It’s no surprise that the small car market is home to Australia’s best-selling passenger vehicles. For years now the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla have fought tooth and nail for the monthly top spot, only recently out-done by the Hyundai i30.
So where does that leave the Ford Focus? Year-to-date Ford ‘s dated third-generation Focus has struggled to rate. The model has sold only 4595 examples to the end of July (a 53.6 per cent fall on this time last year). This compares poorly to its competitors: the Mazda3 selling 23,252 examples over the same time frame; the Corolla 25,323; and the i30 18,551. Even the Holden Cruze managed 9193.
So you might say the new LZ-series Focus couldn’t have come soon enough; and as this week’s local launch has shown, the model has certainly lifted its game. The ‘new’ Focus – essentially a revised version of the outgoing model – is better equipped, more powerful and more efficient than the car it replaces.
A key mechanical change is the move to turbo-only power under the bonnet. The new 1.5-litre EcoBoost (Ford speak for direct-injected and turbocharged petrol with variable cam timing) four prefers a diet of premium unleaded, but powers the small hatch and sedan range to the tune of 132kW (at 6000rpm) and 240Nm (from 1600-5000rpm). This is 7kW and 38Nm more than the normally-aspirated 2.0-litre Duratec it replaces.
The turbo engine is also more efficient. When hooked-up to the standard six-speed manual, the new Focus achieves an ADR Combined cycle figure of 5.8L/100km, jumping to 6.2 when optioning the six-speed automatic.
The exception is the high-grade Focus Titanium hatch (available only with the auto) which consumes 6.4L/100km – no doubt as a result of the weight of its extra equipment.
All Focus variants are now equipped with idle-stop, alloy wheels, a reversing camera and rear parking sensors, Ford’s SYNC 2 infotainment system with 8.0-inch touch-screen, sat-nav and voice control that actually works; and MyKey parental control technology.
The flagship Titanium variants add front parking sensors, autonomous emergency braking (AEB), blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, as well as 18-inch alloy wheels (with space-saver spare) and leather-appointed seats.
Beneath the new-look exterior there’s revised suspension (stiffer up front and with new dampers all-round), upgraded stability control and re-tuned electrically-assisted steering (now with parallel and perpendicular self-parking ability).
Inside, the steering wheel itself is also new, as is the centre stack and console. It’s a cleaner look, and one that echoes that of the larger Mondeo.
The Focus offers the usual range of seat adjustment as well as tilt and reach adjustment for the steering column. We found the seating supportive, especially from the bolsters, and the ergonomics spot-on.
As detailed last month, the Focus will be priced from $23,390 (plus ORCs) in base Trend guise (the Ambiente variant is deleted from the range). The automatic transmission adds $1000 to the list price, meaning a Focus will now cost $2400 more than the equivalent i30 and $2900 more than the Mazda3. It’s also $900 dearer than a base Golf.
Trend variants arrive with 16-inch alloys (with steel spare), fog and daylight running lights (although not LEDs), rear parking sensors, cruise control and cloth seats. It also scores the aforementioned SYNC 2 infotainment array, a rear-view camera, six airbags and the usual host of electronic driver aids.
The Trend is further available with a Convenience Pack for $300. The pack comprises auto lights and wipers, a self-dimming rear-view mirror and follow-me-home lighting.
For the mid-grade hatch-only Sport (from $26,490 plus ORCs, Trend and Titanium variants are available in hatch and sedan bodystyles) you’ll find 17-inch alloys (with a space saver spare), sport-tuned suspension, LED DRLs and tail-lights, follow-me-home and puddle lighting, and power folding mirrors.
The model is distinguished by a chrome trim detail on the belt line, front, side and rear skirts, and a rear spoiler.
Inside, the Sport adds dual-zone climate control, a leather-bound gearshift knob and steering wheel, electrochromatic mirror and push-button start. It also has rain-sensing wipers and dusk-sensing headlights and a Sony nine-speaker audio system with DAB+ digital radio.
Finally, high-grade Titanium models add the extras we listed earlier from $32,690 (plus ORCs) in both hatch and sedan format.
All models are available with a choice of seven exterior colours, with all except white attracting a $450 surcharge.
The Thai-built LZ-series Focus scores a five-star ANCAP safety rating and is offered with a three-year / 100,000km warranty. Roadside assistance is included for 12 months, and service intervals – covered by Ford’s capped-price servicing scheme – are set annually or at 15,000km (whichever comes first).
On the road it’s apparent the model is an update. The cabin shares identical dimensions to the outgoing model, notably the tighter legroom of the rear seat and the smaller aperture to the rear footwell.
There’s still no face-level ventilation outlets to the second row, but outward visibility is good – even from the vantage of the, er, vertically challenged.
The driving experience sees this Focus feel more ‘hunkered down’, which depending on your viewpoint is a good thing. The previous model was a capable car dynamically but the new model is noticeably sharper – and stiffer.
The Sport model sampled (on 17-inch alloys) is appreciably more compliant than the Titanium model (on 18-inch alloys). The reduced tyre profile appears to play a part in exaggerating the Focus’ stiffer lower control arm bushes (+25 per cent) and re-valved dampers.
We think the Trend (on 16-inch alloys) would likely feel suppler again (we didn’t get to sample one at the launch). With most Focus owners sticking to urban roads, the issue may give way to aesthetics, which admittedly favour the larger diameter wheel.
On the plus side, the remapped electrically-assisted steering system feels more accurate than before. The wheel seems to respond more purely from the ‘lull’ off-centre, before progressing linearly in its weighting as you feed in more lock.
It’s a system that is assisted well enough to provide the ‘light’ feel small-car buyers prefer, but one that won’t totally deter buyers wanting an engaging drive.
A shame, then, the turning circle is rather large at 11.4m.
Ford’s new EcoBoost engine sounds a little gravelly down low, but quickly warms to reveal a rorty revver. It’s an engine that delivers more speed that its acoustics would let on, and presents none of the turbo lag one might expect of a low-capacity, high-charged unit.
Indeed, the power delivery is linear and worked seamlessly with the six-speed automatic sampled. The only hiccup is that it can be a touch slow to kick-down when extra performance is required.
The 1.5-litre mill sits on 1650rpm at 100km/h and on the undulating test route managed 9.9L/100km (we expect this will improve in normal running).
The Focus’ four-wheel disc brakes are strong and consistent via a well modulated pedal, and are equipped with the usual array of electronic driver aids. Ditto the revised stability control system which is difficult to provoke (there’s that tied-down handling again) and cooperative in its intervention.
On the downside, the Focus is a noisier ride than some in its class – in spite of Ford’s efforts to suppress road noise. The Titanium spec Focus hatch measured 78dBA at 80km/h on coarse chip gravel, tyre and road-noise ingress appreciably louder than, say, the Volkswagen Golf…
We also noticed a couple of chrome trim garnished (around the doors, especially) didn’t quite line-up and on one model sampled a speaker grille sat well proud of the dash pad.
This tester also wishes Ford has done away with the gearshift-mounted transmission shifters. At least steering wheel-mounted ‘paddles’ are available optionally.
As a driver’s car (and noting the worthwhile safety and equipment upgrades) the Focus is a charmer. It’s a confident and engaging steer that rewards in the way only a handful in this class can. But – and it’s a big but – it is expensive once fitted with an auto and placed on-road which will deter buyers on a budget.
Still, if you can cough up the extra coin, and want a car that offers more than an A to B experience, the revised Focus is well worth a test drive.