2012 Ford Focus Review

Perhaps the best reason yet to switch from a mid-size to a compact

2012 Ford Focus Review

Just north of Los Angeles there’s no shortage of great roads, from Topanga to Mulholland, and Latigo Canyon to Kanan Dume. And we’re driving them all; fast at first, but then at a more leisurely pace, enjoying the scenic views in an attempt to keep the codriver’s lunch in his stomach and off what might very well be the best looking interior in the compact class.

FAST FACTS

1. All new for 2012, the Focus is now powered by a direct-injection 2.0L 4-cylinder that makes 160-hp and 146 lb-ft of torque.

2. Gone is the coupe for 2012, replaced by a more functional hatchback model.

3. No official fuel economy numbers have been released, but Ford is targeting 40-mpg on the highway.

4. Coming soon, Ford will deliver a high-performance ST model with a 247-hp EcoBoost turbocharged 4-cylinder engine.

5. Pricing ranges from $16,270 to $22,270 for the sedan and $18,065 to $22,765 for the 5-door.

The change of pace is actually ideal. Sure we’d prefer to hammer the throttle of this direct-injection 2.0-liter 4-cylinder all afternoon, but that’s not what most folks who purchase a new Ford Focus will do. No, they’ll likely sit in traffic much of the time – something we also get to experience plenty of during our first stint behind the wheel of Ford’s highly anticipated new compact. This is LA after all.

MYFORD TOUCH GIVES LUXURY FEEL TO THIS COMPACT CAR

During gridlock we’re able to fiddle with the new MyFord Touch system. Recently panned by Consumer Reports for being too distracting, operating the 8-inch touch screen takes a little getting used to, although with color-coded sections for everything from audio to climate, it doesn’t take long. Being coached though the system by a Ford rep on how to call up a navigation route from the favorites, we’re one step ahead at every command. Better yet, most basic adjustments for things like radio presets and temperature controls can be selected using the five-way toggle switches on the steering wheel.

Of note, Ford has upgraded the material and feel of these components for the Focus, a much needed change after using the same chintzy pieces from the Fiesta on the new Explorer.

Making vehicle controls that much more efficient, we have less of a use than ever for the SYNC voice commands. Almost ready to completely write the system off, one Ford engineer informs us that at a more advanced level it really can make life easier, for example, using voice controls while keeping the Nav screen up so you don’t get lost.

Most customers won’t even begin to fully utilize the system, but Ford is seeing big jumps in sales due to the ‘perceived value’ of such technology. And it’s easy to see why with the advanced telematics system and colorful LCD screens making you think this car costs $10,000 more.

FIRST-RATE INTERIOR WITH EXTENSIVE OPTIONS LIST

A massive step forward from the previous generation Focus, the seats have been upgraded, the dash and gauges redesigned, some high-quality trim installed and a reasonably thick steering wheel sits comfortably in your hands. It’s refreshing to see an all new dash design with new components, rather than just the same old chunky buttons Ford has been using on everything from the Taurus to the Mustang for several years now.

Add in the optional MyFord Touch system, 8-inch LCD screen and 10-speaker Sony audio system (available on the $20,270 SEL trim level and standard on the $22,270 Titanium) and the entire dynamic of the interior is changed. Looking straight ahead at the dash it would be easy to think this was a true luxury car – although the rather low-grade leather on the seats (expected in the compact class) give away the car’s more humble origins.

Still, in an effort to attract mid-size buyers down to the compact segment, the Focus is available with a very long list of premium features and options, including everything from keyless access with a push-button ignition, an auto-dimming rearview mirror, rear view camera, rain-sensing wipers, power and heated seats, Ford’s easy-to-use Active Park Assist self-parking system and even the ability to turn the car into a WiFi hotspot. Either optional or standard on higher trim levels, you won’t get any of this for under $20,000.

If you’re wants are more basic, Ford will sell you an entry level S trim sedan for $16,270 – roughly $400 less than the base price of last year’s model.

LARGER CAR, MORE COMFORTABLE RIDE, BUT WHERE DID ALL THE SPACE GO?

Along with that vastly improved interior, the 2012 Focus does deliver a more premium drive, thanks to upgraded sound deadening, not to mention an overall size that has grown. With an extra 1.5-inches wheel to wheel and a track that’s roughly 3-inches wider up front and 2-inches wider in the back, it just feels larger and more solid on the road. The sedan is 3-inches longer end to end, although the hatch is actually 4-inches shorter. Either way, moving those wheels further apart makes for a much improved highway cruiser.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a mystery as to where all that added space went once you get inside the car. True, rear hip room has grown by 4-inches, but rear legroom is actually down 3-inches, making it one of the most cramped back seats in the segment.

On the sedan, the increased size isn’t translated into added cargo room either with the sedan’s trunk space actually shrinking slightly to 13.2 cubic feet. The 5-door hatchback does, however, offer generous space with a huge 23.8 cu-ft behind the rear seats and a total of 44.8 cu-ft with the 2nd row folded.

