A freshened look, quieter ride and unique new powertrain keep the 2015 Ford Focus competitive in the compact class, but a cramped interior and dated multimedia system keep it from earning top marks.
Ford's compact Focus is one of the best-selling cars in the world, sold on nearly every continent in almost the same form these days thanks to the company's globalization efforts. For us in North America, that means the same slick handling, high build quality and excellent interior materials that have always been on the European-market model now appear on our domestic one, as well. (This wasn't the case in the U.S. Focus' early generations.)
For 2015, Ford has made some mild updates to the Focus lineup, both cosmetically and mechanically (compare 2014 and 2015 models here). Ford says the new Focus has a new optional engine, new suspension tuning and more sound insulation for a quieter experience. The last Focus we tested wasn't a favorite of ours due to the behavior of its dual-clutch automatic transmission. Has the new model righted those flaws in an otherwise pleasant compact car?
Exterior & Styling
The latest Focus has been a winner in the styling department in both hatchback and sedan forms. The update for 2015 improves on that, but the changes are subtle. The headlights and taillights have been revised to have a more horizontal orientation, ostensibly to give the car a wider look. What it does most successfully is mimic the larger Fusion sedan, to the point that many people confused the Focus sedan I tested for a new Fusion. With both the 17- and 18-inch wheels on the three test models I drove over the course of a week, the car looked sporty, vaguely European and attractive in both body styles.
How It Drives
I sampled three Focus versions — the SE with a 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-cylinder and six-speed manual transmission, and two loaded Titanium models with the 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine — one with a five-speed manual transmission, the other with a six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The Focus comes standard with a 160-horsepower, 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
Despite the fairly high horsepower number, the four-cylinder feels poky and sedate, even when rowing through the manual transmission's accurate stick-shift gates with aggressive intent. The reason it feels slow becomes apparent when you step into a car equipped with the dual-clutch automatic transmission. That transmission revs the hell out of the engine even under light acceleration, keeping the engine in its powerband and providing a considerably more peppy experience. It doesn't feel as sporty or quick as a Mazda3 or Kia Forte, but it is an improvement over the the manual transmission model, and the PowerShift dual-clutch automatic's new tuning has all but eliminated the weird shifting behavior we so despised in the 2013 Focus we tested. It almost feels like a normal automatic transmission now — at least enough that the complaints that plagued the last one should be largely absent now.
The most surprising model, and the one I would personally choose, is the SE with the new 123-hp, turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder with a six-speed manual transmission. That transmission is an extra-cost option in the SE model only and is meant to boost fuel economy. While it's down 37 hp versus the base 2.0-liter engine, it feels stronger thanks to its turbocharger. It pulls strongly in just about any situation, accompanied by a throaty growl that's unique to engines with odd numbers of cylinders. The six-speed manual is precise and light, and combined with an equally pleasant clutch pedal, it makes for a car that's a lot of fun to drive.
Unfortunately, that engine is available only with a manual transmission, which seems a bizarre decision given how unpopular those are in America. Ford says it's first evaluating interest in the three-cylinder engine before bringing an automatic to market here. We suspect it's more likely a matter of tuning (Ford probably thought the low-powered engine combined with the funky-shifting dual-clutch automatic wouldn't feel right to American consumers, and it would have a point).
Regardless of engine, the new Focus updates have created a solid, quiet car to drive. Thicker front door glass and additional insulation make the car extremely quiet on the highway, with the only quirk coming from the all-season tires on Titanium models. They create a whining drone on asphalt at any speed above 40 mph — loud enough to wonder if there's something wrong with how they're wearing.
The brakes are strong and progressive; the steering is direct and has good feedback through a meaty steering wheel, and despite some fairly pronounced body roll through corners, the Focus feels athletic and capable.
Focus competitors are numerous, but we'll talk about three of the more popular ones here. The Focus feels far more substantial than a Toyota Corolla, which feels cheap and tinny by comparison. And while appearing slightly more spacious thanks to its more upright dashboard, the Corolla — with its lazy steering, droning continuously variable automatic transmission and cushy ride — isn't half the athlete the Focus is.
The Mazda3 can give the Focus a run for its money, however, with its spacious interior, knockout styling, competitive power and excellent fuel economy. Honda's Civic also competes well, with even more space inside than the Focus and engines that feel more powerful. None of the Focus' competitors have a dual-clutch transmission, however, aside from the Volkswagen Golf; many instead make use of CVTs.
The purpose of the Ford's smallest engine and dual-clutch transmissions is fuel economy, and the Focus delivers on that front. In a few days with the 1.0-liter, I achieved a surprising 40 mpg average in mixed use. The 2.0-liter Titanium models registered a combined 32 mpg. Officially, the 1.0-liter model is EPA-rated 29/40/33 mpg city/highway/combined, but that engine is also available in a more expensive SFE trim that boosts fuel economy to 30/42/35 mpg. The 2.0-liter's mileage varies with its transmission: The five-speed manual car is rated 26/36/30 mpg, while the dual-clutch automatic comes in at 27/40/31 mpg. Unlike some previous Ford models, when driven conservatively the Focus trims can meet or beat their EPA ratings, I've found.
The most fuel-efficient Toyota Corolla is the LE Eco, which features a CVT and a 1.8-liter four-cylinder engine. It rings in at 30/42/35 mpg in its LE Eco base form, but higher Eco Plus and Eco Premium trim models are rated at 30/40/34 mpg, still besting every Focus but the SFE 1.0-liter. The most fuel-efficient Mazda3 is the sedan with a 2.0-liter engine and automatic transmission, which is rated 30/41/34 mpg. Interestingly, the base Honda Civic, with a 1.8-liter engine and five-speed manual transmission, is not the most fuel-efficient Civic, coming in at 28/36/31 mpg. The CVT-equipped version achieves 30/39/33 mpg, while a more expensive HF trim gets 31/41/35 mpg with a CVT. The fuel economy champ, however, is the Civic Hybrid, with a rating of 44/47/45 mpg from its gasoline-electric powertrain.
