Be it cagey or shrewd, its importer deftly sidesteps references of ‘crossover’ or ‘SUV’ in marketing spin when it comes to the 2019 Ford Focus Active.
Certainly not in the sort of slippery suggestions some rivals might intimate in their own offerings. I respect Ford Australia’s forthright stance. To otherwise suggest there’s any SUV in its latest hatchback would be laughable. And the term ‘crossover’ prescribes a pigeonhole large enough to swallow the solar system.
Define ‘crossover’. Does it try to amalgamate facets to two different vehicle types for double-strength effect? Or, as often is the case, does it dilute those facets to create some sort of homogenised half-strength byproduct? Or, as the term literally suggests, is it one kind of vehicle attempting to fully embody another and change its stripes?
Truth is, ‘crossover’ is less definition than it is description. It seems the only commonality amongst generally accepted ‘crossovers’ is the sexed-up fashion. It's motoring leisurewear – or, in this Ford’s case, (ahem) ‘activewear’. Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
After spending a week with the Active, including some comparison time with other so-called crossovers, I can confirm initial suspicions that it’s 100 per cent hatchback and absolutely zero per cent SUV. But that’s perfectly okay in my book. In fact, I very much warmed to the plastic-clad and not terribly jacked-up Focus because, much to my surprise, it’s no mere sheep in billy goat clothing. I discovered a fun-seeking warm hatchback hiding underneath what is, frankly, a sharp-looking if slightly misleading soft-roader appearance package.
The Active’s $29,990 list price also looks appealing against its competitive set, though the fetching aesthetic effect as tested demands a further splurge on Magnetic (grey) metallic paint ($650), a Design Pack ($1800) to upsize to 18-inch wheels, adaptive LED headlights with auto high beam and privacy glass, and the panoramic roof ($2000) look that omits the standard-fit roof rails.
Our tester also fits a Driver Assistance Pack ($1250) adding adaptive cruise, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alerts and reverse autonomous braking, lifting the total to $35,690 list or around $40K on-road.
That’s getting up there for a small crossover, particularly one based on a generic Focus hatchback body, no all-wheel-drive seduction, and a ride lift that, albeit 30-plus millimetres in technical spec, hardly appears to raise the ground clearance much at all. In fact, bar the plastic wheel arch cladding, the Active appears nonplussed about the notion of off-roading.
Reinforcing the ‘Focus in drag’ premise is that, added traction-mode smarts aside, there’s nothing separating the Active from other Focuses – or is that Focii? – in the powertrain department. It’s the same feisty 134kW (at 6000rpm) and 240Nm (1750-5000rpm) 1.5-litre turbo three-cylinder, eight-speed conventional auto and front-driven oily bits found elsewhere in its range.
We’ve praised this punchy, rorty engine and slick positivity of the auto on the move ad nauseam, but its strong warm-hatch leaning only appeals to some – me included – and not everyone, particularly those after a more evenly tempered crossover experience. The edgy three-pot throttle response brings grins, but demands concentration when driven leisurely. The neat thrum of the soundtrack can get tiresome at idle or at a cruise.
It’s a constant giver, enthusiastic in Normal and a downright party animal in Sport. But with a questionable measure of daily driven restraint comes quite a thirst for such a small unit: middling 8.0L/100km for balanced driving – with a claimed average of 6.4L/100km – isn’t something to boast about.
The auto also has a key foible: for a conventional torque convertor transmission, there’s an alarming tendency to roll, or ‘creep’, downhill shifting from drive to reverse or vice versa, and hopefully not into the neighbour’s Bentley. And the novel rotary transmission controller is a 'like it or lump it' affair depending on user taste.
Thankfully, the frisky powertrain is a match with an impressively capable chassis, deceptively so given the plastic-clad crossover pretension that barely hints at on-road fun. Its lively, lithe dynamics are complemented by decent grip and light, direct steering – all hallmarks of the current Focus crop that hasn’t become diluted in Active form. In fact, unlike the torsion beam rear that’s a staple in other Aussie-spec Focus hatchbacks, the multi-link rear end adopted here feels to contribute to the quality of the handling by no insignificant measure.
The ride is also impressive. It’s not overly cushy or under-damped, but instead presents a nice layer of compliance to what’s clearly a reasonably taut, sport-leaning suspension package. It irons out enough of the small road imperfections without feeling to rob from driving engagement, and the NVH suppression is acceptably decent while not quite authentically ‘premium’, particularly in dampening tyre noise on coarse surfaces.
It’s really easy to come away thinking that not only is the Focus Active best enjoyed on sealed terra firma, it downright relishes in it. But it would be remiss not to throw it up a dirt trail or three to see if there’s any substance to the multi-terrain pitch.
Playing around with Slippery and Trail reveals a decent amount of traction, though with it comes a certain amount of wheelspin and a lot of related noise from the broken surface being spat onto the undercarriage. The limited ride height and questionable soft-roading addenda – that ‘bash plate’ on the front fascia is flimsy plastic – means you’ll need to be discerning about which semi-beaten track you’ll venture along.
For our money, the Driver Assistance package is worth the extra $1250 splurge: the active cruise control and lane-keeping smarts, in particular, work faithfully, and many of the convenience systems have quick short-cut buttons to alleviate any frustrating submenu digging to turn settings on or off. There’s a nice, large, guided reversing camera, too, plus rear parking sensors, though it does miss out on audible proximity guidance up front.
It’s a shame the Active design distinction outside doesn’t carry as comprehensively inside. Or that it’s perhaps not a little more upmarket in execution. That said, this newer-generation Focus with its comparatively cleaner look and simpler detailing adds a nicer, airier ambience than its forebears.
The sea of safe, bland grey is tempered somewhat by the nice, large 8.0-inch touchscreen with the responsive, if graphically grainy, Sync 3 format and splashes of colour in the driver’s screen – the whole shebang punctuated by those neat-looking, monikered seats trimmed in much lighter fabric. It’s such a shame, then, that they’re so terribly uncomfortable and lacking in comprehensive adjustment.
In fact, the rear seating is notably more supportive and form-fitting than the fronts. There’s little to grumble about with the spaciousness in the back – it’s one of the best, at least by small hatchback measure – though it does lack for niceties, be it air vents, USB power or even a fold-down armrest. Its 375L to 1354L expandable boot space is reasonable in sizing with conveniently square proportions – the caveat here being that the stowed second row presents a fairly awkward hump in what’s the effective floor.
Ownership-wise, the Focus Active is covered by a five-year/unlimited-kilometre warranty, while servicing is currently capped at a maximum of $299 per service on a per-year basis (15,000km) for the first four years. So, it’s no pricier to own than any other Focus variant in the range.
Despite Ford Australia’s assertions, perhaps the Focus Active is a crossover, though not in a small-car-SUV blend in which most tend to associate the term. Yes, it’s 99 per cent hatchback draped in the aforementioned leisurewear, but the real appeal is how it lays on an almost subversive warm-hatch experience with a completely incongruent, if eminently pleasing, appearance package.
That’s quite a particular and perhaps peculiar niche to fill, but we certainly like it nonetheless.
It’s also a niche that won’t appeal to all tastes – and more power to it. But as we’ve discovered in comparison, if you’re after a more conventional crossover blend, a more fittingly go-anywhere small car with a large dash of SUV practicality, there are certainly quite distinctly different takes on the genre (such as the Subaru XV) that probably fill the conceptual hole a little more comprehensively.