It wasn’t so long ago that whenever someone asked for a small car recommendation, the automatic response was “Honda Civic”, and the matter was closed. The big H’s compact lineup was so far ahead of the rest of the segment that it wasn’t worth looking at anything else.
|1. All Focus models come powered by a 2.0L 4-cylinder that makes 160-hp and 146 lb-ft of torque.
2. Fuel economy is rated at 28/38 mpg for the automatic transmission or 27/31 with SelectShift capability. Achieving 28/40-mpg requires a special SFE Package.
3. While Focus models start at $16,270, hatchbacks are priced from $18,065. Our SEL hatchback tester stickers for $21,300.
Over the years, the Civic fell behind gradually as cars like the Mazda3 and Hyundai Elantra gained equal footing with the Civic. The Chevrolet Cruze looked like a promising domestic challenge, but in the end it was the 2012 Ford Focus that ended up vanquishing not only the Civic, but the rest of the field.
The Focus was a breath of fresh air for Ford when it debuted in the year 2000, but Ford made the mistake of letting the car linger for seven years before Ford “re-designed” the same basic chassis. After years of lingering at the back of the pack, Ford has managed to revive its compact offering and turn it from an also-ran budget offering into one of the best all-round cars on sale today.
While a lot of fuss has been made about the Focus Titanium, which starts in the mid $20,000 range and features an interior that rivals some imported luxury sedans, we decided to get our hands on the mid-range SEL Hatchback, one step down from the Titanium, and a much better representation of what most buyers will opt for.
American buyers have rarely opted for a hatchback body style, considering it a mark of poverty, but with the success of the Fiesta hatchback, it would be reasonable to expect similar success for its big brother. The sedan’s rather tall profile and ungainly proportions are smoothed out in the 5-door, and the SEL’s option black-finish alloy wheels make the Focus look like a much more substantial car than it really is.
Inside, the Focus gets the usual complement of grey cloth and black plastic, but they’re a quantum leap forward from the previous Focus’ “Made In China” materials. We didn’t once miss the Titanium’s two-tone leather (which, let’s be honest folks, is pretty tacky) nor the complicated Sony stereo and MyFordTouch setup. The standard interface, with a Fiesta-style series of buttons arranged in a vertical stack are easy to use without taking you eyes off the road, and the standard stereo is adequate for most purposes. Of course, the usual iPod and Bluetooth integration are all present in a paired down version of the infamous SYNC system, but we found that the “analog” version (as opposed to the dreaded touch screen present in so many Ford products) easier to operate and less problematic.
Where the Focus really sets itself apart from the competition is on the road. While vehicles like the Cruze, Civic and Elantra tend to treat the term “fun to drive” as a secondary consideration, the Focus is more engaging than a number of sports cars we’ve driven this year, feeling alert and engaging in nearly every situation. The electric power steering still feels a little numb, but responses are super sharp, and the chassis is dialed-in enough to provide the driver with a high degree of confidence. The drawback here is a stiffer ride than the rest of the competition, something we can live with, but has the potential to annoy other potential buyers. The brakes are similarly well matched to the chassis, though we didn’t use them hard enough to test their mettle.
Power from the 2.0L 4-cylinder isn’t anything special (160 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque), and acceleration isn’t going to set anyone’s heart racing, but it’s hard to accuse the Focus of being underpowered. The 6-speed PowerShift automatic is great once you’re up to speed, but around town it can be a bit jerky, especially from a stop.
Unlike the featherweight Fiesta, the Focus has proper highway manners, and the car is able to cruise effortlessly without undue engine or road noise. While Ford touts a 40 mpg highway rating for the Focus, what they don’t tell you is that it requires a special option package and the automatic transmission to achieve this rating. We saw much closer to the EPA ratings of 26 mpg in town and 36 mpg on the highway, still respectable numbers, but not quite in the prestigious “30/40 Club”.
Hatchbacks are considered the most practical body style for a reason, and the Focus did its part to live up to that reputation. With excellent sightlines all around, parallel parking is a breeze (yes, we’re too proud to opt for the Titanium’s self-parking feature) and we were able to pack a week’s worth of groceries in the trunk with room to spare. Our rear seat passengers found themselves fairly comfortable, but all agreed that it was not an ideal long distance car, and would need to stretch their legs long before we hit any fuel stops.
It’s often said that consumers in Europe and other parts of the world opt for compact hatchbacks as their sole family car due to exorbitant new car taxes and fuel costs, but with the 2012 Focus, Ford has created a vehicle that you would be happy to drive on a daily basis, even if coming from a larger car. With the Titanium, Ford has a real shot at doing just that, but with the SEL and the remaining trim levels, Ford has a wonderful, no-nonsense hatchback that won’t double as a sleep aid for the driver.
At this point, the only error Ford can make is to rest on its laurels and become complacent – this past year alone has seen the Elantra, Cruze and Civic jockey for first place repeatedly, and though the Focus remains top dog for now, it won’t be long until the next competitor comes calling.
At a starting price of $21,100, the Focus is pricier than its rivals from Korea, Japan and America, but the proportionate increase in refinement and engineering make it an easy-to-justify proposition for those who are interested in having a little extra, rather than something that’s merely “good”.