First Drive: 2012 Ford Focus [Review]

Ford hits the ground running with its new Focus, a second or third-generation (depending on where you are) compact that promises refinement and tech.

After years of begging from the peanut gallery - that's us, among others - for Ford to pay more attention to the starved-for-product compact segment in North America, the automaker is finally launching a new, advanced Ford Focus in every market.

It's only about six years overdue, but we'll gladly take it. For once, Ford isn't saving its best product for "everyone else." Instead, the Michigan automaker says it has created a world-class compact for, well, the whole world.

That's the way things now operate in this, the age of Alan Mulally, at Ford Motor Company.

Definitely the most important nameplate in Ford's worldwide portfolio, it has, to date, been responsible for more than 10 million units sold since its debut in 1998.

A big step for them, a huge step for U.S.
Designed in Europe, the new Focus rides on architecture two generations ahead of its outgoing North American model. As a result, it's hardly surprising that it makes leaps and bounds in every category under the sun. But it's also definitely a step ahead of the second-generation world Focus, which launched for 2005 nearly everywhere else.

NVH is better than ever and so is interior fit and finish. Rigidity in the unibody has been increased through the use of high-strength steel and other technologies for what Ford claims is a 30-percent improvement over the previous North American Focus.

The powertrain features a totally new 2.0-liter inline four cylinder engine with direct-injection. Ford claims it to be one of the most advanced non-turbocharged engines they have built. On the drive dynamics side of the equation, Torque Vectoring is now a standard part of the system, allowing the car to mimic the feel and assists received from a limited slip differential, but in this case, using the brakes to accomplish that same feat. The result is minimized understeer and maximized grip and steering.

The new Focus is now available as a sedan and a five-door hatch. Sure, the sedan looks more conservative, buttoned-down and straightforward, but it still manages to be stylish and has a surprisingly engaging ride.

Looks are everything
Ford's Kinetic design approach is what brings the Focus into, uh, focus today. Designed globally, but with major input from Ford of Europe's design studios, it starts with sculpted side panels and a trapezoidal front grill to set this new Focus apart from any previous models. Upswept headlight lenses give character to the front end and highlight the single bar chrome strip in the above-bumper opening that also features the company's blue oval script.

On the sedan, a smallish, to our eyes, trunk actually looks like it is sized right. An aerodynamic spoiler holds sway on the trunk's trailing edge and helps to improve the aero numbers.

As nice as the sedan appears, the five-door hatch is the real looker here. Using the same front clip on both the four and five door models saved the company from having to make many modifications. Behind the rear door, things are different. A rather expressive pair of taillights occupies some of the prime real estate on the rear of this Focus, and are capped off by high-mounted rear spoiler. A contrasting piece of lower cladding surrounds the lower extremities of the car.

With the upcoming high performance ST model, expect to see that replaced by a ground effects package.

No compromises inside
Where the outgoing Focus had evolved into a fleet darling that sold to consumers mainly based on its low price of entry, the new car aims high.

New for the 2012 model year, a Titanium trim package will be available, highlighting the automaker's efforts to move up. Ford's thinking is that many buyers may be fleeing high-end SUVs and other vehicles should gas prices exceed $4 per gallon. Those buyers, Ford surmises, won't want to compromise on features or style - they just want a more efficient package.

To that end, the interior design crew for Focus really stepped up their game with an interior that is one of the best we've seen in the segment as far as fit, finish and features are concerned. Sure it looks a little busy, with all the dials and buttons, but with so much new technology available in cars, it's hard to find one that goes easy on the switches. Undoubtedly, the look isn't conservative and it probably won't age well, but right now Ford just wants to sell new cars.

On high-line interior navigation-equipped models, the MyFordTouch package dominates. Offering new controls and ways to personalize, their cars, the system is set up for voice recognition, Bluetooth audio and phone connectivity, Gracenotes features, among other items. Using an eight-inch monitor atop the center stack and a smaller screen located between the gauges in the driver's binnacle, and controlling through two five-point steering wheel-mounted touch pads, the driver is able through voice, or feel to control climate, navigation, audio, phone and vehicle settings. The system also allows the use of a USB aircard to make the entire vehicle a password protected WiFi hotspot.

The system has a learning curve and it could prove a distraction when used on the go, but it will definitely appeal to tech-minded drivers.

Trim packages come with fabric or leather seat coverings. Regardless which you choose, we found them offering good support which says a lot considering we spent quite a bit of time with our butts pinned to them.

Materials are a mixed bag, but they're generally price appropriate.

It goes direct
The 2.0-liter Direct-Injection inline four-banger is also equipped with Ti-VCT, the Ford name for variable camshaft timing. Producing 160-horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, it is capable of using 87-octane fuel. The engine is mated to a standard five-speed manual transmission that we found capable but rubbery. We also felt that it was in need of a sixth gear, seeing that we couldn't count how many times we were underway along Mulholland Drive ready to shove it into sixth when we had already topped out in fifth.

We think Ford chose this tranny for a particular feel that appeals to the lowest common denominator of driver. Perhaps a short-throw kit might be in order, at some point. But few buyers will probably walk out of showrooms with Focus five-speeds in the U.S. since the transmission is relegated only to the lower trim levels.

On the other hand, we thoroughly enjoyed the Powershift Six-Speed Automatic transmission that equipped our Focus five-door hatchback SEL. A dual-clutch system, it also allows for Selectshift functions where the driver can switch gears manually by the use of a toggle switch mounted on the side of the shift lever.

The suspension was equipped with the ubiquitous MacPherson strut system in front and a multi-link set up in the rear. Add stabilizer bars at both ends and you'll see why we liked the ride, which was surprisingly quiet for this segment. The Focus tips the scales in the neighborhood of 2,950 lbs.

Pushed into a corner, the Focus reveals its tightly-tuned, European-derived suspension. It isn't as imminently fun to drive as, say, a Mazda Mazda3, but it is definitely tossable and more than a step above the class norm. Steering is a bit vague at times and generally overboosted, but miles ahead of its predecessor - regardless of continent.

They are still awaiting the final fuel estimate numbers from the EPA, but Ford is quick to toss out 40 mpg figures to anyone listening.

Leftlane's bottom line
Ford improves their world car, and in the process, gives us a version that is nearly the equal of the European model. The 2012 Focus is certainly among the most refined and well-equipped cars in its class, but it seems to trade sport for refinement, a trait most buyers will probably prefer.

Will it set the compact car segment aflame? Probably not, but its high fuel economy and tech-loaded nature cancel out the small but pricey Fiesta unless you're purely a bargain hunter.

2012 Ford Focus base price range, $16,995 to $23,490.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.