The old Ford Focus was under-appreciated, but the new Mk4 model tested here is better again. It's at the pointy end of the class in the areas of driving dynamics, space, infotainment and active safety. Shortlist it.
Ford’s Focus is one of the world’s top-selling cars — more than 16 million units moved, in 20 years — though it’s never performed in Australia to the same degree as the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Hyundai i30 or Volkswagen Golf.
What it has done, though, is earn a reputation as one of the most dynamically adept small cars in its class. Even toward the end of its life, we found the outgoing model much better than its modest sales figures suggested. A bit of a quiet achiever that lacked recognition, then.
This new-generation (Mk4) Focus is a clean-sheet redesign purported to bring new levels of sophistication, technology and refinement to the table, while retaining the agile and sporty bent of the previous three iterations.
Rather than chasing huge sales, Ford has continued to push the Focus upmarket. As before there’s no circa $20k base model for fleets. The auto-only range comprises the Trend ($25,990 before on-road costs, up $1600), ST-Line ($28,990, up $1500 over the Sport) and Titanium ($34,490, up $1800). This goes in contrast to the heavily discounted Holden Astra.
The luxurious Focus Vignale which competes with the Mercedes A-Class and co isn’t to be offered in Australia, which we can understand. Would be interesting to see here though… Ford is also understood to be considering a new entry-level Ambiente model for Australia.
It’s also diversified the range, axing the unpopular sedan but adding a wagon to rival the Renault Megane, Holden Astra and Golf (in ST-Line guise only, priced at $30,990) and a mild crossover derivative called ‘Active’, pitched at the Subaru XV and priced at $29,990.
Of symbolic importance, all Focus’ now come from Ford’s revised Saarlouis plant in Germany, not Thailand. The message is clear, Ford sees the new car as a rival to the Volkswagen Golf, the ultimate semi-premium small-car even at the end of its own life cycle.
“The chance to build a completely new car from a fresh piece of paper does not come around often. We grabbed it with both hands, to develop the best mid-size family car that money can buy,” said Ford of Europe’s VP of development Joe Bakaj.
With that claim in mind, let’s press on.
Design-wise, Ford’s line is that the Focus has matured to reflect a more premium market position, with a longer bonnet, more curvaceous sheetmetal and a range of aero improvements to cut the coefficient of drag to 0.27 Cd. It’s got lovely proportions, though there’s nothing groundbreaking here.
It’s marginally longer, wider and taller than before. The biggest increase is the 52mm of extra wheelbase, improving interior space. There’s no real weight penalty, though the brand new ‘C2’ architecture has a claimed 20 per cent greater level of torsional rigidity, and 50 per cent stiffer suspension mount points.
There are two broad suspension setups available. Hatchback versions perhaps disappointingly now get the cheaper, lighter and less voluminous twist (torsion) beam rear, using the same vectoring springs as the Fiesta ST hot hatch. The old models had a control blade independent rear suspension setup.
In Europe, Focus hatches can be had with new short/long arm IRS with continually adaptive dampers. Not us. Only the Active and the ST-Line wagon get the IRS in Australia. Given the Active doesn’t launch until early 2019, we figured we’d review the wagon separately and focus (sorry, pun unintentional) on the regular hatch range.
Ford gave us a Trend to drive ahead of the recent launch event, but you can easily extrapolate to the other two spec levels.
The car we tested rode on 16-inch alloys shod with good quality Continental tyres, while the ST-Line gets 17s and stiffer springs. The ride quality proved to be outstandingly good, with the sidewalls and suspension isolating cabin occupants from sharp hits, broken surfaces and the like.
The motor-driven power steering is unusually direct, and this combined with the stiffer chassis and mount points means the Focus remains terrific fun to punt about in. You just point the nose in the direction you want the car to go, and it eats corners with gusto.
The twist beam rear suspension clearly doesn’t have the means to hold onto the road at the rear as well as the IRS, but generally speaking the Focus’ dynamic shine remains undimmed. It’s more of an image thing, being seen to get the cheaper layout despite the new model being mooted as a premium car.
