2012 Ford Focus SE

I'd like to expand on Rusty's last point. Car companies, like all companies, have to pick and choose where they will spend money. There will always be winners and losers. Drive a new Focus shortly after some time in a new Explorer, and you'll get a very good idea of Ford's priorities. The Explorer seems to have been developed under a tight budget, whereas the Focus feels every bit the result of extra dollars lavished in all the right places. It's a stunning reversal of Ford's traditional priorities, one that enthusiasts and environmentalists alike can get behind.

Though it's a global car, the Focus feels unmistakably European. Its exterior is understated and rich looking. The cabin emphasizes sportiness, quality, and intimacy over maximum space utilization. Most telling - and exciting - is the steering. It's as heavy as the steering in the Volkswagen Golf, but is even more communicative. And then there's the absolutely perfect ride and handling balance, which not only seems indicative of European know-how, but also seem to be one of those key areas where Alan Mulally opened the pocketbook. An independent rear-suspension and high strength steel (more than 55 percent of the body structure) aren't cheap, and they do not lend themselves to billboard advertising as do, say, the Hyundai Elantra's many standard features. But it does make for a better car. (To be fair, the Elantra also employs a lot of high-strength steel, but it feels neither as composed nor as solid as the Ford).

On that note, the Focus does fall short on the area Ford has advertised most: interior technology. This particular model does not have a touch screen and instead, as Joe DeMatio notes, looks like a Motorola Razr. You know, the cell phone that was all the rage in 2003. The optional MyFord Touch looks much better but has a steep learning curve. I wonder if a few comparison shoppers will pass over the Ford in favor of the new Elantra on account of the latter's easy-to-use navigation system.

These are, of course, mere quibbles for a car that lacks any serious fault. I drove it all the way to Washington D.C., a drive I've done in far more expensive cars, and could not have been more pleased. Ford's investment is not without risk. Those trucks and crossovers typically have much higher profit margins, and the Focus faces an uphill battle against established competition and entrenched anti-Domestic bias. Still, I think it's the right investment, and not just because I like driving the result. As a smart auto analyst recently reminded me, a good crossover may sell well in a few markets, but a good compact will sell well everywhere. Wherever you live, prepare to see a lot of Focuses.

David Zenlea, Assistant Editor

New Car Research

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