Worth the wait
When the Focus debuted in late 1999, it was immediately a hit with both critics and consumers. We proudly named it our Automobile of the Year for 2000, and it received four subsequent All-Star awards. As time went on, though, Ford neglected the American-market Focus, even as it gave European buyers a new generation and numerous racy variants of the model.
A decade is a long time to wait for anything, but Ford hit another home run with the all-new 2012 Focus. It easily triumphed over five other top compact cars, most of which were equally new, in a recent Automobile Magazine comparison test ["The Small Car 6-pack," July 2011] and continues to impress us every time we drive one.
The Focus sedan starts at $17,295, and a very appealing, more useful hatchback costs as little as $18,995. If you think that seems expensive for a lowly Focus, dear enthusiast, you just need to spend some time behind the wheel to experience the car's impeccable ride-and-handling balance, flexible powertrain, comfortable seats, and abundant available luxury features.
The manual transmission is only a five-speed, but the gearshifter feels fantastic in your hand and the pedals beg for heel-and-toe action. Most buyers will choose the sluggish $1095 dual-clutch automatic, and they'll have no idea what they're missing. Pity. Fuel economy with either gearbox is very good but comes up slightly short of the 40-mpg landmark unless you opt for the SFE model. Even better mileage can be had with the Focus Electric that goes on sale in the spring. But we're way more excited about the pending Focus ST, which will arrive in time for summer and will feature a 247-hp, turbocharged four-cylinder engine, a six-speed manual, and other performance-oriented upgrades.
Let's hope that Ford is relentless about improving its excellent Focus this time around, as the company has proven adept at doing with cars such as the Mustang, which also happens to be a member of this year's All-Star team.
-- Rusty Blackwell
BASE PRICE RANGE: $17,295-$23,495
ENGINE: 2.0L I-4, 160 hp, 146 lb-ft
Ford Mustang Boss 302
The best of the bunch
The Boss 302 is the best Mustang ever, but that's merely a footnote to the real story. The big news is that Ford's newest bad boy not only puts an epic whupping on its traditional rivals -- we're talking to you, Chevrolet Camaro and Dodge Challenger -- but also stands tall against perennial bullies like the BMW M3.
The 5.0-liter V-8 found in the Mustang GT has been upgraded with a new intake manifold, forged rods and pistons, high-lift cams, and other hot-rod hocus-pocus to produce 444 hp at a free-revving 7400 rpm. Straight-line enthusiasts will geek over 0-to-60-mph times near four seconds flat and quarter-mile blasts in the mid-twelves. But even more impressive is how well the Boss handles despite a live rear axle seemingly designed when Henry Ford was a young punk. The standard model benefits from stiffer springs, a beefier rear antiroll bar, and five-position manually adjustable dampers. Or you can upgrade to the Laguna Seca package, which includes rear seats replaced by an X-brace to improve structural rigidity, snug-fitting Recaro seats, grippy nineteen-inch R-compound PZero Corsa tires, a serious front splitter, a hefty rear wing, brake-cooling ducts, and a Torsen differential. Although the $7000 premium sounds pricey, this gives you a $48,000 track-day car that can crush competitors costing twice as much.
Yet the Boss manages this feat without overwhelming the driver. On the contrary, everything about it just feels right -- the Alcantara steering wheel; the confidence-inspiring Brembo brakes; the close-ratio, short-throw six-speed manual with the throwback ball shift knob. Oh, and it also looks pretty sweet and sounds positively wicked -- and that's before getting rid of the easily removable exhaust baffles. The new Boss many not ever be worth as much as the original 302 sold in 1969 and 1970, but it might make you king of the hill in 2012.
-- Preston Lerner
BASE PRICE RANGE: $41,105-$48,100
ENGINE: 5.0L V-8, 444 hp, 380 lb-ft