That extra size is noticeable on those canyon roads, with this compact pushing the boundaries of the segment. It doesn’t feel large from a handling perspective, it’s just that you can’t help but notice the added width on tighter sections of blacktop.

MORE FUN THAN MOST

As a compact, it’s quite nimble – especially when fully optioned out with 18-inch wheels and some impressive (and expensive) Michelin Pilot Sport summer tires. Whereas Chevy’s new Cruze targets the Corolla in terms of a refined ride, the Focus adds in a bit of flare. It still doesn’t beg to be driven like the Civic does, nor is it as engaging as the Mazda3, but its definitely sitting near the top of the segment when it comes to the fun behind the wheel factor.

Helping to deliver that feeling is an accurate and responsive electric power steering system, a fully independent suspension (rare in the compact class), not to mention what Ford calls Torque Vectoring Control. Essentially it’s an electronic limited slip differential, using the standard stability control system to add brake to the inside wheel in a turn to reduce wheel slip and deliver maximum traction. And with how easy it is to over-work the tires on a front-wheel drive car, it’s much appreciated. Other automakers do offer similar systems, but only on pricy performance models.

NEW TRANSMISSION SAVES FUEL, BUT AT WHAT COST?

Another huge bonus, and one that also helps deliver a 40-mpg highway rating is a dual-clutch automatic transmission. The same hardware debuted on the Fiesta, but at the time drivers weren’t able to shift gears themselves – like in the VW Golf. That has changed with a new SelectShift feature, however, you’ll have to step up to a $20,270 SEL model to get it. And the big disappointment is that rather than paddle shifters or a moveable gearshift, there are tiny buttons on the side of the gear lever that are awkward to reach.

The Focus does suffer from an all-too-common trait of modern cars – an unwillingness to downshift. If you didn’t opt for the SelectShift transmission, or you’re just not in to swapping though the gears, Ford’s 6-speed is almost entirely reluctant to switch down for more usably power – which is particularly evident on windy canyon roads, but is also certain to become a nuisance on more gradual grades on the highway. Full power is still available if you really lay your foot into it, but this is just the latest drawback in the battle to reach increasingly strict fuel economy regulations.

Punched from a stop and the car pulls harder than you’d expect, with 160-hp and 146 lb-ft of torque standard across the board. Some cars in this class do offer more power, but only in higher-grade trims like the Forte SX or Mazda3 s.

The engine is a high-tech unit with dual variable valve timing, but there’s more to building a proper engine than just making power. It’s refined on the highway and quiet at idle, which is something other direct-injection engines on the market aren’t. (Hyundai, we’re looking at you).

While not quite as dramatically styled as the new Elantra, Ford is near the leading edge of design in the segment. Company execs have made it clear that they see the compact segment as the place to be in the future and that’s evident by applying not just technology and refinement, but through designs that even just a few years ago would have been reserved only for premium cars.

And with this gamble on the compact class, Ford is aiming to set the Focus apart from the pack. From the back and side both the hatch and sedan are handsome, but from the front there’s definitely more aggression in an attempt to give this new car a look that’s unmistakable, especially in your rearview mirror. The Elantra may be pretty, but it doesn’t say get out of my way.

THE VERDICT

A significant leap forward for Ford, in building the new 2012 Focus, Blue Oval product planners decided to follow a path similar to what Chevy has done with the new Cruze, adding size and content to the compact car segment – appealing to the American consumer’s desire for larger cars. The Focus then pushes the envelope further, adding a captivating design, some seriously high-tech features to a cabin that already looks and feels first rate, plus a more engaging drive and a bit more oomph from a more refined powertrain.

But Ford is competing with more than just Chevy here, and the Focus, while well-rounded in most respects, isn’t what we’d call a game changer.

Not without its drawbacks, it may feel like a larger car if you’re the one behind the wheel, but you’d be excused for thinking otherwise in the back seat. Official fuel economy numbers also have yet to be released and it’s not yet clear if the 40-mpg highway number is just for the optional Super Fuel Economy Package. During our drive we averaged in the mid 20s, although unless your daily commute involves scooting enthusiastically through the hills north of LA, you should easily do much better.

Starting at $16,270 it’s not a bargain-priced domestic car, even if it is cheaper than last year’s model. Perhaps the best news is that, while expensive, the $22,270 Titanium model ($22,765 for the 5-door) is an incredible amount of content for the price and may prove to be the most enticing option in attracting mid-size customers down to the compact segment. That is, after all, Ford’s goal, having bet heavily that compact cars are to the future what mid-size vehicles are today.

RELATED READING

2011 Hyundai Elantra Review – First Drive

2011 Chevrolet Cruze Review – First Drive 2009 Toyota Corolla

2010 Honda Civic Sedan Review 2010 Nissan Sentra 2.0 S Review

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