TESTED 26.6.18, FRANCE ON SALE NOW PRICE £25,300
The outgoing Focus retires as the best car in its class to drive, but not the best all-rounder. Can this all-new Focus go one better?
It’s still ‘the one’ to drive, say the people who’ve created the new Ford Focus, although obviously they don’t put it quite like that: they reckon it’s the most “confidence-inspiring, intuitive and rewarding driver and occupant experience of any mid-size family car in Europe”.
Thing is, there isn’t just one mid-sized family car, but three or four, really: a normal five-door hatch, a posh version (the Vignale), a wagon and a tall Active version.
And it doesn’t stop there, either, because there are two different rear suspension options – one independent, one not – because some markets don’t care so much about vehicle dynamics, and a torsion beam is a lot cheaper than what Ford has variously called a control blade or a short-long-arm suspension over the years. Then there’s the option of adaptive dampers too. Oh, and ST-Line trim, which has a 10mm-lower ride height.
The new Focus keeps its spot at the top of the dynamic tree
Imagine, then, that in all this, Ford has managed to reduce the number of orderable Focus configurations by some 92% over its predecessor. There’s less overall choice, but it’s a broader, more defined choice.
The basics, though. The new Focus as tested here is a five-door hatchback. At 4.38m long, it’s average for the class; at 1820mm, as wide as it was before; and it’s 15mm lower. The wheelbase is long, at 2701mm.
It sits on Ford’s new C2 platform, which is apparently quite flexible, albeit not in the very literal sense. It’s actually 20% more rigid, torsionally, than the old Focus and up to 50% in places. It’s lighter too; up to 88kg, like for like.
Prices start at £17,930 and rise to around £30,000 and there’s a line-up of petrol and diesel engines, with a mild hybrid to follow. Newest and spangliest are the 1.5-litre units, of which there are petrol and diesel. The petrol is a new engine, in 148bhp and 179bhp forms. It’s a three-cylinder you’ll find in the Fiesta too.
The 1.5 diesels are 90% new and come in 94bhp and 118bhp flavours. Then there’s a 148bhp 2.0-litre.
Finally, for now, there’s the 1.0-litre three-cylinder petrol, with 84bhp, 99bhp and 124bhp, which has been slightly revised.
We’ve tried a few: mainly the 124bhp 1.0 and 179bhp 1.5 petrols, both manuals, with a briefer steer in a few others.
Consistent to all, though, is that the Focus is spacious. Head room is good in the front, the steering wheel adjusts widely and the use of an electric parking brake means there’s more room on the centre console for oddments storage. The dashboard sits further forward than in previous Foci, while in the back there’s really generous leg and head room and, because the rear window line extends a long way back, visibility is good and it’s airy too. The boot is a respectable 375 to 1354 litres on the hatch but there’s a small load lip. The rear seats go almost flat.
There’s no car in this segment that drives as pleasingly as a Focus does
Perceived quality is mostly good. The upper surfaces are, anyway, although some of the lower plastics and those in the back are specced down to a price; one lower, perhaps, than you’d think the car’s was. It’s designed functionally enough, though. There’s a touchscreen atop the dashboard on all but the base trim but, even though the button count has been slashed like a DFS sofa price, the stuff you’d want to still be a button is usually still a button – volume control, heater controls, and so on. There’s probably still not the clinical efficiency of a Volkswagen Golf to the way things feel but, on the plus side, there aren’t half a dozen other cars off the same platform that feel exactly the same too.
What has always marked a Focus out, mind, is the way it drives. We’ll start with the 179bhp 1.5 ST-Line, with the fancy rear suspension, because an independent rear end is what a Focus has always had and, as it goes, this is the best version I tried.
In this form, with a manual ’box (that’s new too, incidentally), it’s a 1369kg car, a pretty Golfy kinda weight. The torsion beam would lose around 10kg.
It drives really well. As in: best-in-class well. The old Focus probably retired as still just about the best car in the class to drive and this improves things. It does things in that Ford-ish way, so the ride has both a suppleness and composure to it; well controlled and athletic, never harsh, and it doesn’t really matter how many inputs you throw at it at once because it always seems to have something in hand. The steering is a touch lighter than I can remember (you can firm it up, although only a bit, via a drive mode button) but it’s accurate and precise, if not giving the last word in communication.
