After a major redo last year, including new sheetmetal, a revamped cabin, the addition of a two-door coupe, and the introduction of the much ballyhooed Ford/Microsoft SYNC voice activated communications system, for 2009, the North American Focus has received just a few updates, among them the adoption of electronic stability control and a new upmarket SEL trim level that joins the existing S, SE and semi sporting SES.
1. Extensively revamped last year, stability control and SEL sedan new editions for 2009
2. First Ford product in North America to feature SYNC technology, optional in SE, standard in SES/SEL models
3. Optional four-cylinder Duratec 20E engine gets Partial Zero Emissions ratings by the California Air Resources Board – better than some hybrids.
4. Optional 5-speed manual gearbox with 16-inch wheel and tire combination has shorter ratios.
5. Two-door coupe body style, new from 2008 adds a dash of sporting flair
In North America, the Focus comes with a choice of two engines and two transmissions. The ‘regular’ 2.0-liter four-cylinder, dubbed the Duratec 20, is rated at 143 horsepower and 136 lb-ft of torque, when combined with the standard five-speed manual gearbox, or 140 hp and the same amount of twist when teamed with the four-speed automatic. In addition there’s also a 130 horsepower 2.0-liter Duratec, the 20E, that’s among the cleanest engines in its class (equipped with it, the Focus has been given a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle status by the California Air Resources Board). With the manual gearbox, both engines are rated at approximately 35 mpg highway by the Environmental Protection Agency (33 with the automatic). City driving, however, is less impressive with 24 mph in the manual and just 20 with the automatic.
Okay, but what are they really like? As four-cylinders go, the Duratec is not a bad engine – it’s fairly refined and peppy. Punch the throttle and it responds willingly, especially as the revs build. For a front drive car, torque steer is fairly muted, but hit a patch of damp or slippery pavement and it will still want to change direction on you. The five-speed manual gearbox is a pleasure to use and you can row up and down through the speeds with quickness and ease, which adds a dash of excitement, even in city driving. Shorter gearing, offered with the 16-inch wheel and tire package, makes for even faster take-offs. The clutch is also light, which, besides enabling quicker shifting for the average person, doesn’t numb your leg after three minutes of stop and go traffic. The 20E engine while down a little on grunt (10 hp and 3 ft-lbs respectively); is still far from glacial and most drivers aren’t likely to notice the power and torque deficit. Given its low emissions status, if you’ve got a bit of an environmental conscience, this is probably the one to go for, but the 143-horse unit is by no means a gas-guzzler and our personal choice when push comes to shove. The Duratec engine/automatic combo is okay, but the transmission doesn’t feel particularly well matched to the motor’s zingy character and takes away a lot of the fun factor, so best opt for the manual if you can.
Steering and handling have been a strong suite of the Focus since day one and the 2009 version feels spritely and agile on its feet. Steering is quick and responsive, with good feedback even by modern standards and far better than many cars in this class. The chassis and multi-link suspension are also eager, even when you start pushing the car hard through a corner or two. However, with the base 15-inch wheels and tires, which don’t offer a whole lot of grip, body roll is quite noticeable, a bit like some old French cars. The 16-inchers are better, but SES models, which gets 17-inch wheels and tires, are in a different league. The larger contact patch and shorter, more rigid sidewall, allows the pilot to better exploit the abilities of the chassis and suspension, inspiring a greater level of driver confidence as well as reducing body roll. Ride quality is about average for a small car, less firm than say the Mazda 3, but tauter than a lot of others, especially the Toyota Corolla, which seems to get more cushy and rice pudding like with each redesign. Still, even if your daily commute includes miles of broken pavement, the Focus won’t bruise your kidneys, even with the big wheels and tires. Braking is middle of the road and another aspect where this car is starting to show its age. Pedal feel is fine, but stopping distances are longer than some rivals, not helped by standard 8-inch rear drums. Four-channel ABS is a welcome feature however.
In terms of gimmicks; we’re a big fan of Sirius XM satellite radio and the AM/FM CD/MP3 unit is easier to operate than some in past Fords. As for SYNC (optional in the SE and standard in the SES/SEL trim levels), it’s a good idea but still needs work. Your tester here, perhaps due to his funny accent had a tough time getting the system to correctly obey his voice commands – make sure you slur those ‘R’s - though as time goes by voice recognition and more sophisticated versions will likely address these problems.
The small car segment is one that is lagging behind in North America compared with the rest of the world, particularly Europe, but given the Focuses decade old basic design, Ford has done an excellent job in keeping the car relevant. It’s fun to drive, gets decent fuel economy and is very competitively priced. The two-door coupe also adds a certain chic factor that many small cars in this part of the world decidedly lack.
Ageing basic design