Ford’s understandable Focus on the class
There always has been an issue, explained Iain Robertson, with submitting a new motorcar to a ‘brief’ test, a factor elucidated by carrying out an extended test period that amounts to living with the vehicle for several weeks, as he has discovered with the latest Ford model.
Possessing the necessary hardware, standardising the test procedure, keeping abreast of developments and even taking photographs in a certain way (front, front ¾, side, rear, boot open, doors open, driver’s aspect and so on), are all means by which to ensure that balance and a writer’s positively constructive opinions can be as close to neutral as is feasible for a reviewer.
My 50-mile test route is normally enough to differentiate one model from the next in the fairest way, taking in, as it does, a good mix of town traffic, cross-country A and B-roads, hills and dales. Taken quickly, I can ascertain a car’s handling capabilities and higher speed dynamics. Driven frugally, I can ascertain its fuel economy and low speed ride quality. I always drive the route at least twice and in the early afternoon.
While this is fine for a few days’ test period, the ‘instant view’ that arises from an overseas’ road test opportunity often fails to raise the issues that occur, from living with a machine for longer than a few hours. Thus, to be allowed access to the latest Ford Focus 1.5TDCi estate car, properly run-in and with the ‘newness’ edges gently rubbed off, for a longer test period, is a luxury for which I am truly delighted. It meant that I have been able to explore several of its finer points.
Ford Motor Company genuinely tries very hard to capture the zeitgeist with its latest models. As the best-selling brand in the UK, a status it has held for much of the past forty years, it has one hell of a reputation to live up to. While I can comprehend the means by which it achieves it, when other apparently equal brands fail to make muster, it can be difficult sometimes to define its overall competence. I realise that the Ford Focus sells like a default option to company car fleets. While its relatively affordable operational overheads, ease of servicing, spare parts availability, reliability and dealer network spread are among the many strong-points attached to the brand, the awkward ‘driver appeal’ remains in question…‘one man’s meat’ and so on.
We live in a very badge-conscious market. Deliver a Ford Focus to a vehicle user, who would prefer an Audi A3, a BMW 1-Series, or even a Merc A-Class, and that person’s individual performance might become conflicted. It is not such a daft suggestion and explains why the ‘Teutonic Threesome’ can boast phenomenal sales successes in recent years. Yet, I wish to state up-front that the latest Focus is more than capable of showing-up those significantly more costly models to be little more than expensive, not merely on invoice bottom-line.
Of course, the more sightings that the greater public make of one particular model, the safer they feel in making their ultimate choice of personal transportation. A multitude of Ford Focuses populating our roads and conurbations lifts the odds of driving potential buyers into showrooms. Ford knows that it must satisfy those ‘user-choosers’, whether they be private buyers, or small-to-medium-size company executives. It can only achieve that by formulating a buying proposition that is not always at the baseline. The Focus incorporates whatever is the latest gizmo, whether it be safety, security, or comfort orientated, and the latest models are jam-packed with equipment, both obvious and hidden.
The Focus model has been on a trek of considerable refinement since the first version superseded the previous Escort line-up in mid-1998. It was all pointy and slightly avant-garde, both inside and out. It landed the 1999 Car of the Year award, which did no harm to its existence, although I never really fell for the car. Its second generation appeared six years later. It was better overall but still lacked a well-defined character.
The third generation actually appeared as recently as 2011 and, while the latest models have endured a thorough re-fettling process, they are actually so markedly different to their forebears that they ought to be renamed as a Mark Four Focus. While my appreciation of the model has grown over the years, it is this latest iteration that has impressed me most.
Ford clearly learned something vital from its ownership period of Volvo Cars (now in Chinese hands). Unlike General Motors that ‘sucks’ the best ideas, like a leech, from its various charges, leaving them gasping and writhing in agonised pain at the roadside (Saab, Isuzu, Fiat, Subaru, even Suzuki bear the marks), Ford’s approach is more of a learning one. Pulling open the driver’s (or any) door is the first level of understanding. The latches are ‘soft’. Even pulling the door to reveals a pleasant, high-quality ‘thunk’, as it closes. Very Scandinavian. Very Volvo. Very excellent.
