First Drive: 2012 Ford Focus U.S.-Spec
By John Phillips of Car and Driver
Ford was keen that we drive a preproduction 2012 Focus out of the public eye. That's how we wound up near Potrero, California, separated from the Mexican border by nothing but a rocky brown hill. Well, that's not exactly true. Between us and the border also stood an armada of maybe 500 U.S. Border Patrol vehicles, enough that any illegal alien probing the landscape would knock himself unconscious on a government-issue Ford Excursion or Chevy Suburban. We represented an additional hazard to cranial health, madly hurling a navy-blue Focus back and forth along State Route 94. Our progress was surely tracked by scores of agents wielding monster binoculars, who twice halted us at hastily erected roadblocks for "curiosity checks." Which is how we became the very public spectacle that Ford so fervently hoped to avoid. Victory. (Once its cover was blown, we photographed the Focus in remote downtown L.A.).
It's understandable that the cops gawked. The new Focus is handsome. "We really worked hard to get strong lower graphics, that rising beltline, and the A-pillars slammed so flat," says executive director of design Moray Callum. He previously penned the Mazda 3 and is not only Ian's brother (he of Jaguar styling fame) but also so uncannily resembles British actor Ricky Gervais that, before you can mention it, he says, "I'm not as funny as that guy." Except he is.
Developed and tuned in Germany, the Focus will hit showrooms more or less unaltered in 120 worldwide markets. In North America, it will be available as a sedan or five-door hatch, starting at $16,995 and $18,790 respectively. The wagon stays in Europe. Sedan/hatchback dimensions are identical, save length. The hatch is 6.9 inches shorter, yet all of its interior measurements — except rear headroom — are undiminished. And the hatchback's 23.8 cubic feet of cargo space, behind the second row, easily surpasses the sedan's 13.2-cubic-foot trunk. For two adults, rear-seat comfort is good in all directions except straight ahead. Our knees scraped the front seatbacks. But there's plenty of footroom under the front seats, and the aggressively Euro-firm cushions encourage Emily Post posture all 'round.
Interior surfaces are an order of magnitude richer, easily matching what's now offered within the modern cabins of the Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra. Moreover, it speaks volumes that Ford benchmarked this car against an Audi A3, then supplied an A3 at the preview for back-to-back comparisons. That really confused the border guards.
Consider yourself free to ignore the slightly frumpy sedan. "Well, strangely, it's the sedan that achieves a 0.297 coefficient of drag," Callum points out, although he counts it as a pyrrhic victory. Ford's engineers confessed that the hatchback is torsionally stiffer than the sedan, a trait they claim lends it "sharper handling, with a slightly clearer sense of straight ahead." We thought so, too.
For now, the only engine is a 2.0-liter four with aluminum-block-and-head construction and direct injection. It produces 160 horsepower versus, say, the Cruze's 138 and the Elantra's 148. The diesel stays in Europe until gasoline here soars well past $4 per gallon. A 247-hp, turbocharged EcoBoost four will motivate the sprightly Focus ST, although that particular rocket won't break cover until spring of 2012. Ditto the Focus SFE (Super Fuel Economy), whose aero grille shutters and low-rolling-resistance tires will help achieve 40 mpg, or so Ford claims.
At the rear, there's an independent multilink suspension, and at the front, the ABS has been tricked to serve as a limited-slip diff. On gyrating Route 94, the Focus offered gratifyingly precise turn-in and steady path control. Just as Ford promised, the damping rates felt similar to the A3's, lending the car an agile, button-downed, purposeful persona. Note, however, that we sampled only the Titanium handling package ($595), with its heftier bars, springs, and 18-inch rubber.
Too bad the Focus's steering doesn't more faithfully replicate the A3's. As is true with many manufacturers, Ford is still coming to grips with electrically assisted steering, "endlessly mixing and matching 250 programmable parameters," as one engineer somewhat wearily put it. The steering is adequately weighted and satisfactorily accurate — with a column adjustment for reach and rake — but there's a steady whiff of artificiality about it, not to mention a quickness just off-center that may pester persnickety pilots.
A manual five-speed is available, although not on the most desirable Titanium hatchback ($23,490). The stick shift that we briefly sampled — with short, accurate throws — was abetted by a light clutch with predictable takeup. It made for an acceptably engaging driving experience, although the shifter isn't as sorted as, say, the Honda Civic's.
Amazingly, the only automatic is an expensive, dry dual-clutch six-speed. Ford predicts 95 percent of buyers will opt for this box, so we're happy to report that it is simply terrific, grabbing gears with disciplined seamlessness and right-now urgency, fouled only by some lazy part-throttle upshifts to sixth. Too bad the self-shifting function is largely spoiled by a minuscule up/down gear-toggling switch affixed leech-like to the gear lever's neck. Genuine paddles — or a separate fore/aft gate — should be mandatory with any dual-clutch transmission.
Road- and airborne disturbances have been hushed to levels no one expected or demanded in this segment. The Focus easily matches or exceeds the NVH levels we detected in the new Cruze and Elantra. The 2.0-liter engine, in particular, is notably subdued, even as it whirs into 5000-rpm territory. What's more, this car's new platform, shared with the C-Max minivan, feels like something Lexus might have carved from a boron-steel billet.
Worldwide, one in four cars hails from this scratch-your-eyes-out C-segment, and boredom has traditionally been the genus's currency. But the winds, they're a-changin'. Among the classiest of C-classers are the Mazda 3, the stylistically striking Elantra, the taut little Cruze, and — we hope — the soon-to-be-refurbished Civic. As of now, the Focus easily earns a spot on that grid, up toward pole position.
Since the Focus's global launch in 1998, more than 10 million have been peddled, mostly nearly invisible, fading into anonymity. That stigma should abate, now that Ford has cracked the "C code" by adding content, capability, and character. All that remains is for someone to notice. The border guards sure did.
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