Despite sounding more upmarket than the previous entry-level ‘CL’, the Ambiente retains the old $21,990 (before on-road costs) starting price. For that, you get the five-speed manual five-door hatch – with the four-door Ambiente sedan only available with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission (also an option for the hatch), which adds another $2300.
The manual Ambiente is $1000 cheaper than the entry-level Volkswagen Golf (77TSI), $660 more expensive than the comparative Mazda3 (Neo), and $1000 more than the Holden Cruze (CD) and Toyota Corolla (Ascent).
Although six-speed manuals are becoming the norm in the small-car category, the five-speed unit teams quite nicely with the Ambiente’s 92kW/159Nm 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol engine.
Official fuel consumption of 6.2 litres per 100km puts it among the best in the class for fuel efficiency – and is only bettered by the 2.0-litre TDCi diesel (5.5 litres/100km), which starts at a considerably steeper $30,500 – though a sixth ratio would undoubtedly help further while also reducing the engine’s over-reliance on revs at freeway speeds.
Some will find the Focus Ambiente a little underpowered, lacking the sort of acceleration that pins you back in your seat. Unlike the Cruze and Golf that are available with a turbocharged engine for similar money, the Focus’s four-cylinder makes do with natural aspiration.
It means your left side will be kept busy dropping down gears when heading up hills, though the clean clutch take-up and easy gearshift action combine with the progressive accelerator and brake pedals to make the Focus Ambiente a car that can be driven smoothly without effort.
The electric steering is also more direct than you would expect given its light feel, and although there’s a lack of feedback there’s sufficient accuracy.
There’s plenty to like about the suspension, too, which is generally comfortable and composed, if not quite up to the benchmark Golf.
The Focus Ambiente is mostly a quiet car, with minimal engine and road noise contributing to a more refined cabin than previous versions of Ford’s small car.
The seating position, if the cushion is a little on the flat side, also contributes to the positive drive experience, with plenty of steering wheel and seat adjustment. Visibility is acceptable, although the base of the A-pillar is rather wide and the sloping roofline and rear pillar limit the view over your shoulder.
The skinny vertical air vents aren’t ideally placed, either - positioned behind your hands so it’s impossible to direct air at your face.
Ford has also moved the Focus’s interior game forward, even if the Golf – that car again – still leads the way in terms of sophistication and finish quality.
The blue oval is reasonably generous with features, though. Bluetooth connectivity with voice control, AUX/USB inputs with iPod integration, 3.5-inch colour display and plenty of steering wheel buttons are all impressive features for a base model and will appeal to younger drivers, tech fans and multi-taskers. The Bluetooth system is one of the easiest to pair of any new car, but the tinny six-speaker setup limits your audio enjoyment.
Rear seat room is about average for a small car. Six-foot passengers should be comfortable on longer trips, but legroom becomes tight with taller occupants in the front seats.
The boot has a capacity of 316 litres (with a full-size but skinny 16-inch steel spare) and grows to 1101 litres with the 60:40 split-fold rear seats folded down.
The Ambiente scores the maximum five-star ANCAP safety rating, and is fitted with six airbags, electronic stability control and a host of other active and passive systems.
With its strong mix of refinement, features and pleasant driving manners, the Ford Focus Ambiente joins the Volkswagen Golf and Mazda3 as one of the strongest offerings in the sub-$25,000 small-car class.
Read CarAdvice's in depth reviews of the new Ford Focus.