2019 Ford Focus review

International launch drive

Rating: 8.1
$25,990 Mrlp
  • Fuel Economy
    6.4L
  • Engine Power
    134kW
  • CO2 Emissions
    148g
  • ANCAP Rating
    5Stars

There's a newfound maturity to the all-new Ford Focus, which enters the hotly contested hatchback segment with its most resolved offering yet.

“I believe this is the best vehicle we have ever made.”

So said Michael Blischke, Ford’s director of global platforms at the launch of the all-new fourth-generation Ford Focus in France last week. It’s a bold claim, but shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, what senior executive is going to say something like ‘this car is okay’?

What’s not in question are the Focus’s credentials as a best-selling hatchback in a class seemingly overpopulated with models from just about every carmaker.

Since its birth in 1998, the Ford Focus has become one of the Blue Oval’s best-selling cars globally, with the company claiming sales of 16,000,000. That places the Focus well inside Ford’s top five on the sales charts; a chart headed by the indomitable F-150 pick-up truck. And that makes this, the all-new fourth-generation 2019 Ford Focus, such an important car for the brand globally.

Ford Australia will be hoping the launch of the fourth-generation Focus will provide a much-needed fillip in the sales stakes. In a hotly contested segment, the Focus lags well behind mainstream rivals – in terms of sales – from Toyota, Mazda, Hyundai, Volkswagen and Kia. Year to date, just 2698 Focuses have found new homes in Oz. Compare that with the 19,143 Corollas rolling out of dealerships in the same period and, well, you get the picture.

Ford Australia hasn’t confirmed pricing and final specification for the local Focus that will be launched here in November, although a spokesperson for the brand did hint we could expect ‘similar’ pricing to the outgoing model. That’s circa $25K for the Trend hatch auto at current pricing.

What we do know is the Focus range will comprise of an entry-level Trend, the sporty ST-Line and the range-topping Titanium. Ford Australia also confirmed the ST-Line wagon, the first time ever a wagon variant will join the local range. We also know Australian Focuses will be powered exclusively by the 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine mated to an eight-speed automatic transmission, missing out on both the 1.0-litre three-pot and the 1.5-litre diesel and the six-speed manual ’box. For now...

All local Focuses will come with autonomous emergency braking with night-time pedestrian detection, cyclist detection and lane-keeping assist as standard, while the flagship Titanium grade also scores adaptive cruise control with stop-and-go functionality. Ford recently confirmed the new Focus had achieved a five-star Euro NCAP rating.

All local variants will come equipped with Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment system matched to a full-colour 8.0-inch touchscreen. There’s in-built voice-activated satellite navigation, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Bluetooth compatibility, a near 180-degree rear-view camera, automatic headlights, and automatic windscreen wipers.

The ST-Line features its own distinct honeycomb grille, a flat-bottomed steering wheel with contrasting red stitching and metal pedals. Sitting on 17-inch alloys (the Trend sits on 16s), the ST-Line also features side skirts and chrome-tipped exhaust pipes, while the hatch variant scores an integrated spoiler. In terms of tech, the ST-Line adds wireless smartphone charging as well as voice-activated dual-zone climate control.

Whereas the ST-Line errs on the side of sporty, the Titanium ups the ante with 18-inch alloys, a chrome-finished honeycomb grille, leather-appointed interior and a premium 10-speaker Bang & Olufsen sound system. There’s also a new LED Lighting Package that includes daytime running lights with a distinctive signature, automatic daytime levelling and auto high-beam functionality.

Externally, the new Focus doesn’t look all that much bigger than the model it replaces. Designed by Aussie Jordan Demkiw (who, incidentally, also designed the last-ever Ford Falcon, the FG X), the new Focus is very much an evolution of the design. It is wider and lower than the previous model, with a longer wheelbase and shorter overhangs, yet it maintains roughly the same exterior dimensions.

Where it has grown, though, is inside. Thanks to some clever design, the interior is markedly larger than the model it replaces. The dash, as an example, has been moved 100mm closer to the front of the car, freeing up space for the front occupants, while the 50mm longer wheelbase has resulted in more knee, leg and shoulder room in the back. There’s also no transmission tunnel, resulting in even more space in the back for those consigned to road trip purgatory.

Overall, the Focus offers a pleasing if somewhat analogous design. The distinctive Ford grille remains, but elsewhere there are elements reminiscent of other hatches in the segment. It’s certainly not forging a new frontier for hatchback design. Fun fact: Ford’s designers chewed through 26,000kg of modelling clay in creating the new Focus.

Inside, though, it’s immediately apparent Ford has put a lot of thought and effort into creating a cabin that is a marked improvement over its predecessor. From the quality of the materials to the fit and finish, the new Focus is a pleasing, mature place to be. There’s simply a refinement belying its mass-market family hatch price point.

And it’s the little touches that stand out the most. Considerations like felt-lined door pockets front and rear, which go a long way to eliminating those annoying rattles and scrapes that can mar an otherwise pleasant drive when objects move around in pockets without such trimmings.

The choice of materials throughout, bar the customary harder plastics down low, provides a feeling of not exactly plushness, but certainly maturity. And that’s the key to this iteration of the Focus. It’s a mature hatchback, as if, in its 20th year, it has finally grown up.

