When Ford's Focus burst onto the scene at the beginning of the millennium, it was a revolutionary small car. Unfortunately, Ford has done little with the car since then to keep it in contention with the strong import players in its segment. The 2008 Focus gets a lot of easy fixes, but it isn't the type of exhaustive redesign this car needed in order to catch up. There are still a few gems to discover in Ford's most affordable car, but in the end it will probably only influence shoppers on a value basis.
The previous Focus came in two- and four-door hatchback designs, as well as sedan and traditional wagon versions. The new Focus is just offered in sedan and coupe body styles. The sedan seems to pull off the new styling better than the coupe, but buyers are likely to miss the hatchback and wagon versions (see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 Focus).
Ford replaced a lot of sheet metal on the new Focus, but the overall effect looks like a patch job. The front and rear are radically restyled, and around back you can really appreciate what the design team has done. In profile, though, there is less to like, especially on the new coupe. There's certainly no hiding the fact that the Focus isn't all new here, as the gawky profile doesn't mesh with the restyled front and back at all.
A non-functional air intake was added behind the front wheels to give an illusion of performance, but even if it were functional the ploy wouldn't succeed on an aesthetic front.
I like what Ford has done with limited resources inside. Almost every aspect is improved, and the striking, winged dashboard draws the eyes immediately. It's this new dash that is most likely to win over commuters. The stylish look can be done in one of two metallic colors, with a stack of knobs and buttons to control the stereo and climate settings. It may look daunting, but the buttons are easy to reach and use.
My test vehicle came with optional leather seating, which I doubt will be the first choice of budget-minded buyers. The quality of the leather was passable, though nothing spectacular, and the seats offered plenty of support on long commutes.
One of the only negatives inside was the gauges, which featured a strange color scheme and small numerals.
Going & Stopping
One place the Focus won't win accolades is in the performance department. The 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine isn't peppy and doesn't induce much confidence off the line. It manages to pass at highway speeds only with a harsh downshift and limited power afterward. When cruising, though, the Focus is steady. The four-speed automatic shifts upward smoothly enough ... when you're not lead-footing it. The benefit of less oomph is better mileage: EPA figures are rated at a very respectable 24/35 mpg city/highway. In comparison, the 2008 Honda Civic gets 26/36 mpg.
The brakes, too, offer little reassurance. The pedal needs a thorough push to bring a response, making you feel as if you're trying to slow a full-size SUV rather than a small economy car.
Ride & Handling
What the Focus lacks in power it makes up for in precision. It maintains its reputation as a solid handler with a steering wheel that has a somewhat heavy feel to it. That precise response between the steering wheel and the tires meeting the road is what you want as a driver; you always know how much input you need to change lanes or take a sharp off-ramp. You won't get lazy driving the Focus, that's for sure.
The ride seemed rough on my first drive, but after a solid week of commuting over potholed city streets and smooth, twisty roads, the Focus grew on me. It was certainly loud, with plenty of road and engine noise entering the cabin, but it didn't punish the driver in terms of ride quality.
There's also something to be said for the solid feel of the body's frame. Ford worked on making the frame more rigid for 2008, and in tight cornering there is less body lean than you'd expect. That seems to have carried over to the doors, which are also quite heavy, adding a sense of quality — even if they were hard for some of my passengers to close.
What will undoubtedly turn into a big-selling feature for the Focus is Ford's new Sync hands-free entertainment system. It's offered as a $395 option on base trims and comes standard on the SES I tested. Sync allows drivers to integrate their MP3 players and Bluetooth-enabled phones into the system so they can use just one button and voice prompts to play their music or use their cell phone. It can even read text messages aloud, though I didn't test that feature.
An eye-level display shows drivers what's going on with the system, along with song and artist information. Having that in such a convenient location is safer for drivers, as it keeps the eyes on the same level as the road. The major benefit of the Sync system is that it will make things that are so distracting to drivers — making calls and fooling around with the stereo — less of a distraction. It's a win-win feature that's so affordable and easy to use it's a good bargain even if you're not a technophile. I quickly became addicted to it and heartily recommend it.
The upgraded stereo my SES test car had also showed a lot of range — rock, rap and pop all sounded good — and was a surprise in an entry-level car. I recently tested an SUV that cost $10,000 more than the Focus and had its own upgraded stereo, and it offered none of the range or clarity that Ford's unit did.
Cargo & Utility
The Focus' trunk was plenty big for the class, fitting a few suitcases for a two-day business trip with ease. The rear seats fold flat to expand the cargo area, but not much will be able to make its way through the narrow opening they leave. This feature could work for golfers or other athletes with oddly shaped gear, but it probably won't help those with bulky luggage.
The Focus comes with six airbags, including standard side-impact and side curtain airbags. However, stability control — which the government will mandate on all cars in 2012 — is not even available as an option. Antilock brakes and traction control are available only as options; the Civic and redesigned 2009 Corolla include ABS standard.
As of this writing, the Focus has not been completely crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Frontal impact scores rated a top score of Good, but neither side- nor rear-impact tests have been done.
Focus in the Market
When it's not loaded up with expensive options, the Focus remains a viable — if not alluring — option in the segment. However, Ford's decision to basically reskin the old Focus rather than deliver a significantly redesigned model is an odd one. Bringing a two-door coupe to market is even stranger, seeing as fewer buyers opt for them due to higher insurance rates and less interior room.
Nor does the Focus soundly beat the competition on price. The Honda Civic — undoubtedly the best of the segment — starts at just $750 more, while a well-equipped Hyundai Elantra is $800 less. Compacts from Mazda and Toyota also add to a competitive landscape that is quite daunting. Of course, the Focus is also more likely to have cash-back incentives than are its import-model competitors. Money aside, though, other than the nice new toys inside and a good feel for the road, the Focus doesn't have much to offer buyers shopping for a compact car.
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