SEATTLE -- Never try to steal a Ford executive.
Even if you just want to talk to him about the redesigned 2008 Ford Focus, veering from the planned route means his entourage will hunt you down.
Fortunately, the only "Service Department" belonging to Ford Motor Co. these days merely fixes your car -- the notorious Service Department from the "good old days" fixed your attitude and dental pattern.
So when a colleague and I took Ford's president of the Americas, Mark Fields, on a detour during a test-drive outside the Emerald City, we were quickly nabbed by a close-watching Ford Expedition and Edge. We knew they worked for Ford, as rarely in Seattle do you see three Ford vehicles in a row.
"You're going the wrong way," the Expedition driver shouted through his window.
Somehow, while talking to a very personable Fields, we made a wrong turn.
Fields handled the accidental kidnapping with aplomb, looking comfortable in the back seat of the new Focus. He should be -- this car doesn't need PR hype to sell; it stands on its own merits.
The new Focus is well-built, quiet and comfortable in the front or back. And it arrives at a time when compact cars are fashionable (again), as American consumers downsize their lives and upgrade their gas mileage.
First, an ugly history lesson.
When the Focus arrived to replace the Escort, it was far from an overwhelming success. It was an ill-crafted tin bucket that left you thinking the trunk might open when you slammed the hood. It was built for people who weren't serious about serious cars, which turns out to be most Americans, by a company that, at the time, was not too serious about selling them.
Compacts used to be "cheap and cheerful" -- those are Fields' words, not mine -- and the original Focus wasn't even cheery.
Thus, foreign carmakers ate Ford's compact lunch. To this day, Ford does not have a car smaller than the Focus in its American lineup (though the automaker is working to remedy that).
Until then, this Focus can and, more importantly, will compete with the likes of the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Chevy Cobalt.
Loads of zip
Along the hilly highways around Seattle, the Focus performed admirably. Its 2-liter four-cylinder engine -- the same four-banger in the previous generation -- rarely strained, except on the steepest upgrades. Then the four-speed automatic tended to downshift heavily, while traveling at 80 mph and carting three adults. With 140-horsepower and 136-pound-feet of torque, Ford's engine offers more horses than the Corolla's 1.8-liter engine and more torque than the Civic's 1.8-liter. Only the Cobalt's 2.2-liter engine has more power and torque. There's a lot of zip in this Focus.
The ride is smooth, sporty and comfortable, which is a testament to the redesigned suspension with MacPherson struts in the front and an independent multilink suspension in the rear. The previous Focus handled well, but this one handles better. The suspension is tuned differently depending on whether the vehicle has 15- or 16-inch wheels. Steering is crisp and lets the driver feel the road.
Most notably, the 2008 Ford Focus was significantly quieter, at any speed, than the former Focus. Ford used a number of technologies to still the wind and road, such as a new acoustic windshield, thicker side windows, dampening materials in the doors and support pillars and aerodynamic improvements to ensure the driver and passengers can talk comfortably.
The interior is vastly improved, using better quality materials and better design. The dash display is useful and easy to read. The new instrument cluster includes "cool blue" lighting and the intuitive center stack is well laid out. It also comes with an optional ambient interior lighting package that lets the driver change colors in the front and rear foot wells and the cup holders.
Those are the little surprises buyers will like in the Focus, and the very things that show how well thought out the car's plan and execution really was.
The dash also has a better overall look, with silver trim on SE and SES models breaking up the plastic dash front. The base model's full black dash, however, has a cheaper look.
Buyers will be glad to know that even the base model can come with Sync. A Ford/Microsoft venture debuting in the Focus, the system allows a driver to operate his iPod or other personal music device and telephone without taking his hands off the steering wheel. The system allows you to prompt the onboard computer by touching one button then state what you want. It even downloads your cell phone contact list and recognizes names by your voice. No other competitor offers such a comprehensive system that's as effective and user friendly.
The upgradeable system, which can also play music from a USB thumb drive, is a Ford exclusive until November 2008. Sync is standard on SES model.
An affordable alternative
Ford has given the hardworking folks at nearby Wayne Assembly Plant a good-looking vehicle to build. From the front, the new Focus looks cleaner and sharper. Its happy-go-lucky face is more aggressive. And the car's profile stays consistent, with nicely creased doors, wedge-like sporty stance and decorative fender vents. Its looks may not win everyone over, but it's more distinctive than the first generation.
However, the backside of the Focus seems disproportionate to the rest of the car. Sir Mix-A-Lot might like it, but I didn't. However, a big back means you'll be able to store more junk in the trunk than most other compacts. At 13.8 cubic feet, the Focus offers lots of storage for luggage and golf clubs.
Sadly, the new Focus won't come as a hatchback; Ford discontinued its three- and five-door Focus models. While that only represented 20 percent of its total volume in the United States, I like the versatility hatchbacks offer. One Focus enthusiast recently put it much better than I ever could: "Hatchbacks are minivans for young people."
And that's precisely the people Ford wants to reach with its new Focus. Specifically, 26-year-old females, who certainly may buy the Focus but probably not want boyfriends with one.
However, young people, as well as us older folk, looking for a solid compact with decent gas mileage, easy to use technology and a comfortable ride should take a look at the Focus. It's an affordable alternative in a compact segment bursting at the seams.
Fields already knew this, which is why he could talk smoothly from the back seat as we barreled down the road. He also, no doubt, knew his posse was never far off -- and the only way steal him away is if we drove a different Ford: The Escape.
More importantly, while the original Focus was born fraught with maladies, the new Focus has fully recovered. This cheerful compact adds some attitude and never feels cheap, even though its starting price makes it a bargain, and those are my words, not Fields'.
Scott Burgess is the auto critic for The Detroit News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2008 Ford Focus
Type: Front-wheel drive compact coupe or sedan
Models: Focus S, SE and SES
Price: $14,695 -- $21,05
Engine: 2-liter Duratec 20 4-cylinder, 140-hp, 136--lb-ft torque
Transmission: 5-speed manual, 4-speed automatic
4-speed automatic: 24 mpg city / 33 mpg highway
5-speed manual: 24 mpg / 35 mpg (coupes and sedan have the same gas mileage)
Notes: The best buy is the SE or SES models because they provide more content for the money. Report card
Exterior: Good. The front end looks much more aggressive and the sides have more detail.
Interior: Excellent. Base models feel too plastic but upgraded interiors have character and are comfortable.
Performance: Good. Engine only felt stressed when pressed. Handling is excellent and interior is very quiet. The manual transmission adds pep to the car's performance.
Safety: Good. Standard side curtain and thorax side air bags.
Pros: Very affordable with lots of features.
Cons: Crowded segment with lots of options. It's easy to find another car that exactly fits your needs.
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