Ford used some high-quality materials in the latest Focus. A few nods to regionalism have also produced some improvements, such as relocating the lock switches to the doors instead of having them centrally located on the dash. The seats still feel too short — a common problem in new Fords — and when the numbers are stacked up, the Focus has the tightest interior of the competitive set. Front and especially rear legroom are tight, with the Focus coming in a stunning 8.2 inches less than the Corolla's maximum rear legroom. Visibility is acceptable but not great, thanks to thick pillars around all the Focus' windows, which also serve to widen the car's blind spots front and rear.
The real surprise is how nice the SE trim level is, with all the same high-quality materials of the Titanium model except the leather-trimmed seats, which don't impress anyway in terms of feel or scent. The Titanium may have more electronic safety systems and a larger touch-screen for Ford Sync and navigation, but driving the SE and Titanium back-to-back, I was hard-pressed to justify the Titanium's nearly $10,000 higher price, as tested. You don't need to spend Titanium money to get a perfectly nice, quiet, comfortable Focus.
The Focus blows away the latest Corolla despite the Toyota's newfound embrace of color in its interiors (no more greige!). The Corolla's seats feel flatter but larger, and there's no denying its space advantage, but it's noisy compared with the Focus, with a CVT that still doesn't sound like it's having a good time under acceleration. The Civic is due for a refresh of its quirky, split-level dashboard, which has more critics than friends among reviewers. It, too, has flat seats, but its rear passenger compartment also has a unique flat floor, allowing for more comfortable three-across seating. The nicest interior award goes to the Mazda3, especially in its latest incarnation, which features excellent leather trim, splashes of color and material quality that easily matches the Focus.
Ergonomics & Electronics
We've written more than enough on MyFord Touch; our feelings regarding its utility and troublesome user-friendliness are well-established. Suffice it to say we're looking forward to Sync3, which is expected to arrive in 2016. First indications are that it will be significantly more pleasant to use.
Something we don't often get to test, though, is the base model's audio control system and multimedia interface, which came in our SE EcoBoost test car. It sounds quite good (Ford does base stereos well), but the controls are still confusing; it's operated via a plethora of buttons and a small display screen high in the dash. Syncing a smartphone still takes some doing, and plugging in a music device can cause anywhere from a few seconds to 20 minutes or more of "indexing" as the car learns about all your musical selections.
Cargo & Storage
The Focus may not be the biggest car in its category in terms of passenger room, but it stacks up well in cargo capacity in both sedan and hatchback forms. The sedan offers a 13.2-cubic-foot trunk with fold-down rear seats, while the hatchback has 23.8 cubic feet, expandable to 44.8 cubic feet with the backseat folded.
Of its sedan competitors, the Corolla offers 13.0 cubic feet, the Civic has 12.5 cubic feet and the Mazda3 comes with 12.4 cubic feet. The hatchback styles offer considerably more overall room than the sedans, but the Focus beats them all in behind-the-seats cargo room. Still, while the Volkswagen Golf has 22.8 cubic feet to the Focus' 23.8, the Golf's more spacious passenger compartment means it's expandable to 52.7 cubic feet of room. The Kia Forte is also available as a hatchback, with 23.2 cubic feet of cargo room (total cargo room stats are not available for the Forte5).
The Focus received a five-star safety rating out of five from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in all categories except rollover protection, in which it scored four stars. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded the Focus a Top Safety Pick rating, as it scored good (out of a possible poor, marginal, acceptable and good) in all crash tests except the small overlap front test, in which it scored acceptable. See the Focus' crash test results here.
As for safety systems, the Focus has some of the most advanced features in its class, with optional items like lane keeping assist, hands-free parallel and perpendicular parking, and blind spot warning with rear cross-traffic alert. A backup camera is standard.
See all the Focus' standard and optional safety equipment here.
Value in Its Class
The redesigned 2015 Ford Focus runs a range of prices and equipment, but it's neither the least nor most expensive compact on the market. It starts at $17,995 for an S sedan, but that car is short on creature comforts and standard equipment (hand-crank rear windows, anyone?).
One of the cars I drove was an EcoBoost-equipped SE model, which was decently equipped at $21,035, including the six-speed manual transmission; the turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine; a body kit; 17-inch aluminum wheels; and a reverse sensing system. By contrast, the white Titanium sedan I tested came in considerably higher, at $27,200, with the standard 2.0-liter engine, an automatic transmission, leather seats, navigation and Sync system, active park assist, lane keeping assist and 18-inch wheels.
It's possible to option up a Focus Titanium to nearly $30,000, but having sampled one so-equipped, I can state that the 1.0-liter SE EcoBoost is so good that spending an additional 10 grand on the Focus for more equipment simply isn't worth your money. Option up a Focus your way here.
There are tons of Focus competitors, given the compact class is the largest, best-selling vehicle category in the world. Here in the U.S., the Toyota Corolla is a perennial best-seller, with buyers favoring its reputation for reliability and value over its rather lackluster driving experience and mediocre cabin materials.
The Honda Civic feels like a more substantial vehicle than the Corolla, but its quirky interior styling puts some people off. It has some different powertrain options, however, including a full hybrid system and a natural-gas-powered version.
Perhaps the most entertaining option is the Mazda3, which for 2015 gets an upgraded interior to match its sporty ride and handling. Yet the Mazda falls short in terms of electronic sophistication, with a multimedia system that still needs some work. Compare the Focus with these competitors here.