The three-cylinder 1.5 engine is quiet and smooth too. This is an unusually big power output for a non-diesel, non-outright sporty car, although it emits only 124g/km and consumes just 51.4mpg on the new WLTP fuel cycle, so it’ll be more popular than a car like this would have been five years ago. There’s cylinder deactivation under light loads, but I couldn’t feel it happening. And the six-speed manual is slick, doing the thing that the best manual ’boxes do, when you get the stick pulled halfway into its plane and an over-centre weighting takes over and pulls the lever home. It feels like it’s on your side, that way.
More likely the bestseller, though, is the 124bhp 1.0 Ecoboost, tested in Titanium trim. The torsion beam rear end is less successful: comfort is still pretty good, but there’s more bounce, less innate control. Ford’s engineers say some of that will be because it’s the 10mm-higher ‘normal’ suspension, rather than the ST-Line’s. It’s still good; knocking on the doors of the top cars in the class. But it’s a poorer relation – literally and figuratively – to the more sophisticated set-up.
More on the others another time because, truthfully, these two are the pick. But briefly, the 1.5 diesel is acceptably quiet but don’t get caught too far down the rev range. I tried it in the wagon, which feels less agile and intuitive. The low-power petrol is grumbly when driving through a lethargic auto, and that car had CCD adaptive dampers too. It was a Vignale with a full-length sunroof, so perhaps it was the weight of the auto and roof or maybe it’s just the dampers, but it never felt as naturally settled or agile as a regular one. So there are excellent and merely good versions.
Still, as Ford says: “Driving quality in itself isn’t enough to sell cars. If you’re not up to scratch [in terms of communications tech], you’re not even considered.” And to be fair, it’s an area where Ford is pretty well delivering too. All models get strong levels of active safety kit, lane keep assist is standard and only the base version doesn’t get a touchscreen with mobile phone mirroring.
All of which makes the Focus a pretty compelling proposition. Away from having a premium badge on the nose, that seems important, to me: that a car from a mainstream manufacturer offers something that the opposition just does not. A Volkswagen gives you a solid interior. The latest Kia Ceed gives you no apostrophe, a silly-long warranty and, now, decent driving dynamics too. A Skoda Octavia gives you bags of space.
But there’s no car in this segment, fast versions aside, that drives as pleasingly as a Focus does. You’d know why, I’d know why, and even though your Aunt Maude and Uncle Albert might not have the faintest idea, somehow they’ll appreciate it anyway and tell you what a nice car it is to drive. So the new Focus keeps its spot at the top of the dynamic tree but adds extra functionality too. As a 1.5 ST-Line, it’s well recommended. A 1.0 on a torsion beam might lose half a star, and get the specification really wrong and it might – although only might – lose another half again, but that’s mostly true of the competition too. I’m reasonably confident that, on balance, this is the best all-round car in the class.
SLA, NEE CONTROL BLADE SUSPENSION
Ford now uses the phrase SLA (short long arm) for its independent rear suspension system, which in truth is American shorthand for a double-wishbone suspension system, with unequal-length wishbones. Which is a bit misleading because, although the Focus does have horizontal arms, mounted from a rear subframe, they’re not double wishbones but secured by trailing arms – or, in Ford-speak, control blades. So it was kinda easier when Ford just called it control blade suspension.
With the right boxes ticked, these are matched to adaptive dampers. Ford uses a Sachs damper whose oil valve is of variable diameter, restricting or allowing greater flow, as appropriate. They monitor quite a lot of inputs to decide how stiff to be. One neat touch is that a sudden wheel drop suggests to them that they’re falling into a pothole, so they stiffen to reduce the distance the wheel falls and therefore the impact on the way out of the pothole. Which, given the state of our roads, could be handy.
Neat touch: the boot load cover is a one-handed removal and stores beneath the boot floor. MP
Engine 3 cyls, 1497cc, turbo, petrol
Power 179bhp at 6000rpm
Torque 177lb ft at 1600rpm
Gearbox 6-spd manual
Kerb weight 1369kg
Top speed 138mph
CO2, tax band 124g/km, 25%
Rivals Kia Ceed, Peugeot 308, Volkswagen Golf