Pros: Great styling; great handling; great features; great mileage

Cons: Engine could use more power; automatic is slow to shift; upper-end models can get pricey

More and more Americans are warming to the idea of smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Car companies have responded by equipping their entry-level models as if they were mid-size family sedans. This choice, along with improvements in safety, power, and handling, has helped propel the Ford Focus to the top of the small-car charts. With its European-inspired design, the Focus looks more Milan than Detroit. And with such impressive options as self parallel parking, the SYNC voice-activated information and entertainment system and the upcoming all-electric and turbocharged ST models, the Ford Focus seems to offer something for everyone. A price range starting at around $17,000 and topping out past $30,000 certainly suggests Ford has a wide audience in mind, pitting the Focus against everything from the Chevrolet Cruze to the Nissan Leaf and even the Audi A3.

Available as a four-door sedan or five-door hatchback, the Focus is certainly versatile enough to handle the needs of most single drivers or couples with small kids. But it's the car's outstanding driving dynamics and cutting-edge electronics that make it such a joy to own. There's even a special model that achieves 40 mpg on the highway without sacrificing any of the ride comfort or features that make the other Focus trims so appealing.

Comfort & Utility

The Focus shines in so many areas, but nowhere is its transformation from rental-car standard to world-class compact more evident than inside the car. There are four trim levels-S, SE, SEL and Titanium-and pricing varies widely, but they all include a thick-grip steering wheel and firm seats with large side bolsters to hold you in place when the driving becomes spirited. Front-seat passengers have generous room to stretch out, although some may find the Focus's interior a bit narrow and confining.

The dashboard is an intricate arrangement of shapes, knobs and switches. Some of our testers liked the high-tech look, while others complained that the setup is just too busy. All agreed that the steering-wheel-mounted control pads for audio, SYNC and MyFord Touch are a good idea but were split on whether there is too much going on with these controls, especially with MyFord Touch.

When it came time to load in two more passengers, we found the rear seat accommodating but not as welcoming as the ones in the Volkswagen Jetta and the Honda Civic. Push the front seats to about the middle of their travel, and long-legged folks will have an easier time squeezing into the back. Both four- and five-door models feature folding rear seats for increased cargo space, but our vote for the outdoor active set is the five-door, which has a tall hatchback opening and an obstruction-free cargo bay.

Technology

The 2012 Focus offers one of the most diverse and technologically sophisticated options sheets of any car we've tested under $30,000. Highlighting the techno tour de force is the SYNC hands-free information and entertainment system. With SYNC, the driver can use voice commands to dial a friend, call up music from his or her iPod by song, artist or playlist and have incoming text messages read aloud.

Combine SYNC with MyFord Touch, and you get even more features, including a customizable color LCD screen in the center stack and a configurable 4.2-inch screen in the instrument cluster. With MyFord Touch, the driver can use casual speech commands to locate restaurants, shops or gas stations, adjust the climate controls and even call up favorite SiriusXM stations. We liked the concept, but some found the system a bit trouble-prone and unintuitive. Ford acknowledges having heard similar complaints from customers; the automaker is working on a more user-friendly software update that should appear on newer models, as well as a free update for those who have already purchased the old system.

Another on our list of must-haves is Ford's Active Park Assist, which can parallel park the car for you, requiring only that you shift gears and brake when prompted. Other options include Intelligent Access and push-button start, keypad locking and unlocking and voice-activated navigation with 3D maps. Traffic and weather updates and up-to-date information on movies, sports scores, and gas station pricing are also available; those require a subscription to SIRIUS Traffic and Travel Link.

Performance & Fuel Economy

The 2.0-liter gasoline direct injection engine in the Focus may not be big on power, but it is willing and offers good low-end torque and smooth operation. It makes 160 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, which is enough to zip the Focus through traffic and onto crowded highways with confidence. However, the six-speed PowerShift automatic transmission seems to get confused at times, hunting for the right gear and pausing momentarily before downshifting. The same is true of the more advanced PowerShift transmission with electronically controlled SelectShift manual mode, which is an option on SEL and Titanium models. We much prefer the five-speed manual transmission, which we think adds a sporting feel to the Focus in line with the car's European roots.

Fuel economy figures with the manual transmission are 26 mpg city/36 mpg highway. With the six-speed PowerShift automatic, those figures climb to 28/38 mpg, but they drop to 27/37 mpg when the SelectShift feature is added. Optional on the SE trim is the SFE package, which adds low-rolling-resistance tires and improved aerodynamics, resulting in 28/40 mpg.

Safety

The Focus comes standard with ABS, electronic traction and stability control and six airbags: front, front side impact and front and rear side curtain. The Focus does exceedingly well in both federal government and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety crash tests, earning a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS.

Driving Impressions

The Focus is one of our favorite compact cars. Its handling is simply spot on in every way, from the feedback generated by its electrically assisted power steering to the crisp, quick shifting five-speed manual. When it comes to ride and handling, the 2012 Ford Focus easily compares with the Mazda3 and even the Volkswagen GTI. We just wish it had a bit more oomph under the hood, but that will come in 2013 when the turbocharged ST arrives. For now, the Focus with its 2.0-liter engine will do just fine. It's a competent highway cruiser with a hushed interior, a smooth ride and a feeling of solidity that's usually lacking in a car of this size.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Civic - The Civic has a well-earned reputation for quality and strong resale value, but this latest generation is not as solid or quiet as previous Civic models, and it doesn't offer nearly as many high-tech features as the Focus.

Volkswagen Jetta - The Jetta is a bit larger inside than the Focus, with a larger back seat and a quieter cabin. In addition to its 2.5-liter gasoline engine, the Jetta also offers a powerful, fuel efficient clean diesel option. But the Jetta isn't as sporty as the Focus, and its looks border on plain vanilla.

Mazda3 - In the s models, the Mazda3 has a bit more power than the Focus, and its handling is every bit as sharp. The Mazda's styling may be a bit over the top for some, and its navigation and its information and entertainment interface pale in comparison to the Focus's SYNC and MyFord Touch.

AutoTrader Recommends

The best bang for the buck comes from the Focus SE with the MyFord SYNC package and the automatic transmission. For around $20,000, this model gives you everything you need, plus enough electronic toys to make long road trips fly by. If money isn't too tight, we'd go with a loaded Titanium with the five-speed manual. For around $28,000, you can load it with premium leather seating, navigation, MyFord Touch, Sony audio, rain-sensing wipers, heated front seats and Active Park Assist.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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