2012 Ford Focus- A Real American Reunion

When the original European-designed Focus was introduced for the 2000 model year in hatch, sedan, and wagon guises, it became a game changer within the compact car segment almost overnight.  At the time, the small car market was full of bland, soulless appliances that had no passion, no excitement.  The Focus was revolutionary, proving that an affordable small car does not have to feel cheap.  It did everything well- offering plentiful room for five full-size adults, superb driving dynamics, and looked good- boldly expressing Ford’s then-current “New Edge” styling theme.  It was such a good all-around package that it was hard to imagine that the car was developed on a tight budget.  Critics raved and the Focus received numerous awards, including European Car of the Year and scoring a place in Car And Driver’s coveted “Ten-Best List” three years in a row.

The Ford Focus always brings back fond memories.  Coincidently, that Focus debuted in the midst of my senior year of high school.  It became the “must have” car during the twilight years of being a teenager.  If the Focus were a person- it would’ve been the captain of the school football team; handsome, athletic, taut, envied, and extremely popular.  It was a car that could do little wrong and had its whole life ahead of it.

Fast forward to 2010 and it became apparent that the years were not kind to the Focus.  The model stagnated and the versatile hatch and wagon disappeared from the lineup, replaced by a useless and not-so-stylish coupe.  The daring design had been toned down and became gimmicky- wearing tacked on chrome and fake side air vents.  The handling capabilities were toned down to suit American tastes and Ford decontented the car.  The thrill was gone.  It was depressing to see what the Focus had become and the whole scenario could be likened to seeing that same football team captain overweight, bold, and unemployed at the high school reunion.

But what a difference two years can make.  For 2012, the Focus has been completely redesigned and given a new lease at life.  Like the original, the new version is almost identical to the European rendition and all of the sporting pretentions remain intact from across the pond.  The sedan once again returns, and with the reintroduction of the hatchback and deletion of the coupe, the new Focus leaves off where the original generation ended and pretends that the dreadful 2008-2011 bodystyle never existed.  Looks like the team captain hit the gym and had an extreme makeover after the reunion.

Handling has always been a Focus drawcard and this new one doesn’t disappoint.  Ford took a risk by introducing its Electric Power Assist Steering for the first time to the Focus, replacing the traditional hydraulic system.  Most electric steering setups deliver an artificial and disconnected feeling to the road, however Ford has tuned this one to require only a light touch during parking manuevers and to get heavier as speeds increase.  The end result is a car that is maneuverable in tight spots and offers excellent feedback on twisty roads.  This is a car that can grip the pavement tenaciously and when most compact cars will be begging for mercy, the Focus wants you to push it further.  This is truly an enjoyable car to take around the corners- and it feels more like a sports car than an economy car.  Road grip is high and the steering communicates effectively at any speed.  Huge kudos to Ford on this!

Ride is also commendable.  The Macpherson front and rear multilink suspension is perfectly tuned to deliver a comfortable ride and a sporting disposition.  Most bumps and imperfections are easily absorbed and the car never leans in turns.  Although some could say the ride is a little firm, it would take a major pothole to upset passengers or throw the car off course.

Engine performance is pleasing enough in the city.  The 2.0 liter 4-cylinder engine offers 160 horsepower and now features direct-injection.  This helps improve fuel economy while maintaining healthy performance figures.  The Focus felt peppy enough on surface streets and at cruising speeds.  But the car can feel downright sluggish on hills or when passing.

Don’t blame the engine for it though, our glaring eyes need to fall on the car’s one major Achille’s Heel- the 6-speed automatic transmission.  With a goal to achieve the highest fuel numbers possible- sixth gear comes up way too quickly.  It’s reluctant to release more power when it is needed- hesitating for a moment when the accelerator is floored and then clunking down into a lower gear before trying to swim back to sixth again.  Even with modest acceleration, shifts were not smooth and it was continually hunting for the right gear.  Another aggravating observation is that the gear selector only has one slot to downshift manually- “L”, and that can only be done at low speeds without melting engine valves.  The same transmission can be acquired with manumatic on higher trimmed Foci- but few drivers will probably utilize it.

The interior is full of mixed reviews.  This is most nicely executed Focus interior yet.  Materials all around are nice to the touch and have an expensive, quality feel that wouldn’t be out of place in an Audi.  Aside from a loose piece of trim on top of the steering column, all panels seem to fit together well and the car gives an impression of being solid and well made.  Gauges are clear and crisp as well- they’re easy to read day or night with an attractive cool-blue font.

