Ford and its Focus on ‘less is more’
‘Downsizing’ might be the buyer’s mantra at present but, writes Iain Robertson, the UK’s world car for Ford, its all-conquering Focus, might be its least-deserving of a best-seller status, as several issues rear their ugly heads.
There are two trains of marketing thought, when it comes to best-sellers. There are no surprises in knowing that some manufacturers either leave well alone (‘do not tamper with a best-seller’), or they adopt a radical change, with subsequent models, to ensure that consumers are ‘shocked’ into a reaction, preferably to buy. Regardless, the power of the brand must be carried onto the next generation, in order to hold any proper worth.
It is also valuable to analyse what it is that creates a best-seller. Let’s be frank, if something is not really that good, it will fail to attract interest. So, a best-seller is something that must excel in its field. Its appearance ought to be unchallenging, yet its quality needs to be on a higher perceived plain than it is for its key rivals. Apart from aspects of added value, its stance should be beyond reproach, notably in safety and technology terms. Naturally, it must have strong competitors to help maintain its status, because, without them, the entire class might fail. Above all, it must be keenly priced.
With all of its stars aligned, it is largely understandable that the Ford Focus is not only one of Ford of Britain’s most popular models but also a capable world-beater. Yet, after driving the latest, updated versions of the car, in both estate and hatchback forms, I felt quite underwhelmed; an impression that troubled me enough to delay writing my report, until I felt more happy with what I am about to state.
Firstly, apart from a slight tightening of the belt and braces and the introduction of a new bib and tucker, the number of external changes over the outgoing versions, while moderately impactful, are actually quite limited. Even internally, the new Focus is little changed, which bears out my opening gambit (‘do not tamper with a best-seller’) but, fortunately, the mess of switches and teensy sat-nav screen of old have been replaced by a far tidier centre-stack and a larger, less confusing ‘touch-screen’ system. As a result, there is a less cluttered and significantly higher quality presence to the Focus.
Intriguingly, while the actual trim detailing is very little different, the interior of the revised Focus looks better than ever and, while the VW Golf remains the sector leader, in terms of tactility and perceived premium quality, the Ford is now approaching a similar level, one that is worthy of its perceived status. Personally, I have always possessed a view that the visually smaller and less voluminous front seats of the Focus smack of cheapness, although I am fully aware that Ford has always tested its interiors with serious high-milers, such as the police, and that sustained comfort is simply not an issue. The new Focus front seats are both very comfortable and supportive.
In fact, there might be another benefit in their shape and the amount of cabin space they occupy, in that a better range of height, rake and reach adjustment (notable in the design of the steering column too) makes it easier for a greater range of human forms to live with the car. With zero hassle, two metres of me can slip behind the steering wheel and obtain a safe and commanding driving position, just as a less than five-feet tall woman can too. It is worth pointing out that the load bay of the Focus estate car is both well-shaped and accommodating, although it only weighs fractionally more than the equivalent hatchback variant, while carrying only an £1,100 premium, trim for trim, moving up the range.
However, it is the new technology employed by Ford in this revised Focus that takes centre-stage. Using a combination of radar and cameras, plus myriad sensors, Park Assist assumes new levels of competence for purchasers of the Focus that cannot park, while Torque Vectoring Control tackles dynamic handling issues, Lane Assist keeps the car on the ‘straight and narrow’, Traffic Sign Recognition….and so on helps raise levels of competence among the incompetent. Okay. I realise that sounds quite harsh but, thanks to the entire motor industry seemingly floundering towards a government-sponsored future of ‘non-driving’, under the banner of ‘autonomous motoring’, for the owners of personal transportation, it is abundantly clear to me that, if you remove completely the potential to have a road traffic incident, is there any real point in actually owning a motorcar?
While I might not thrill to the ‘electronica’, at least the seriously revised engine line-up in the Focus offers greater appeal. Despite its multiple awards, I am not a fan of Ford’s 1.0-litre ‘triple’, even though its potential looks fantastic ‘on paper’. Therefore, not wishing to be embarrassed by a fuel-guzzling tiddler (similar issues arise for sub-1.0-litre units from other carmakers that have to work too hard, in larger car bodies, to overcome rolling resistance, thus resulting in poor overall fuel economy), I could see immense potential in the all-new 1.5-litre TDCi unit.