Of course, nice interior execution and a handsome, if derivative, design are only part of the story. The real test of the Focus’s maturity comes on the road. And it doesn’t disappoint.

We spent time in three variants – ST-Line hatch, Vignale hatch, and ST-Line wagon – over two days of testing on the roads around Nice in the south of France.

All three test cars were powered by Ford’s 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder petrol engine with power outputs of 134kW and 240Nm. A six-speed manual transmitted that power to the front wheels in the two ST-Line variants we sampled, while Ford’s bespoke eight-speed torque converter auto did the hard work in the Vignale.

While it’s difficult to provide definitive driving impressions for our market – none of the variants we drove will be available exactly as tested Down Under – the overall impressions remain valid.

The ST-Line hatch first – a blend of hatch practicality and comfort, while also providing enough driver engagement to entertain most people. There’s a delicious thrummy note from that three-pot under the snout; a note matched by performance that, while not exactly blistering, is warm enough to keep you on your toes and smiling. There are dollops of shove when you need it, and plenty of refinement when you don’t.

The twisting, narrow roads climbing into the mountains around Nice provide the perfect canvas to highlight the ST-Line’s sporting bent. That 134kW under your right foot is just the right amount – fast enough without being maniacally so. And the 240Nm of torque, too, is plenty enough to enjoy.

The six-speed manual gearbox is a delight too – precise, tactile and engaging, and best enjoyed with a few revs on the counter. And in tandem with that 1.5-litre three-banger, the manual ’box delights. The nature of these roads encourages spirited driving: a series of sweeping bends linked by short straights with the occasional hairpin. The Focus gobbles them up with relish, and rarely is a gear other than third required. Only the tightest hairpin needs a downshift to second gear. It’s a torquey engine, for sure, and on these roads is an absolute delight.

Dynamically, the ST-Line doesn’t disappoint either, attacking these mountain roads with a sure-footedness that inspires confidence. The steering is nicely weighted and very direct, leaving you in no doubt what the front wheels are doing. So too the suspension – a multi-link set-up at rear on test, which worked well providing the maximum contact patch of rubber on the road.

Australian-delivered ST-Line hatches, however, miss out on that suspension set-up, and will instead come standard with Ford’s lightweight twist-beam rear suspension that Ford claims improves stability, agility and responsiveness, while also providing a weight saving over the more common Watts linkage set-up. We recently sampled that twist-beam set-up on the new Ford Fiesta ST and it proved excellent. There’s little reason the same application won’t shine in the Focus.

The Focus is equally at home on the freeway, cruising easily in sixth at 130km/h with barely a murmur from under the bonnet. The ride too is beautifully compliant – quiet and effortless. There’s no jarring, certainly not on these beautifully manicured motorways. Road noise is acceptable too, but considering how well-groomed these French highways are, it’s difficult to judge how the Focus will roll on our less-than-ideal freeways and roads.

A stint in the ST-Line wagon, again with the six-speed manual transmission, proved that a sporty estate can be a heap of fun. How much fun? After just a few minutes behind the wheel, you forget you’re driving a wagon. The wagon features Ford’s multi-link suspension set-up at the rear exclusively, including those destined for Australia. It’s a unique set-up for the wagon – the dampers reposition further outboard, primarily to maintain agility and responsiveness with a fully loaded boot, while also maximising boot space due to a slightly wider load.

Speaking of boot space, Ford claims 608 litres with the second row in use, but drop down those seats and there’s a pretty generous 1653L to play with. The hatch, by way of comparison, makes do with 375L expanding to 1354L.

The top-of-the-line Vignale variant isn’t headed Down Under. Instead, local showrooms will spruik the Titanium as the Focus range-topper. But, spending time behind the wheel of the Vignale provided some much-needed impressions on Ford’s eight-speed automatic – the only variant on this launch fitted with the sole transmission option heading our way. (As an aside, Ford has done away with the more traditional pistol grip gear lever, and opted instead for a rotary-dial gear selector – think Jaguar Land Rover product. Primarily, this is to free up space in the centre console, and to that end it works.)

And the news is good. It’s a perfectly capable torque converter: quiet and effortless when it needs to be, and sharp-ish when more is asked of it. Power delivery is smooth and linear, certainly during normal around-town driving conditions. Attacking some country roads does, however, shine a light on some – very minor – nuisances.

Accelerating on straight stretches of road is fine, the eight-speed holding onto revs nicely before shifting into the next gear. Sharp – and especially uphill – cornering did cause the transmission the occasional bit of consternation as it hunted for the right gear, and that impacted on corner exit speed. It’s not glaring, not by a long shot, but it is noticeable. Sometimes.

Of course, switching to the steering-wheel-mounted paddle-shifters to take over inputs negates this, and we’d venture to say anyone having some spirited fun would almost certainly opt for manual inputs, saving full-auto mode for city traffic and highway driving.

All Focus variants will be covered by Ford’s five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty when they arrive locally in November. And there will be a capped-price servicing plan, although details of that have yet to be released.

The new Ford Focus is undoubtedly a big step forward for Ford’s volume-selling hatchback. From its well-thought-out and resolved interior to its on-road capabilities, the Focus has a newfound maturity. It’s a shame we weren’t able to sample exact Australian-specification models at the international launch, but what we did taste has certainly whet the appetite for when they do lob here in November.

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