If there is one aspect of Ford Motor Company that used to be regarded as a ‘failsafe’, writes Iain Robertson, it was its firm grip of the compact car market and the latest, ‘everyman’ version of its popular Focus model shows that it retains some traction.
Launched off the back of long-term Ford Escort successes, when Focus first appeared in 1998, its avantgarde design stance, which Ford called ‘Edge Design’, made a major impact. It was different and carried its unique style into the car’s equally avantgarde interior. Although it was considered to possess a ‘love:hate’ polarising effect, its Car of the Year status granted a year after the launch seemed to propel Ford to new registration peaks.
The Mark Two version of 2004 was a significantly softer proposition, which did not conceal its slightly larger proportions and heavier kerbweight. Designed under a new technique, known as ‘Kinetic Philosophy’, it delivered better space and enhanced dynamics. It was replaced seven years later by the Mark Three Focus, for which Ford’s interior stylists created the ‘Third Age Suit’, which was supposed to represent the more elderly class of driver, with its padding and restricted limb movements. Highly ingenious, the individuals wearing the special clobber helped Ford to maximise on outward vision, access and egress, as well as comfort levels overall, which would be to the benefit of drivers of all ages.
Now four generations in and Ford has revitalised its range offering with a comprehensive and highly judicious rethink of its big-selling Focus range. Its aim from the outset has been to provide a benchmark, by which all of its rivals would be judged. This is a fickle market sector remember, bolstered by company car registrations, which outlines the mighty task undertaken by the company, which has sought to retain its consistent Top Four position in the annual registrations’ charts.
On first acquaintance, the car looks the business, even though it does appear to have dipped into Mazda’s styling box for its even more elongated profile. Whereas the original Focus was all intersecting lines and edginess, the latest iteration is significantly more organic and none the worse for the transformation. In fact, it is a very handsome car. From the first pull on the driver’s door handle (touch the upper edge, with key in pocket, and it unlocks), to electrically adjusting the driver’s seat (the front passenger’s chair is manual) and settling into the ‘soft-touch’ and high quality cabin, the Focus feels both roomy and delightfully airy.
Crystal-clear instruments confront the driver, with the dashboard moulding dominated by a top-of-centre-stack touchscreen. It is incredibly neat and very easy to use and familiarise. The driving position is no less than superb and the view outwards is exemplary, underscoring the intense effort expended by Ford’s styling teams over the past 20 years. Yet, it is the little details that enhance the package, such as the flock-lined door pockets, which means that items do not rattle annoyingly, as they would in an unlined pocket; the illuminated and adjustable drinks-holders that are easier to access on the move nocturnally; and the head-up display projecting key information onto the lower portion of the heated windscreen. Ford did its sums right for this variant.
Yet, while you take in its vertiginous, Titanium X price tag (starting at a lofty £22,820, with the modestly-loaded test car tipping the scales in the wrong direction at around £25,500), to discover that, below the mid-line, the plastics take a dip into Dacia’s pond, which is seriously budget-marketed, you start to ask questions about value-for-money. The back seat of the new Focus is certainly accommodating, with space for a couple of six-footers at least, as is the boot (which can be extended using the 60:40-split backrests), which justifies the model’s longer wheelbase.
Riding firmly on its suspension, the handling envelope is as good as any previous Focus, even though this model lacks the multilink rear suspension of speedier 1.5-litre versions, relying on a simpler torsion-beam design instead. The steering is delightful, providing crisp responses and accuracy, while grip levels of the chassis are high. The six-speed manual gearbox is as slick as they come. However, on shorter amplitude road surface ripples, the Focus’s ride quality can become disturbingly harsh, even to the point of pitching the car off the chosen line. Fortunately, the overall build quality is exemplary, so there are neither creaks, nor rattles in evidence. However, below the car’s interior midline, there is a different plastics story, already mentioned. Brittle and loose trim is not conducive to the more up-market aspirations of the new Focus and it would be only a few months into ‘ownership’ before creaks and groans would make themselves felt, which I feel is a most unfortunate decision by Ford to cost-cut, when most other aspects suggest that the new model has ‘premium’ in its sight-line. Underscoring that statement is the car’s first-rate cabin refinement.
Powered by the most-popular 123bhp version of Ford’s diminutive but punchy 1.0-litre petrol turbo-triple, depressing the throttle fully, while testing the car’s acceleration (0-60mph in 9.7s) revealed a strange, ‘three-stage’ response from the motor. Armed with a substantial 147lbs ft of torque at a lowly 1,400rpm, there is an initial surge to around 2,500rpm, followed by a reduced-response levelling-out and then a final ‘on-cam’ surge from 4,500rpm to the maximum at 6,500rpm. It feels as though the engine management system has been tailored to provide a discouragement to go faster. Yet, the issue could lie with a need to overcome the car’s kerbweight, even though its fuel return is stated as a laudable 57.6mpg (111g/km CO2). Despite a week of mixed usage, the new car seemed happy to settle at around 42mpg.
Realising that Ford wants to project a classier image for its mainstreamer, when compared with the truly excellent Ford Fiesta Active I tested just a few days ago, I would suggest that the latter car is also the better one. Ford has a responsibility to its customers to maintain price equanimity with its key rivals but I fear that high depreciation matched to steeper list-pricing (and heavy dealer and fleet discounting) is not a way to strengthen its market position. New Focus is good…but, disappointingly, it is just not that good.