Versus the competiton:
Editor’s note: This review was written in September 2009 about the 2009 Ford Focus. Little of substance has changed with this year’s model. To see what’s new for 2010, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
The Ford Focus is one of those small cars that’s fun to drive even though it doesn’t have a high-horsepower engine. It gets good gas mileage, it has comfortable seats and its interior lighting looks great. So why can I only give it a partial thumbs-up? Despite the Focus’ positive traits, a number of issues drag down my overall opinion of this car.
The Focus is offered in sedan and coupe body styles, and my test car was a Focus SES coupe. The starting price of this model is $17,865 but with options the as-tested price came to $20,615. To see a side-by-side comparison of the 2008 and 2009 Focus, click here.
The Focus coupe received a number of styling changes for 2009 that Ford says were designed to attract “Millennial” buyers — people born between 1980 and 1995, using Ford’s definition. The changes include a large mesh lower grille, a gray two-bar grille and headlamps with black accents. If you choose an SES trim level like the one we tested, you also get a spoiler above the rear window and 17-inch aluminum wheels with a silver-gray finish Ford calls “dark chrome.”
The changes definitely distinguish the coupe from the sedan’s more traditional styling, but I’m not convinced they make the car any more attractive to younger buyers. The changes may actually be less appealing to some who’d rather do the customizing themselves.
The only engine offered in the Focus is a 2.0-liter four-cylinder: To the good, it moves the Focus quite well if you’re willing to rev it, and this isn’t a chore because it revs easily. Rated at 143 hp in the coupe (140 hp in the sedan), the engine gives you enough power to confidently merge onto the highway and pull out in front of traffic. It’s peppy enough to survive the increasingly aggressive driving public.
Gas mileage is competitive. Manual-transmission models are rated at 24/35 mpg city/highway while the optional four-speed automatic gets 24/33 mpg. There are a handful of models that get better automatic-transmission mileage — like the Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Kia Forte — but the Focus lags by only a few miles per gallon from the Civic’s class-leading mileage.
What’s less appealing about the four-cylinder is that even though it revs smoothly, at higher rpm you can feel some vibration through the pedals, which is something I haven’t experienced in all of the cars I’ve tested. It’s not something you want to feel when driving a new car and it was a little annoying, though I did get used to it after driving the Focus for a while. Fortunately, you don’t feel any vibrations through the steering wheel.
The manual transmission is also something of a mixed bag, though the good outweighs the bad. The shifter is tall, which puts it within reach of your right hand, and it slips easily from gear to gear. What I didn’t really like is the bit of play in the shifter. The clutch pedal is light enough that it won’t turn your left leg to Jell-O in stop-and-go traffic, and it’s easy to work the clutch and gas pedals to accelerate smoothly from a stop.
I initially thought the Focus’ brake pedal was a little soft, but I came to appreciate the amount of control I found beyond that initial softness. Once the pedal firms up, it lets you finely tune braking response with foot pressure.
The Focus’ firm ride quality is common among small cars. You’ll feel bumps and cracks in the road, but the Focus isn’t quite as sensitive to them as a Civic.
The payoff for this firmer ride comes in the corners, where the Focus’ resistance to body roll encourages you to drive it quickly. It may not have the moves of a Mazda3, but it’s still willing to play a little when you encounter curves. It’s a nimble little car.
On the highway, the Focus is a comfortable cruiser. It feels stable, and that’s thanks in large part to the car’s steering. There’s no play in the wheel and the power-steering assistance isn’t excessive, which gives the wheel a heavier feel than a Mazda3’s wheel. There is a notable amount of wind noise in the coupe at 65 mph, though.
The Focus received a new interior for the 2008 model year, and the design looks contemporary. The most distinctive element of the dash is its large swaths of silver trim, which is specific to SES models. I usually don’t find silver trim that appealing, but it looks nice in the Focus and is well integrated into the overall cabin design. However, there’s still too much shiny black plastic, especially on the doors. The plastic trim on the driver’s-side door grab was loose, too. I know this is an affordable compact car, but when you have models like the new Forte — which has lots of low-gloss, upscale-looking plastic in its cabin — it raises the bar for competitors like the Focus.
Ford paid particular attention to lighting; you’ll have to experience it when it’s dark to fully appreciate it. At night, the buttons for the audio and air-conditioning systems on the center control panel cut through the darkness with vibrant blue backlighting that’s also found on the gauges. Optional ambient lighting lets you switch among seven colors to illuminate the cupholders and footwells. This is one of those things that distinguish the Focus from its competition, but there are a few problems with the implementation of it.
The gauges are legible enough at night when the backlighting is on, but during the day the wide hash marks on the dials blend together, making it hard to know your exact speed at times. Also, as Cars.com Senior Editor Joe Wiesenfelder pointed out in his review of the 2010 Ford Fusion, the ambient lighting casts its glow from visible pencil-sized portholes located around the cabin. They’re not well concealed, so you don’t get the same soft glow in the Focus as you do in other, more expensive cars.
The Focus comes standard with cloth seats, but my test car had optional heated leather seats in black with white stitching. The seats are comfortable, but they don’t offer a lot of bolstering to keep you in place during hard cornering, and the seat heaters only have an on/off switch rather than the preferred low/high or graduated settings. My SES coupe had a height-adjustable driver’s seat; the overall driving position was decent, though it would have been better if there was a telescoping steering column (the Focus only has a tilt feature, which is odd because the previous generation offered a tilt/telescoping wheel). With the seat far enough back to comfortably work the pedals, I had to reach forward more than I like to hold the steering wheel.
Visibility in the coupe is good when looking over your left or right shoulder before changing lanes, but I wasn’t as impressed with the view out the rear window when backing up. The rear window is large enough, but the driver’s-side C-pillar limits your visibility on that side of the car.
The coupe has a three-person backseat, just like the sedan. Judging from the outside, you might think the coupe’s backseat would hardly be usable, but that’s far from the case. I was surprised by the relatively comfortable seating position and the impressive amount of headroom. With a large fixed quarter window to peer out of, it’s not claustrophobic, either. However, there’s probably not enough legroom to go around for two tall people to sit behind each other.
The coupe’s trunk measures 13.8 cubic feet — the same as the Focus sedan. That’s more room than you’ll find in a Civic coupe (11.5 cubic feet) and approximately the size of a Chevrolet Cobalt coupe’s trunk. The trunk opening looks a little bit like a slot — not ideal — and part of our test car’s cargo area was occupied by a subwoofer. It’s included with the $795 Moon & Tune Value Package, which also adds a six-CD changer and a power moonroof.
The Focus received a Good overall rating — the highest possible score — in the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s frontal-offset crash test. In the side-impact crash test, the coupe received a Good rating, while the sedan scored one notch below with an Acceptable rating.
The Focus comes standard with six airbags, including side curtain airbags, but antilock brakes — an important safety feature that’s becoming increasingly standard on small affordable cars like the Focus — is optional. It’s bundled together with an electronic stability system. For the 2010 model year, both of these features become standard. For additional safety feature information, visit the Standard Equipment & Specs page.
The Focus is one of the better-selling compact cars, and it’s easy to see why car shoppers like it. It’s an adept commuter car that gets good gas mileage but is still willing to have a little fun in the corners if you want. The cabin is comfortable for both the driver and passengers and has an eye-catching design. If you can overlook the flaws I’ve mentioned, maybe you’ll be able to give it a full thumbs-up.