One of the high points is the new engine, an aluminium 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol with integrated exhaust manifold in place of the old turbo four. Peak power is a respectable 134kW (up 2kW), while peak torque is an unchanged 240Nm, from 1600rpm.
Like all three pots, it has a super distinctive, warbling note that immediately endears. It’s also unusually balanced and smooth at idle, and generally very refined at high engine speeds. The 0-100km/h dash is completed in around 8.5 seconds, highly respectable.
It comes as standard with a stop/start system that seemed very smooth, and even a cylinder deactivation that runs it as a two cylinder under low stresses. We didn’t feel it transition.
Forget the old pre-update Focus’ Powershift gearbox woes, because the engine is fitted as standard with an eight-speed automatic with torque converter, and a novel (easily scuffed) rotary dial shifter, augmented by paddle shifters and various modes that change the shift points. We barely noticed the gearbox on our first test drive, which is a good sign.
Don’t let the engine’s diminutive size alarm you, it’s a cracker. Low-volume offers such as a 1.5 with manual gearbox, and a diesel, aren’t on the Australian agenda. The next-generation hotted-up ST and RS obviously are.
The cabin is an improvement over the old car, less fussy and with a less bulged and invasive centre fascia/stack. The big touchscreen is also excellent. The quality and tactility in your eye line is good, though the plastic trims along the transmission tunnel, and doors (especially the rear ones) are hard and feel cheap.
The fabric-lined door pockets are pure (soon to be replaced) Golf, but the overall look and feel is still 20 per cent inferior to that car.
The back seats are impressive though, with enough room for two adults north of 180cm easily, and the boot (with space-saver spare) is a very decent 375L to the package tray. The 30cm longer ST-Line wagon has a 1835mm long loading area with back seats folded, and an SUV-beating 608L of space (and a two-tier cargo area) with five seats in use.
Standard equipment levels are pretty decent, though again we’re at pains to point out that the Focus Trend does wear a premium price tag. Standard fare on this variant includes cloth seats, dusk-sensing headlights, rain-sensing wipers, cruise control, and an auto-dimming rear-view mirror.
Standard infotainment on the 8.0-inch tablet touchscreen is SYNC 3, meaning integrated sat-nav with live updates, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, DAB+, Emergency Assist, Wi-Fi hotspot and conversational voice control that can even change the cabin temperature.
Safety wise, the Focus has the absolute latest 2018 five-star result from ANCAP, and gets six airbags, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane assist and departure warning, and a 180-degree rear camera.
To this suite you can add adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go, evasive steering assist, blind-spot monitoring and cross-traffic alert for $1250, bundled into the Driver Assistance Pack.
Jumping into the $3000 pricier ST-Line nets you a branded honeycomb grille/bumper/spoiler/side skirts, 17-inch wheels, 10mm lower ride height, LED tail-lights, auto-folding mirrors with puddle lights, privacy glass, dual-zone climate control, Qi wireless phone charger, proximity key, flat-bottom wheel, black headlining, metal pedals, and a tyre-pressure monitor. A sunroof costs $2000.
Seems a reasonable offer, though the Hyundai i30 N Line is only $500 more and has 150kW/265Nm, so…
The flagship Titanium arrives early next year and gets extras such as body chrome bits, adaptive LED headlights, heated and powered front seats, all-round leather trim, ramped-up B&O sound system, LED ambient cabin lighting, 18-inch wheels and the Driver Assistance Pack as standard fit.
From an ownership perspective, Ford offers a commendable five-year/unlimited kilometre warranty, capped servicing costs, roadside assist over the warranty period and free customer loan vehicles from the dealer.
So that's a wrap. On first impression the new Ford Focus remains a great steer for the most part, and matches its premium pricing with premium tech. It's worth a look compared to the Golf and co, as it always frankly has been.