Rental Review: 2013 Ford Focus SE Sedan

by Ur-Turn
rental review 2013 ford focus se sedan

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?

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2 of 69 comments
  • Calvinp Calvinp on Jan 03, 2014

    I just began a 3 year lease on a 2014 Focus SE hatchback automatic (non-DSG)... $1000 total at signing, $259/mo. The only extras are a moonroof and the keypad entry. It has the cloth seats. But here's the kicker: it's an 18K mile/yr lease! It was only $25 more than the standard 12K/yr lease, which is pretty amazing. My husband drives about 70 miles a day for work, so it'll work out great. We didn't want to buy a car (new or used) and rapidly depreciate it with that sort of mileage. Anyway, I think your review of the Focus and most of the comments here are generally spot-on. It's not a luxury car, but it has a very peppy engine, a firm and solid ride, and a nice interior. It doesn't feel cheap at all, and the hatchback model is quite sporty. I disagree about the LCD screens being low-end, but maybe they've been improved for 2014? I find their resolution similar to the dual LCDs in my C-Max Energi's instrument cluster, albeit with much less data. I'm not a huge fan of the trip LCD's placement above the speedometer, but it's not a dealbreaker. The hard plastic below the dash does indeed irritate our knees, so it'll take some time to get used to that. Ironically, I had the same problem with the C-Max's shiny silver plastic next to my knee, but I must've adapted my position to it, because it doesn't bother me now. As a passenger, I've definitely noticed some stutter from the Focus' engine in city traffic, and it's a bit annoying. Feeling the pavement under my feet is also mildly troublesome, but again, I'm used to the softer and higher ride of the C-Max. In my assessment, the Focus' greatest strengths are its build quality, styling, and fuel economy. The SE in dark gray looks fantastic, especially contrasted with the large tail lights. (We call it the Squashed C-Max, since our C-Max is the same color). The interior is modern, comfortable, and non-gimmicky. My husband is getting over 37 MPG on his mostly freeway commute, which involves a couple of very big hills. For a sub-$20K, non-hybrid vehicle with a spirited drivetrain, that's simply awesome. Oh, and like all current Ford models, when you close the doors, you feel like you're closing something solid, not a hollow tin can. Compared to, say, a Subaru Forester (my previous vehicle), it's like night and day.

  • Ripdecrypt Ripdecrypt on Feb 10, 2015

    I find it remarkable the negative reviews about the 2013 Ford Focus. It's now 2015 and i just bought a fairly new/used 2013 Ford Focus SE Sedan automatic with only 30K miles on it. I do experience the quirkiness of the transmission or the sudden jump of the accelerator but to be honest it doesnt really bother me. I feel i finally have a car that has some giddy up some power to it. And it feels also like i'm driving a stick again except it's automatic & i wasnt really a very good manual/stick driver thats maybe why the quirkiness doesnt bother me :) And i say it has power because compared to the other cars i have driven in the past, 96 Corolla, Mazda Protege, 96 Neon, there was NO power to them compared to the Focus. I dont understand the complaints by everyone unless you all got spoiled driving High-End Luxury A Class cars, but for me personally, i have driven this old Dodge Neon to commute from work, with a busted head gasket and fuel system. Everytime i leave for work & leave for home i have to add coolant everytime, and i couldnt go below 1/4 level of the fuel, and i couldnt drive over 70mph as the whole car shudders nor drive for over 1hr and a half as it will overheat. But yet, i managed to get used to it and get at least 5yrs out of it before retiring it under ITS OWN POWER cuz it just finally failed smog :( But now that i got this new Ford Focus, no matter what quirkiness or UNACCEPTABLE characteristics as you all say it may have, compared to what i have gone through, this car is heaven! It rocks! It's the bomb baby! ;-)

  • 2ACL Nice. KBB suggests that the price is a few grand optimistic for that mileage, but the seller isn't out of line for seeing if they can get a high side bite.
  • EBFlex Remember, the only way to solve the fake climate crisis is for the government to take more and more money.
  • EBFlex Sweet ride. Great engine and the best transmission on the market today. I test-drove one of these once and the ride was very harsh. That may have been pre-adjustable suspension though.
  • Ollicat If I were a car manufacturer, I would add those costs to my EVs
  • FreedMike It's time to play "First Amendment F*ck Around And Find Out", ladies and gents! And today's contestant is Elon Musk. (Sorry, Mr. Musk, there's a big difference between "free speech" and "consequence-free speech." )