The Ford Focus is a perennial underachiever in Australia. It may be one of the world's top-selling cars, but its numbers in Australia have historically been a bare fraction of key rivals the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30.
But as you can see from our recent comparison test with the Mazda, the Focus more than holds its own — especially in light of the recent mid-life update it has received that improved the cabin, the engine and the value package.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about the revised (still Thai-made) Ford Focus line-up is the death of the anaemic Ambiente base variant. Now, Ford’s entry car is priced against competitors’ mid-tier fare, a reflection of what most private buyers actually target.
The variant in question is called the Ford Focus Trend, and it’s what we’ve driven here, in hatch body style and with the six-speed automatic transmission that commands a commendably low $1000 premium over the standard six-speed manual.
Total cost? $24,490 plus on-road costs, though Ford is presently offering it for $24,990 driveaway if you get in fast. The list of changes as part of the mid-life update is substantial, which makes the long wait to get the car here worthwhile.
Of most immediate impact are the stylistic changes both inside and out. That aggressive new grille and headlight combo has some real presence, and gives a charismatic veneer to an otherwise fairly staid design — albeit a well-proportioned one.
Inside, there’s a far more resolved and aesthetically pleasing cabin design. There’s far less ‘clutter’, given the fascia is now dominated by a properly integrated 8.0-inch touchscreen. The classic Ford ‘button fest’ is a thing of the past, though the new layout lacks the Mazda's rotary dial on the transmission tunnel that spares the screen of smudgy fingerprints.
Running on the touchscreen is Ford’s Sync 2 system, which divides the home screen into quadrants for phone, navigation, media and general vehicle information. There are also shortcut buttons and tactile ventilation controls set below, and an excellent digital trip computer ahead of the driver’s line of sight.
It’s sporty and functional, with a great driving position. Furthermore, the Ford’s general trims are better than before, though the Mazda 3 and Volkswagen Golf are both more tactile.
In fact, there remain certain plastic surfaces in the Focus where the pennies have been pinched, notably the grey stuff surrounding the central fascia, and that urethane steering wheel and gearshifter are ordinary.
Standard equipment levels are pretty good. There’s Bluetooth streaming, two USB inputs, satellite-navigation, an industry-leading voice control system that actually works, cloth seats, regular (not climate control) air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, one-touch indicators, a reverse-view camera and rear parking sensors.
There’s also the reassurance of a five-star ANCAP safety rating and six airbags.
In terms of storage up front, there are big door pockets, a handy phone/wallet holder, and a small console and glovebox. There’s also two proper cup holders.
Dimensionally, the Ford is bigger than its Mazda 3 nemesis (78mm longer, 28mm wider and 37mm taller), though it’s not the last word in packaging.
In the rear, headroom and legroom is sufficient for two adults around 180cm, though taller occupants will struggle for long trips. But outward visibility is better than rivals on account of the third window on each side.
The Ford offers good storage solutions in the doors and seat, and two map pockets, but it lacks a flip-down ski port with cup holders, outboard ISOFIX anchors (a poor omission) and cheapo hooks in place of overhead grab handles.
As per usual for the class, the rear seats flip-fold 60:40. With them in use, the boot space is 316L — better than a Mazda 3 but 64L smaller than a Golf. Crucially the Ford also has a (limited to 120km/h) full-sized steel spare wheel rather than a space saver.
What about under the bonnet? The revised Focus offers just one engine option, if you exclude the hard-core 184kW ST — a 1.5-litre four-cylinder turbo petrol from its EcoBoost family producing outstanding outputs for the segment.
The 132kW of power (at 6000rpm) and 240Nm of torque (between 1600 and 5000rpm) claimed by Ford are the figures you might expect of a warmed-up sporty hatch, not a humble base model. That said, its 1366kg kerb weight is quite porky for the class.
Still, we managed to knock out a 0-100km/h sprint in a very respectable 8.5 seconds.
ADR combined-cycle fuel use is claimed to be 6.2L/100km using the cheapest 91 RON petrol — we used about 8.0L/100km on average, but were driving the car with enthusiasm.
This engine is matched to a choice of six-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmissions. Unlike the old Focus, the latter is not a dual-clutch unit but instead a traditional one with a torque converter.
All told, the drivetrain is outstanding. The engine possesses a pleasingly raspy exhaust note, good rolling response (free from lag) and offers a strong mid-range and a willingness to rev out if you want to have some fun. It’s a class-leader.
The new transmission offers welcome docility around town free from the old Powershift DCT’s hesitancy, and the ability to be decisive in its downshifts, though the manual mode is still controlled by silly buttons on the shifter rather than paddles.
Under the skin, the Focus offers all-round independent suspension, electric-assisted steering with about 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, and 16-inch alloy wheels on 205/60 Michelin Primacy tyres.
The steering is tuned in typical Euro-Ford fashion — very light but also wonderfully direct and sharp on centre in a way that renders the lack of feel-and-feedback unimportant. As always with the Focus, there’s a seriously well-balanced chassis that renders the car both nimble and highly controllable near the limit.
There’s also a decent ride over unforgiving urban roads, or off-kilter country tarmac. There’s no floating or wallowing, but neither is it over-damped and jittery, though its rebound after speed humps isn’t quite as cushioning as the Mazda or revolutionary Golf.
The Focus is planted at highway speeds, though not a paragon of high-speed noise suppression — we recorded a noise reading of 78dB at 100km/h on a middling highway.
All told, the Focus has a very different character to its German Golf nemesis — it’s nimble and lively, like a cat on the ball of its feet. Whereas the Golf is phenomenally solid, supple and refined, the Focus is eager, yet comfortable to drive.
To ownership. There’s a three-year/100,000km warranty (less than half the term of a Kia Cerato), transferrable capped-price servicing for the life of the vehicle, and service intervals of 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first — which is reasonable.
Each of your first three visits in the Ford will cost you $340 a pop which, combined with those intervals, makes for a strong package.
Ford also throws in free state Auto Club roadside assistance and membership with every standard service, for up to seven years. Plus you’ll get a free loan car if you get in early, with every service.
So there it is — quick and simple. The Ford Focus Trend isn’t priced like a $19,990 base car, but aside from some cheap cabin plastics, it doesn’t feel like one either.
Its new cabin design is an advancement, the equipment list is competitive, the new engine and transmission are outstanding, the ownership credentials are much-improved, and the ride and handling package remain near top of the class.
Chances are, if you’re after a typical small hatchback, you’ll gravitate to the Corolla, Golf, i30 or Mazda 3. But ignore the Focus at your peril, because Ford has nailed this one.
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