Y2K was not only the year we all worried about our computers going up in a mushroom cloud of silicon smoke, it was also the year when the Ford Escort was replaced by a hot little car called the Focus. Ford’s new compact car was edgy and cute, and it quickly won the hearts of the motoring press thanks to its independent rear suspension and lithe moves. As time marched on, the Focus was reskinned without any substantial changes to its chassis. Twice. As a result, the Focus you could buy brand new last month was as outdated as anxiety over a two-digit year code.
Like the new Fiesta, the Focus has been plucked straight from the European model — a car that, unlike our Focus, hasn’t been left for dead by the engineering team for a decade. Like the smaller Fiesta, the Focus is edgy, sporty, different, and decidedly European. Even though it’s been tweaked and tuned for the U.S.-market, much of that was done by teams overseas. So it’s the real deal, replete with the fully independent rear suspension, and that, of course, means it’s the handler of the class.
EUROPEAN HANDLING AND SEATS
Equipped with the sport package (optional on SE models, standard on top-of-the-line Titanium trim), the Focus resists body roll, turns in crisply, and with the optional eighteen-inch Michelin Pilot Sport PS3 summer tires, flies around corners like a sports sedan. Given the prodigious lateral grip, it’s not surprising that the front seats are uncommonly good. Comfortable and fantastically supportive, they give your back the clear message that the Focus wants to dance.
NEW ENGINE AND TRANSMISSIONS
On paper, the driveline fits the sporty bill, too. An all-new 2.0-liter four-cylinder uses dual variable cam phasing and direct injection to produce 20 more horses than last year’s engine, for a total of 160, only ten less than the Volkswagen Jetta’s optional 2.5-liter five-cylinder. A five-speed manual is available, but most buyers will choose the six-speed dual clutch automatic with manual shifting control.
And the enthusiasts may be disappointed if they do — the transmission is a few points short of top marks. No steering-wheel paddle shifters are offered, and carpal tunnel syndrome is an inevitability for those repeatedly reaching for the awkwardly placed plus/minus button on the side of the shifter. More frustrating, the transmission’s manual mode doesn’t like to follow directions, and there is no sport mode. In “D,” the transmission is clearly programmed to provide the best fuel economy, so it constantly hunts between gears on hilly terrain.
GREAT LOOKS, GOOD ERGONOMICS
The bad news mostly ends there — the new Focus otherwise gets a report card full of great marks. It looks far more expensive than most of its classmates, both inside and out, with a well-designed, clean center stack. The bulk of buttons, especially on higher trim levels, has migrated to either a touch-screen or the steering wheel. In fact, the well-sculpted, just-right-size steering wheel has twenty-one buttons — enough to type a term paper on it.
Dual-zone climate control is available — remember when compact sedans barely had air conditioning? — as is a backup camera. And while the latest version of the MyFord Touch interface comes standard with a steep learning curve, it packs a lot of additional features, like a rear-view camera, Wi-Fi capability, and the latest version of SYNC. Ford is even planning to offer an active parking system.
EPA fuel economy estimates haven’t yet been finalized, but Ford expects that a special eco version of the sedan will achieve 40 mpg on the highway. Regular Focus models should be slightly behind that, at perhaps 28 city, 38 highway. The manual, lacking a sixth gear, should trail slightly behind that. These numbers trail behind the new Hyundai Elantra, which is expected to receive 40 mpg highway from all model variants. (The segment’s lone diesel offering, the Volkswagen Jetta TDI, achieves 42 mpg on the highway.)
THE HATCHBACK — OUR CHOICE
The Focus is available as either a hatchback or a sedan — and we think the hatch is the better choice in every way. It looks better, handles better (thanks to improved weight distribution) and, of course, offers the cargo benefits of a big rear door.
The new-for-2011 Jetta is available as a wagon, and the Hyundai Elantra is, too — but that model, the Elantra Touring, is a completely different car than the sedan. And it’s not up to the same visual or material standards.
The Elantra sedan, however, is a very impressive effort. It, combined with the new Ford Focus, have dramatically raised the bar for a class of cars that was, not too long ago, filled with penalty boxes. Which one is better? Well, you’ll have to wait for a comparison test to find out for sure.