Developing a handsome 118bhp, with a whopping 199lbs ft of torque on tap, any issues with any lack of bottom-end grunt can be dispensed with. As a result, the Focus (in Titanium X trimmed, estate car form) thus equipped can boast a 120mph top speed, allied to a brisk 0-60mph time of 10.2 seconds, while emitting a mere 98g/km CO2, for VED-free motoring.
Tackling a testing route in SE England, where extending the performance envelope was barely feasible, I was actually quite satisfied, as I feel most owners will be, with a fuel return of 50.8mpg. However, this freshly engineered unit, attached to a deliciously slick 6-speed manual gearshift, also boasts an Official Combined fuel return of 74.3mpg, which seems to bear no relationship at all with what was attained. I realise that the government figures are actually little more than a comparison guide but the disparity between stated and actual results is becoming annoyingly wider, which makes me wonder as to Ford’s wisdom in developing its own small capacity engines. Factor in the immense cost of doing so and there is another aspect that arises. Perhaps it might have been better to stick with its Peugeot relationship (which actually produced 20million 1.4, 1.6 and 2.0-litre units in the decade 2002 to 2012)? At least the French company can make claims that are largely achievable.
Yet, if I am displaying a small degree of disappointment with the 1.5-litre diesel, the identically sized petrol alternative was a genuine slam-dunk into despair. Again, on-paper, it looks like a splendid piece of engineering. In its most potent guise, the all-alloy 1.5-litre Eco-boost unit develops a strident 180bhp. It incorporates the integrated exhaust manifold of the technologically interesting 1.0-litre ‘triple’, along with a NOX trap, variable nozzle turbocharger and an intriguing (diamond-like) coating to reduce internal friction losses. Automatic stop-start and aerodynamic-enhancing radiator grille shutters should aid its frugality intentions. There is even an ‘Eco-mode’ setting to help drivers to better appreciate a more economically viable driving experience.
The problem is, on a reverse route to that taken in the diesel model, the Focus hatchback returned an abysmal 28.2mpg. Believe me, it is moderately zesty, capable of despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in around 8.2 seconds, before reaching a top speed of around 138mph. Yet, its modest 127g/km CO2 figure weighs in an annual VED charge of £110. To me, it did not ‘feel’ like 180bhp and, on the few occasions when lighter traffic flow permitted an exploration of its stated potency, it appeared to lack grunt, notably in the important mid-range of the power curve.
It is true to suggest that the higher powered version of this new engine is unlikely to be a major volume seller, as that task will be managed better by the 150bhp 1.5-litre and 125bhp 1.0-litre variants. However, its position as a range-topper, before the ST high-performance models arrive in spring 2015, cannot be understated, as it will garner attention.
The new Focus range is priced from a moderate £13,995 to £24,610, before you start ticking the option boxes (the 1.5-litre diesel estate was tagged at a whopping £26,200 in Titanium X trim), although £250 for the optional sat-nav is a conspicuous ‘bargain’, along with the largely unnecessary ‘heated steering wheel’ at £95. Paying £525 for the fairly useful Blind-Spot Information System (if drivers used their heads and eyes to see what is behind, or overtaking them, it would not be needed at all) is a bit steep, while £250 for ‘keyless start’ is also a tad pricey. The aforementioned lane departure, lane-keeping, traffic sign recognition, driver alert and automatic high beam package is also a hefty £450. However, the ingenious flip-out door protectors, at £85, will help to keep paint jobs pristine and reduce dent potential.
Conclusions: The ‘new’ Focus is really a bit more than just a grille and door handles job. The leaner headlamps and the less ‘Aston-Martinesque’ front grille give the Focus more of a Ford family appearance, while the vastly improved interior and switchgear layout will win the car much deserved accord. Yet, as clever as the new Romanian-built engines are, I think that living with the petrol versions might be harder than with the diesels. It is a comprehensive makeover that the popular Focus has undergone but, as with many other European brands, ticking the options and watching a fast-escalating bottom-line might pose a greater issue.