, it looks real), just one notch above the base model. No navigation. No fancy electronics. I was all primed to jump on the bandwagon lambasting the MyFord Touch system that this car lacks. Instead, I’ll just complain about the two LCDs it does have. Both are miniature and cut-rate, with the contrast ratio of my decade-old Garmin. It’s odd to me that manufacturers save money on parts you rubberneck and spend it on the feel of surfaces you never touch. Likewise the indifferent UI programming: the driver information interface is awful. Once I lost the mileage readout screen, it took three minutes of button-pushing on the side of the road to find it again. The base stereo is comparatively goofproof and compensates for lackluster sound by having both USB and Aux inputs.
Onward to the fun part: how the Focus drives.
No, wait. Let’s talk about how it idles. This thing shimmies like a big-block Corvette with cams from a powerboat. I couldn’t think why; the transmission isn’t even in gear at a stop, so the engine couldn’t have been lugging. A very strange first impression for a car with 24,000 miles. It was about 45F outside when I started it; maybe that contributed? It was still shaking away after five minutes. Later that trip, either it stopped or I tuned it out.
That quirk aside, this engine has to be my new favorite naturally-aspirated four in this price class, and among the few that actually improves as it winds up. While soft in the low range, it’s a turbine from 4K to redline with a rather beastly power curve. I don’t say that lightly coming from a car with an oversized six. I’m sure the temperature and the modest passenger load contributed, but on the freeway, the Focus put me on cop-watch in a hurry.
And yet, no engine is an island. The question mark for this test was Ford’s dual-clutch transmission. I wasn’t even sure this model had one until I looked it up. If you drive on autopilot, it’s butter. Instant and smooth shifts, engineered (and rather fast) creep from a stop, and endless coasting free of engine-braking. The only manual-esque attribute is a bit of drivetrain judder if you hold a gear at high RPM at a constant speed. Otherwise, it’s not far removed from a CVT or anything else.
The provisos come when you pretend to be Ken Block. ‘Drive’ mode doesn’t like to downshift, so flooring the fast pedal yields a long pull from 2.5K while you count Mississippi’s until the engine wakes up. Rarely do you find that sweet high range. ‘Sport’ mode will downshift, but seems to lock out sixth gear and keeps the revs on boil, so you’re buggered on efficiency. Choosing your own gears with the rocker on the stick (the sole method because the flappy paddles only adjust the phone controls) is just barely useful for aggressive driving. There’s over a second of lag before each change. Whatever voodoo Mitsubishi used to sportify the Evo’s dual-clutch box is totally absent here. This one’s running on scotch and valium, chased with lethargic throttle response and a lazy power cut between gears. Why hurry? You look tired. Rest yourself.
And what of the handling? She’ll move, but she doesn’t care to. The suspension is stiffer than I would have expected for this sort of car, transmitting heaps of road texture no matter the speed. Which is odd. Because that tune is coupled with the steering character of an Accord sedan. The wheel is dead and heavy on-center, so the car tracks a highway lane like a luge course, but there’s no motivation to turn. Vibration through the steering column is constant. Steering feel, not so much, particularly as the lateral forces rise. There’s no hard ‘limit’ with this SE trim, just a wishy-washy mess as traction gives up. Blame stock tires with the sidewall stiffness of a bouncy castle.
The chassis is otherwise unflappable. In high-G turns, the car takes a smooth and controlled set. No drama at all with fast transitions: a round of applause for the damping, please. Likewise the brakes. ABS engagement was immediate over sequential stops. For the purpose of avoiding that thing in the road, this is a top-drawer performance. And lest I forget running costs, economy was another high mark. I was doing pedal-to-firewall acceleration between freeway runs and constantly twiddling with Sport mode and manual shifts. Speeds between 40 and 70, I pretty much ignored. The ‘average mileage’ readout (if there was a live readout, I couldn’t find it) at the conclusion of this hooliganism reported 27 MPG. I’ll bet I could crack forty with steady-state driving near the speed limit.
Really then, a strong effort in aggregate from Ford. I think this car is good value for money. But there’s a problem. I found it a touch uncomfortable at high speeds. Relative to the Maxima, and despite the placid steering, the Focus seems like it’s going 20 MPH faster than it is. Road and wind noise are intrusive and weirdly variable above fifty or so. That and the stiff ride pushed my pulse ten or fifteen ticks higher than usual. When I’m blasting Kenny G on a commute and striving not to become road gristle between semi-trailers, a car that can emulate the tranquility of a koi pond is worth a premium. This one doesn’t quite qualify.
Put another way, despite a fine interior and confident underpinnings, the Focus still feels like a creature of its market segment. And it really doesn’t have to. I wonder about these half-hearted attempts at ‘sport’ with mainstream sedans. Save for the engine, there’s nothing about this car that encourages spirited driving, so why compromise the ride? And why not reserve a few more pounds for sound insulation? I can see why Chevrolet went another direction with the Cruze. But then, if you looked far back enough in my family tree you’d probably find that I’m somehow related to a ’95 Buick. So what do I know?