The Ford Focus has been one of the best small cars to drive ever since it reached Australian shores in 2002.
Although a $38,290 sticker is plastered across the window of the most dynamic version, the ST hot-hatch, an alternative sporty model is available for significantly less.
The Ford Focus Sport costs from $25,890 before on-road costs – or from $28,190 with auto transmission – and in addition to the Ambiente and Trend trim grades below it brings larger, 17-inch alloy wheels, more heavily bolstered front seats, and a suspension more firmly sprung and damped for even greater disciplined body control.
Its value equation over the from-$22,290 Trend is boosted by extra standard equipment including rain-sensing wipers, auto headlights, satellite navigation, five-inch display, reverse-view camera, dual-zone climate control and a nine-speaker Sony audio system.
Frustratingly, a 1.6-litre version of Ford’s highly praised EcoBoost-labelled direct fuel injection turbocharged engines has still to make it to Australia. The Ford Focus Sport that comes to this country from Thailand continues to employ the non-turbocharged 2.0-litre that is now discontinued in Europe.
The four-cylinder, however, does feature direct injection and produces 125kW of power and 202Nm of torque – outputs bettered by only two direct price rivals, the Holden Cruze SRi and Opel Astra Select that share a 1.6-litre turbo achieving 132kW and 230Nm.
It’s also one of the more economical hatches available. Its official consumption of 6.6 litres per 100km is one of the lower figures in the segment, and the Focus 2.0-litre was the joint second most frugal model in CarAdvice’s eight-hatch comparison test (sharing 8.9L/100km with the Honda Civic, both behind the 7.9L/100km of the Volkswagen Golf 90TSI).
Going with the minority of buyers and opting for the standard manual gearbox brings only five ratios rather than the six that have become the norm, but the auto is a contemporary six-speed dual-clutch system.
Like the Volkswagen DSG version that first brought the tricky transmission technology to the masses, Ford’s ‘Powershift’ gearbox isn’t always as smooth at low speed compared with the average conventional, torque converter auto, but it makes a better partner for the 2.0-litre than the five-speed manual. (The opposite of the base 1.6-litre Focus, which needs the manual to get the most out of the engine.)
Neither Ford of Europe nor Ford Australia made the call on the auto’s pseudo-manual tipshift mode, though, and Ford US’s decision to go with tiny thumb buttons on the gearlever – instead of a proper tap-forward, tap-backward tipshifter – has resulted in an ergonomically awkward approach that doesn’t encourage usage by keen drivers.
It isn’t helped by a Sport mode that doesn’t tend to hold gears long enough or change down gears fast enough. Holden’s engineers have done a superior job on the Cruze SRi’s mode of the same name.
This can occasionally hinder the Focus’s flow on tighter roads, as can a sometimes over-eager stability control system, though neither stop the Ford from being highly entertaining.
The Ford Focus is one of the heaviest cars in the small car segment, but while its weight and body roll is noticeable compared with the tippy-toed Mazda 3 and Cruze, it’s nothing short of well balanced.
Tyre grip from the Sport’s 215mm-wide Michelin Premacy rubber is also abundant, giving the Focus faster cornering speed than similarly priced rivals including the Mazda.
For those buying the Ford Focus Sport as more of a heavily furnished model in the range rather than a practical hatch with driver appeal, the accurate, well weighted steering is as enjoyable to experience around town as it is on a winding road.
The Sport’s sport suspension inevitably has a hint of firmness but it also does a great job of catering for both handling and comfort needs.
The 17-inch tyres also play their part because ride quality becomes lumpier on the more expensive Focus Titanium that also employs the sports suspension but sits on bigger, 18-inch wheels.
If excellent dynamics have long been a Focus trait, good interior design and quality have not.
The cabin of the third-generation Ford Focus, however, improved matters greatly when it went on sale in 2010.
While it can’t match the classy and sophisticated Volkswagen Golf in this department – making it no different to any other mainstream hatchback – the Focus Sport interior can’t be accused of being bland or downmarket.
The dash is an array of hexagons (instrument dials) and skewed rectangles (vents), and where straight lines are generally at a premium.
Ergonomics are strong in terms of seat comfort/support and reachability for buttons, switches and dials, though the centre stack’s multitude of small, fiddly buttons makes it look on the busy side.
A trip computer that includes basic sat-nav instructions sits between the rev counter and speedo directly ahead of the driver, while the central five-inch colour screen displays infotainment and maps.
Smart touches for the Ford Focus Sport that lifts its interior above lower spec levels include sections of gloss-black trim and a metallic-style effect for parts of the console and centre stack. Leather can also be found on the steering wheel, handbrake and gearshift lever.
Ford’s excellent Sync system makes pairing and using smartphones simple – especially the voice-activated command set-up that can be engaged by flicking a steering-wheel-mounted lever.
The Sony audio also provides impressive sound quality for a sub-$30,000 small car
Rear legroom is neither best nor worst for the class, but the three-seater bench excels for plushness and supportiveness.
Boot space of 316 litres is towards the lower end of the small-car practicality scale, though, so while the Focus is far from impractical you’ll fit more in most other hatches.
The Ford Focus Sport is a small car with many more positives than negatives, though.
The ST hot-hatch remains our favourite Focus model, but the Sport is the sweet spot of the regular range and one of the best small hatchbacks you can buy in the $25K-$30K bracket.