2008 Ford Focus

Don Sherman
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Cheap coupes were once every sixteen-year-old's favorite means of stretching Mom's apron strings. While Honda and others have remained true to the breed, more than half of the brands selling bargain-basement rides have shunned coupes to concentrate on other vehicular configurations. Bucking that trend, Ford selected the classic coupe format--two doors, no hatch--for the 2008 Focus.

Actually, we were starting to wonder if Ford had given up on the Focus, a car that long ago beguiled the hearts and minds of enthusiasts who never expected a cost-conscious, fun-to-drive car wearing a domestic nameplate. We anointed the 2000 original our Automobile of the Year, toasting the Focus's chic style, superb dynamics, and endearing personality. Unfortunately, Ford has spent the past three years letting their road toy wind down.

The new Focus is a two-body (coupe or sedan), three-trim-level bottom-feeder that has swapped precocious charm for grown-up deportment. Regrettably, Ford's cute child grew into a homely adult. But, after escaping Seattle's rush-hour crunch, we did find the refurbished Focus surprisingly quiet and smooth-riding. Cheesy upholstery has been upgraded with a nicer cut of cloth or optional leather that doesn't look like it was recycled. The interior trim fits properly and is finished with attractive textures and gloss levels.

The driving report is a mix of good and bad. Last year's 2.3-liter four-cylinder is gone, leaving the 140-hp, DOHC 2.0-liter to soldier on. Spurred on by cooling-system and air-intake improvements, this engine charges to its 6500-rpm redline with willful abandon, hungry for another thousand revs. Unless you're suffering withdrawal anxiety from your last car-rental experience, forget about the four-speed automatic and go with the five-speed manual to reap both a 2-mpg bonus on the highway and snippets of fun-to-drive joy.

Pressed hard, the new Focus reveals this secret: the stiff unibody, shrewd suspension geometry, linear steering response, and honest limit behavior baked into this car at birth are still here, waiting for an aggressive driver to uncork the bottle so that the genie can come out to play.

Acknowledging that the games kids play in cars are evolving, Ford's new Sync media system is standard in the Focus SES and a $395 option in the Focus SE. This Microsoft-powered package provides Bluetooth and a USB port for media players. After you key a steering-wheel button, it responds to voice commands to sort through playlists and phone books. It can even read text messages, although sending a reply on the roll is not yet possible. Sync might not have the megahertz to turn the nerdy-looking Focus into a cool ride, but it should help keep youthful eyes on the road and their novice hands on the wheel.

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