Visibility is good all around with a large windshield and thin pillars.  To the rear it’s not bad as some cars, but there is still a sizable blind spot.  To offset that, the side mirrors are large and Ford is now offering a convex mirror on many of its cars, including the Focus.  It was very helpful when changing lanes and took much of the guess-work out.  It’s a simple solution to a common problem.

Thankfully, our Focus did not have the confusing and distracting MyFord Touch touchscreen controls for the radio.  In this more basic trim the radio mimics a cell phone keypad and although it may look cool, it can be a little tricky to figure out the multiple, look-a-like buttons.  The ventilation system is easy to operate, however the A/C automatically comes on when the temperature  knob is switched to the coldest setting.  The air conditioning cannot be shut off without turning the knob away from “cold” first.  That could be convenient on a hot Arizona day, but sometimes it’s nice just to have outside air flowing.  Storage space is plentiful and the standard center armrest is nicely padded and well positioned.

But the front seats do not feel roomy as the dashboard and console intrude on precious leg space.  The center console, in particular, is wide and juts into the driver cockpit.  The rear seat is even worse- due to the sloping rear end, headroom is compromised and room for legs and knees are very tight.  The backs of the front seats are scalloped out to allow more legroom, but back seat passengers will still find their knees digging into the backs of front passengers.  Small rear windows and a high cowl add to the confined feel and entry and exit are tight.  The rear seat, in general, is not a pleasant place to be for long distances.

Space in the cargo area on the hatch is ample and nicely shaped with little wheelwell intrusion.  The opening is also large and the liftover is low- making loading a breeze.  The rear seats do flip and fold to create a flat floor and generous space.  Folding those seats can be a hassle- requiring the headrests to be removed within the limited space below the roof line, the front seats then have to be moved forward, and the seat cushion folded first.  It’s an awkward manuever and there’s no easy way to do it.

Like many compacts, people are downsizing to smaller cars on the promise of saving money at the pump.  There’s several variants of Focus available with different powertrains, including an SFE model that boasts an EPA measurement of 40mpg.  That trim, though, costs extra.  The normally aspirated Focus, like my tester, has an EPA rating of 28mpg in the city and 38mpg on the highway. Not bad, and even with some aggressive mountain driving and jaunts in the city, I averaged a very respectable 34mpg, and reached the haloed 40mpg on a freeway run.  The Focus keeps its promise.  An innovative new touch is the capless filler- no longer do we have to worry about leaving the fuel cap behind.  Although, I must admit to my occasional ditzyness, I thought I had lost the fictional cap when I first filled up.

Finally, styling is attractive and an evolution from the original Focus.  The general body shape is similar, but the tailights are now at home lower in the D-pillar, much like the Fiesta and the front is more wedge-like in profile.  The fascia is aggressive, which massive grilles in the bumper and detailed headlights.  I liken the front to a snake with fangs.  Overall, the car looks taut and athletic. An interesting touch is the fuel door being integrated into the taillight design.

My tester had 5k miles on the odometer and had a broken cargo cover as the only issue.  The strap to the hatchback had broken.  That’s very minor and the rest of the car was free from any defects.

Price could become a concern with the Focus.  The hatchback starts at $18300 and the only option mine featured was the automatic transmission- bumping the MSRP of my tester to $20190 including destination charges.  Add Ford MyTouch, Sync, and upgrade to the high-end Titanium trim, and a Focus can easily surpass the $28000 mark.  That’s a lot of money for a so-called economy car.

I’m torn on the Focus.  I really wanted to like it- I own one myself and was hoping it would bring back the magic of the 2000 model.  That one had the perfect blend of driving enjoyment and utility and few compromises.  The performance, sans the transmission, is fantastic on the new iteration, and so is the quality feel.  But the cramped interior, overdone dashboard, and high price of admission take some of the joy away.

Whether you’ll like the Focus is based on what you expect from a small car.  The Hyundai Elantra is probably its fiercest competitor, and offers more space for less money yet lacks the European road manners.  If performance mixed with style is your goal- then look no further than a Focus.  If you need practicality and value- then look elsewhere.  In other words, the star athlete is back, but he’s lost some of his charm.  4.0/5.0 boomerangs

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