The driver’s seat is multi-adjustable, by electric motors in the Titanium X version pictured. It is matched by an equally impressive range of adjustment from the steering column. The resultant driving position is the ideal combination of being safely commanding, comfortably supportive, especially on long journeys, and among the best of any car, not just in the same class as the Focus. Even the steering wheel rim is of the right diameter, being neither too large like some VW models, nor too small, like the ridiculous items fitted to some Peugeots of late.
However, the most important aspect is its gearing, which is quick enough to enable immediate reactions from the driver to be transmitted to the front tyres but also that it provides a stunning linearity of responsiveness, which means that its weighting does not increase with lock dialled-in and that little more than a flick of the wrist can be introduced to maintain stability through bumpy corners and while circumnavigating roundabouts. It is delicious and the result of intense effort expended by the company’s chassis engineers to reach steering nirvana.
However, allied to the steering is the most supple and muscularly visceral suspension system. Aided undoubtedly by its rigid body design, the springs and dampers serve their customarily compromised ride and handling envelope. Yet, it is far less of a compromise than any other car in the Focus’s class. It cushions the worst of road surface imperfections, providing a firmly sporting ride on good tarmac and a quality of damping that is fluent and perfectly judged. None of its rivals feels either as competent, or confident, and, as a result, the driver does not have to make minute directional adjustments to keep progress on an even keel. Once again, stable handling nirvana is achieved, which turns every drive into a relaxing one, a most important criterion, when drivers have today‘s on-road distractions to deal with.
Yet, it is the other aspects of driving dynamics that are simply so satisfying in the new Ford Focus. The road sign recognition system that flashes up speed restrictions; the auto-headlamps, which work (firstly), do not blind on-coming drivers and dim as you approach a 30mph limit, while their turning function means that corners are illuminated safely. Tap a button on the end of the left-hand stalk and a lane warning system operates. I personally do not like these devices and it can be switched off but I can perceive the benefits.
Even the large centrally located, touch-screen that contains the four key control priorities – sound system, climate control, sat-nav and mobile phone – works intuitively and logically, making the dashboard less cluttered and confusing, is absolutely brilliant. While ‘Bluetoothing’ one’s phone can be a flaming nightmare in some cars, my android device sync’d up with the Focus in seconds.
Finally, I draw attention to the simply astonishing performance of the 1.5-litre turbo-diesel engine and its gorgeous, snickety-snack, 6-speed manual gearbox. Boasting 118bhp from its downsized capacity, its efficiency is stand-out. On one, quick journey from Lincoln to Edinburgh, the Focus covered the 263 miles in a very comfortable four hours and 22 minutes northbound, returning 53.7mpg. My return trip, which, thanks to the A1 being closed for no apparent reason, occupied 294 miles, took only slightly longer to complete but returned 55.2mpg. Apart from being easy on the pocket, the engine is refined and accompanied by one of the slickest manual gearboxes I have driven in ages. Incidentally, the car can run to well over 120mph, despatching the 0-60mph benchmark in around 9.9 seconds (the company figures state 10.4 seconds). Its exhaust emits just 98g/km CO2, which means zero VED and a lowly Group 15 insurance rating underscores its wealth of safety and security features.
Conclusion: Keen pricing (£24,345 in Titanium X Nav form) ensures that the Focus compares very favourably against the equivalent VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Peugeot 308 estate car variants, all of which are costlier. None is as well equipped. Its load deck is well-shaped and cavernous. While the Official Combined fuel return is around 75mpg, most careful drivers should be able to attain around 65mpg with a little effort. The bottom-line for me is that the Focus might well be a ‘default choice’ for some buyers but it is now, in my eyes, the benchmark in the class. The difficult-to-define feeling of oneness with the car becomes abundantly clear in the Ford Focus. It is great to look at, I love the way it illuminates all-round when the remote ‘plip’ is pressed at night and its practical space and driver-pleasing comfort are its pinnacle achievements. It is the BEST Focus ever and probably the best Ford too.