Once more into the breach, dear friends / Or close up the segment with our heavily-rebated dead.
This is the third time I’ve encountered this generation of Ford Focus SE, having enjoyed the car on its press preview and suffered through an overheated PowerShift sedan in Florida traffic a year later. Now I return once again to this vaguely-Germanic ground, this time for a 448-mile odyssey through the Michigan winter.
Since we last met, the Focus SE has been given a thorough and comprehensive revamp, from the new global front end to what looks like an all-new interior. The price has also been favorably adjusted. Is it enough to put the aging Euro-compact back on your personal radar screen?
If you equip your 2016 Ford Focus SE the way my rental was equipped, you’ll be looking at an MSRP of $20,485 and a post-rebates price of $18,735. Why are there rebates on a brand-new car? Ask Lee Iacocca, why dontcha. Of course, you’d be a fool, or a rental company, to order the car the way this one was equipped. It has one major option: the $1,095 “PowerShift” dual-clutch automatic.
The weather I encountered on my annual trek from central Ohio to the Detroit Auto Show, which never exceeded 40 degrees F and frequently hovered in the high teens, didn’t give the PowerShift the chance to show its proverbial ass by overheating or stuttering. It’s possible those problems have also been worked out for warmer climates, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Interestingly, the way that you interact with the troubled transmission has been significantly changed in this post-facelift car. The choice of “PRDNS” has been changed to “PRNDL,” and the plus-minus rocker on the shift lever that used to offer “Tiptronic” control is now a one-way button that activates a “hill descent mode.” Why’d Ford take manual control away? Did they get tired of clueless customers poking the button by accident, or does the transmission suffer and misbehave even more when you’re calling the shots yourself? There’s a clue in the option packages, which we’ll discuss in a moment.
It’s better to save the $1,095 and get the entirely competent five-speed stick. You could spend the money on any number of better options: the $1,095 Sport Package, which gives you big wheels, ground effects, a leather wheel, and — surprise! — paddle shifters for PowerShift-equipped cars. Or you could take a $645 cold-weather package, or an $895 moonroof, or even the $95 keyless-access keypad, friend to runners and cyclists everywhere, that allows you to leave your keys in the locked car. Alternately, there’s a $1,995 luxury package that makes significant upgrades inside and out to the appearance and comfort of the Focus.
For $495, you could also select the 1-liter EcoBoost triple and a six-speed manual. That’s certainly a unique option for the segment and it might help the Focus address one area where it continues to refrain from impressing: fuel economy. Despite driving at or below the speed limit most of the time due to conditions, I only averaged 33.8 mpg for my trip, numbers easily achievable by a Camry or Accord from the next class up. It’s also possible that the Focus feels a bit more sprightly with the flat torque curve of the turbo 1.0. The 160-horsepower 2-liter direct-injection Duratec four that comes as standard equipment never feels particularly eager to do its job and it can’t motivate this sedan as well as Toyota’s Iron-Duke-esque 2.5-liter big four does the Camry.
Of course, this generation of the Focus has been a “tweener” of sorts since it was introduced, bridging the size gap between its predecessor and the Camry/Accord class that serves as default American family transportation the way the Focus has served as default European family transportation since it was called the Escort. The interior, therefore, is spacious and usable for four people and it’s in no way tiring on long trips. There’s been a lot of thought put into the way the Focus works, and it’s apparent in everything from the positioning of the primary controls to the little upswept tip on the turn signal that helps your hand find and operate it quickly without fumbling.
Ford continues to punish customers who don’t spring for the SYNC3/navigation combination by giving you a tiny LCD recessed into a sort of poverty cave above the center console. Buying navigation requires that you take the PowerShift and the upscale interior trim, for a combined price bump just south of $4,500 — so if you’re going to sensibly spec-out your SE, you’re going to be stuck with the mini-screen. At least everything works well, including the Bluetooth integration. The four selector buttons that operate many of the features are placed at the bottom of the poverty cave, which makes them slightly non-intuitive for new owners, but you’d figure it out eventually.
Thankfully, the old center-console arrangement, seemingly meant to ape the buttons on the Vertu Constellation phone that was for a brief while de rigeur for British celebrities and athletes during the pre-smartphone era, has been replaced by a sensible grouping of climate and radio controls. The A/C, long a Euro-Ford weak point, didn’t have to do very much during my trip, but the heat and defrost functions were slightly better than what I’ve come to expect from my Accord.
Wind and road noise are also better than what you’d get from a Honda or Toyota. That, combined with the artificially-heavy steering and stout but un-eager chassis, effectively defines what the Ford brand currently means in sedans: an upscale feel at the expense of agility and charm. An Accord feels like a Lotus Elan after you’ve been in the Focus for a week or so. Even an Altima or Camry would feel light on its feet by contrast. This is a serious business Euro-car that takes virtually all of its inspiration from the big German marques. The playfulness of the original Focus has been thoroughly baked out through two new platforms and a couple of facelifts. What remains is a sort of front-wheel-drive take on the Mercedes W202 C-Class.
Equipped the same way as an Accord LX or base Camry, this is about a nineteen-and-a-half-grand car with a stick-shift. That’s a $3,000 savings over the Japanese midsizers. This is what you give up: space and pace, resale value, a bit of long-term durability, and a bit of fuel economy. This is what you get: a slightly upscale feel, less road noise, and a more relaxing driving experience.
Truth be told, the Focus SE only makes sense if you send this sedan back to the dealership and build the Focus the way it was meant to be built: as a hatchback, with the upscale SE trim package, the winter package, and the navigation. When you do that, you have a fully-equipped five-speed, 2-liter hatch with everything from dual-zone climate control to reverse-parking sensors, for a post-incentives $22,275. This is enough car for almost anyone, offering all-weather capability, plenty of room, and the aforementioned vintage-Benz sense of freeway solidity. That is a great car, and our putative Continental superiors must agree as they tend to take their Foci/Focuses in that spec.
This dual-clutch sedan, on the other hand, is merely a good car. And there are plenty of good cars out there. Which is why I was happy to give it back and return to my Honda. As a post-rental bargain-basement buy, on the other hand, it makes a lot more sense. I just wish it had a conventional automatic. This is a car that specializes in quiet competence, which is a very Ford-ish virtue. It deserves a transmission that feels the same way — and so do you, dear reader!