There are plenty of cars on the market that don’t attract their fair share of buyers, and the Ford Focus is one of them.
In the rabidly competitive small car class there are go-to vehicles such as the Mazda 3 and Toyota Corolla that people know and love, while the Hyundai i30/Elantra models aren’t far behind, and the Volkswagen Golf is getting more and more traction, too.
But the Ford Focus doesn’t have the same cut-through with buyers, despite the fact it could well be the best affordable small car you can buy.
Sales dipped dramatically in 2015, down 53 per cent compared with 2014's figures (7112 sales versus 15,116). Part of that was due to low stock numbers, as a facelifted model launched in July.
The 2016 Ford Focus got a new, more aggressive look. The front looks more like the smaller Fiesta and larger Mondeo now, with the trapezoidal grille treatment giving the car more presence on the road.
The model range update saw the base model Ambiente scrapped, with Ford slimming the mainstream range to the entry-level Trend, the Sport tested here, and the flagship Titanium. Read the full pricing and specifications story here.
The move saw the price of entry jump, but the Sport version dropped by $600 to $27,490 plus on-road costs – not far off what you pay for a top-spec Corolla ZR hatch ($28,990) or a 2.5-litre Mazda 3 SP25 GT ($29,790).
Like those models the Focus Sport aims to live up to its positioning (and its badging) with a body kit and lowered suspension, as well as stepping up a wheel size over the base car (17-inch wheels with Michelin Primacy LC tyres wearing quite skinny 215 rubber in 50 profile). For a Sport model, those wheels are a bit dowdy… right?
There have been changes inside the cabin as well, with an updated dashboard with new instruments, and a revamped centre console featuring the Sync 2 media system.
As part of the Sync suite all Focus models have satellite navigation, Bluetooth phone and audio streaming and a reverse-view camera as standard. The system itself is quite easy to use, and the fact the home screen is set in quadrants means you always know where to tap if you need to get to a different screen quickly.
The revamped cabin looks much better than it used to, though it is still a little less luxurious feeling than some rival cars.
It is highly practical, with big door pockets, a clever double-depth centre console (you can hide stuff under the cup holders like your wallet or phone) and there’s a centre console with SD and USB inputs.
The seats are comfortable up front, while in the rear the room is a bit limited for bigger occupants, particularly in terms of shoulder space, but four grown-ups could fit in here on a road trip without too many complaints.
There could be arguments over which occupant’s luggage gets left behind, though, as boot space is a little tight at 316 litres, but a couple of suitcases will fit easily.
The update also saw Ford bring in a new petrol engine and dump its diesel motor.
All three regular Focuses (not the ST!) have a new 1.5-litre EcoBoost four-cylinder turbo engine, which has more poke than you might expect for an engine of this size.
With 132kW of power at 6000rpm and 240Nm of torque across a broad range (from 1600-5000rpm), the new little engine seemingly has enough punch to live up to that Sport name.
Those outputs are higher than most conventional hatchbacks with par-for-course 1.8- or 2.0-litre naturally-aspirate engines, and the performance of the EcoBoost turbo unit almost makes it worthy of being labelled a warm hatch.
There’s good pulling power from low in the rev range, and the engine is nicely refined and quiet, too. Well, it is for the most part: if you’re in stop-start traffic and the engine’s otherwise brilliant stop-start system doesn’t do its business, you’ll notice some vibration at idle.
Along with the new engine there is a new gearbox. The old six-speed dual-clutch auto – Powershift, as Ford calls it – has been dumped in favour of a conventional six-speed torque converter auto. That may sound like gibberish, but what it means is that the drive experience is a lot smoother.
The transmission doesn’t stutter in stop-start traffic anymore, and the shifts are quick and smooth. There’s a sports mode that holds gears longer, allowing you to rev the engine harder, and even a silly little toggle switch gear selector in lieu of paddleshifters. If you really want to get hands-on, there's a manual gearbox version that costs a thousand bucks less.
Fuel use for the updated Focus is claimed to be better than when it had the non-turbo engine, too, at 6.2 litres per 100 kilometres. You will use more than that if you only do urban driving, and in our city-focused loop we saw consumption of 9.5L/100km.
So, with warm-hatch performance from the engine, you'd hope that the drive experience would warrant the Sport model name – and the good news is that it does.
The Focus is regarded by CarAdvice as one of the best performing vehicles in the segment in terms of dynamics, and the Sport version’s lowered suspension certainly helps it hold the road well. The Focus holds itself well on the road, and it rewards the driver with excellent levels of grip and control.
There’s a slight price to pay in terms of the ride – it can be a little sharp over hard edges – but generally it is compliant and comfortable in most situations.
The Focus’s quick and accurate steering means it is quite an involving thing to drive out of the urban environment, too, and around town the steering action is light, meaning manoeuvring in tight streets or during parking moves.
Ford has a decent ownership program for buyers, too, with lifetime capped-price servicing (over the first five years the average annual cost is $351 for servicing and brake fluid, due every two years). Ford also touts its free loan cars while yours is being maintained, but the company offers only the bare minimum three-year, 100,000km warranty where some brands, like Kia, offer more than double that in terms of time and unlimited kilometres of cover.
If safety is key buying point for you, you should maybe consider opting up to the Titanium version, which gets autonomous emergency braking, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, front parking sensors and semi-autonomous parking. The Sport and Trend models are well-equipped, though, with six airbags (dual front, front side and full-length curtain protection), a reverse-view camera and rear parking sensors, and Ford's torque vectoring control system, which brakes the inside front wheel when cornering to increase its turn-ability.
Still, if you are looking for a small car and you haven’t considered a Ford Focus yet, we’d strongly suggest you set your sights on one. It is, quite simply, one of the best vehicles in its class.
Whether you really need the Sport model - or you could make do with the thoroughly impressive, and more affordable, Trend version - is a matter of taste, but we'd tend to think the entry model is the pick of the range.
Click the Photos tab above for more images by Christian Barbeitos.