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2011 Ford Focus, 1.6-litre turbocharged four-cylinder, petrol, six-speed manual transmission
Unbelievably it’s 13 years since Ford turned the hatchback sector on its head with the original Ford Focus. After the Escort, which had turned into possibly the most nondescript car in history, it was nothing short of a revelation. It looked like nothing else out there, build quality and interior design had taken a quantum leap, and, most importantly, it was fun to drive. It was a raging success and deservedly so.
The second generation Focus came along in 2004 and many criticised it for looking a little bland (I disagree) but there was no denying it was an even better car in every respect and the interiors came very close indeed to offering Volkswagen’s perceived build quality with more tactile surfaces covered in materials that would have been totally foreign to Ford’s bargain basement approach just a decade before. Proof, if any were needed, that Ford had the recipe spot on was in its sales figures, with more than nine million sold.
With the Focus, Ford was aiming for a global car but that didn’t quite happen and there were significant differences between European, American and Chinese models. The new one, however, according to the company, is the first truly global Ford. And, as if to hammer home the point that it’s taken some effort to produce a car as good as this, Ford states that up to 1500 of its engineers were working on it at one point or another. You can tell.
The styling has onlookers divided. While the second generation had its army of detractors, nobody could accuse this new model of looking bland, especially from the front, which is the area attracting most controversy. The problem is that gaping grille, which looks like it would be more at home on one of Ford’s WRC cars or a Porsche Cayenne, and the front fog lamps don’t do it any favours, either. The side profile is nice and pinched and the roofline tapers to the rear, lending the Focus an almost coupe profile. The rear end looks very similar to the outgoing model apart from some over-stylised lamp clusters.
The effect does, in all fairness, work much better in real life than in photographs but the unfortunate hues Ford saw fit to paint the launch cars in leave a lot to be desired. No matter, what we really want to know is how Ford has moved the game on when it comes to the driving environment and experience - two things the previous Focus got pretty much spot on.
Inside there’s an even greater perception of improved build standards and this won’t be something experienced by one market and not another because Ford’s Focus production facilities and standards will be the same wherever in the world they’re built. Truly global, see? It’s a lovely environment with a grown up approach to ergonomics, but it’s far from boring. The seats are comfortable and supportive and there’s plenty of room both in the front and rear, even for those above average height. Boot space, however, is less generous than the previous Focus by 20 litres but if stowage capacity is high on your agenda you could always opt for the Estate version (wagon not destined for Australia). The finish of the interior is the polar opposite of what Ford used to be known for. There are one or two areas of scratchy, low rent plastic but for the most part it looks and feels as though Audi or BMW could have been responsible for putting it together.
As is usually the case when a new car is presented to the media, the models on offer have been specified with every conceivable option and there’s a bewildering array of kit available for the new Focus that you’d normally only expect to find on more expensive German executive cars. Things like torque vectoring, lane assist, brake assist, intelligent headlamp dipping, rain-sensing wipers and traffic sign recognition. For now there’s no central control interface like you’d find in an Audi, Merc or BMW but surely it’s only a matter of time. For now, the major controls are operated from the steering wheel, which has no fewer than 23 functions. Fortunately it’s an intuitive system that’s quick to learn.
On the road and the Focus really shines. The chassis is incredibly stiff, making it composed, poised and, err, focused. The new electronic power steering is perhaps too eager to self-centre but the handling is nothing if not confidence inspiring. With the torque vectoring system apportioning power and braking in hard corners, it’s an easy car to hustle along at speed yet it doesn’t feel like the computers are in charge. It’s an engaging drive that entertains in a way precious few hatchbacks can, while remaining entirely stable and refined.
The suspension copes admirably with poor road surfaces, with Ford’s multi-link rear set-up particularly worthy of note. It’s not a soft ride, just compliant and communicative while the brakes are powerful and full of feel in operation.
For now there are four petrol and four diesel engine options available. Petrol units are all 1.6-litre but with differences in power - 77kW or 92kW in normally-aspirated form or 110kW or 133kW when turbocharged - and the diesels are either 1.6-litre with 71kW or 84kW or 2.0-litre with 103kW or 120kW. Many more powertrains will be coming along in the near future, including an all-new ST. We’re praying that Ford sees fit to also produce a rip-snorting RS.
The model we get to test is the turbocharged 1.6-litre Ecoboost - an incredibly flexible engine that pulls well from low revs, sounding surprisingly sporty. It feels powerful and robust, all the way to maximum revs and is perfectly matched to the six-speed manual shifter, which feels pleasingly precise.
Economy is up and emissions are down, which is what we’ve come to expect from every new car these days, even Italian exotica. It's all very impressive, but the fact is, this new Focus does everything better than any Ford before it. It’s still brilliant fun to drive despite the raft of electronic aids and it now feels like a proper, premium car in a way only the Germans seemed to have been capable of until recently.
The Focus’ only drawback, so far as I can see, is the Blue Oval badge on its bonnet. If prospective buyers can see past that, VW will be running scared. As it is, Ford intends to build two million of these things around the world and you can bet your life they will do just that. It’s a brilliant car.
The all-new Ford Focus will go on sale in Australia in the third quarter of 2011. The public's first official look at the vehicle will be at the 2011 Australian International Motor Show in Melbourne on July 1.