One can argue that, regardless of Ford’s “One Ford” globalized marketing campaign that only recently debuted, the brand’s first global car for the new millennium was the 2000 Focus. It promised European-tuned driving dynamics in an attractive set of body styles, unfiltered, and it was sold in markets across the world. We were instantly smitten and named it our 2000 Automobile of the Year, writing that “Ford designers and engineers have scrapped all the old paradigms about what small cars ought to be.” Developed under the watchful eye of Ford development chief Richard Parry-Jones, the Focus far surpassed the bar set by its predecessor, the Escort.
We delighted in early evolutions of the Focus, especially the SVT-tuned hatchback that posed a credible threat to its competitors. But Ford’s attention to keeping American customers happy began to wane when a second-generation Focus was introduced in Europe and withheld from the United States. As our Focus gained weight, unattractive trim, and a soggier suspension, distance began to grow from its tauter, more stylish European counterpart, and enthusiasts turned away.
For 2012, Ford hopes to recapture the magic lost on the tuned-for-America Focus with a renewed global effort. The next Focus was shown for the first time at last January’s Detroit auto show and preceded the introduction of Ford’s other recent global small car, the Fiesta. At a preview event in Dearborn, Michigan, prior to the 2010 Paris Auto Show reveal of several new Focus variants, we heard from ebullient engineers and product planners about their ambitious plans for the redesigned model.
Global sedan, regional marketing strategy
With the previous generations of the Focus, although Ford offered a sedan, wagon, and hatchback, regional demand for each body style varied. According to marketing manager Mark Kaufmann, a take rate of less than 15 percent caused the company to drop a hatchback from the U.S. vehicle lineup in 2005; by contrast, some 50 percent of Focus models sold in Italy and Germany are reported to be wagons, with little to no interest in sedans. For 2012, Ford will sell a five-door hatchback and four-door sedan in the U.S., followed by the C-Max multipurpose vehicle. Conversely, Ford has no plans to sell the sedan in Europe, save for trunk-happy markets like Turkey and Russia. Early predictions, though, are higher for the new Focus hatchback, as nearly 60 percent of customers have preferred the Fiesta hatchback to the sedan.
The febrile success of the Fiesta models in the B-segment gave Ford insight into how to guarantee a repeat performance in the C-segment. The formula: Give buyers in the smallest, cheapest segment the same upgraded technology found in larger, more expensive models. Ford’s Sync voice-activation technology, still regarded among the most user-friendly systems on the market, made its debut in the 2008 Focus lineup. The latest in Ford’s arsenal of infotainment systems, MyFord Touch, elevates and integrates Sync technology as optional equipment on the top-tier 2012 Focus models. Owners of everything from luxury cars to pickup trucks are migrating to the C-segment, Kaufmann said, and Ford is looking to continue to give customers a familiar level of equipment.
As part of a strategy to brand the hatchback as a premium product, the Focus will be offered in four trim levels, but the hatchback will only be available in the upper-echelon three. All trim levels, from the base S sedan and up, include power accessories, an aux jack, and stability control as standard equipment. Buyers can select Sync as a $395 option in SE trim (base-spec on the hatch), and it comes standard, with additional audio and convenience features, on the SEL trim and higher. Top-level Titanium models receive standard MyFord Touch, in addition to 17-inch wheels and keyless entry/ignition. Available active park assist, a rear view camera, and ambient interior lighting are all reminders of the Focus’s redefined position in Ford’s lineup and within its class.
Larger, sleeker, and more powerful, yet stronger and 40 mpg
The 2012 model is larger in all dimensions over its predecessor, save for a one-inch-lower roofline. The 104.2-inch wheelbase is within an inch of the current U.S.-spec model, while width and track grow by more than three inches to match those of the Chevrolet Cruze. Ford has high hopes for the Focus’ sole powerplant, a direct-injection 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, estimated to produce 160 hp and 146 pound-feet of torque. (A torquey, turbocharged variant will power the upcoming ST model.) A five-speed manual transmission is standard, but Ford expects most buyers to opt for the six-speed Powershift dual-clutch transmission, available with push-button manual gear selection. Focus chief engineer Jim Hughes noted that automatics typically find favor with 90 percent of American customers, who will likely see 40 mpg on the highway in that configuration.
Both the Focus hatchback and sedan boast extensive use of boron steel to increase vehicle stiffness and reduce weight. While the use of boron steel is not revolutionary on its own, it marks the first implementation of high-cost steel technology in a Ford, and likely the C-segment itself, according to Ford of Europe safety manager Matt Niesluchkowski. Ford claims that 55 percent of the body is composed of boron steel for a 30 percent increase in body rigidity. The Focus employs a boron steel front beam to channel energy absorbed in a crash through the roof rails and around the passenger compartment, and the subframe is designed to detach for better passenger footwell protection. Likewise, the B-pillar is strengthened with boron rolled in eight thicknesses, for a total vehicle weight savings of three pounds. The use of higher-quality materials like laminated windshields, as well as greater foam insulation, also gives the Focus an edge in sound insulation at city speeds, as compared with its top rivals.
Will Americans bite?
With the 2012 Focus, Ford is banking on a “paradigm shift” in the C-segment, in which potential buyers consider technology and fuel economy among their top priorities. The Focus will face its established competitors, Toyota’s Corolla, Honda’s Civic, and Volkswagen’s Jetta, as well as the recently introduced Cruze and the forthcoming, next-generation Hyundai Elantra. Pricing has not yet been announced, but based on the amount of equipment listed as standard, we can predict an increase from its current sub-$17,000 base price.
By offering a sedan and hatchback with premium technology, safety, and structural components, Ford might be able to recapture disillusioned Focus aficionados as well as buyers from larger segments. We just hope that Ford avoids a repeat of the malaise that kept the current Focus from remaining world-class.