String together a few adjectives usually reserved for popular European cars and you'll begin to describe the 2012 Ford Focus-- stylish, dynamic, cutting edge, efficient, not to mention fun and practical. The once ho-hum compact has transformed into a shining star.

Available as either a sedan or hatchback, the Focus can handle the needs of most single drivers or couples with small kids.

It comes in four trim levels from the essential sedan-only S to the well-equipped Titanium model.

When it comes to ride and handling, the Focus easily compares to rivals like the Mazda3 and the latest Honda Civic although neither of those has as many high tech features. Rivals like the VW Jetta pack more power, but just aren't as sporty as the Focus.

The most apparent changes to the Focus are on the inside. It's been upgraded with technology more often found in a mid-size family car and this is especially true in the higher trims where Ford's Sync hands-free infotainment system is the centerpiece. It links with your smartphone so that you can use voice commands to make calls and play music.

Things get interesting when you use Sync with the optional MyFord Touch that we have in our test vehicle. Besides the 8-inch touchscreen interface, it adds advanced voice control for climate and creates a Wi-Fi hotspot. You'll either love it for being on the hi-tech cutting-edge or hate it for adding more stuff to an already busy dashboard.

I simply love the handling. This is one of my favorite front-wheel drive compacts. Too bad it doesn't have a little more power. The 2-liter inline-four is willing with 160 horsepower, but not exactly a powerhouse. This problem is made worse when opting for the automatic transmission.

With the 5-speed manual transmission, power feels adequate and the entire attitude of the car changes. But the 6-speed gets the best fuel economy, topping out at 40 miles per gallon on the highway when equipped with the optional SFE Package that improves aerodynamics and adds low rolling resistance tires.

Another excellent option is Ford's Active Park Assist that actually parallel-parks your car while you just shift gears and apply the brake.

The Focus also got high marks in government safety tests earning an overall score of four stars. Plus it earned a Top Safety Pick from the IIHS.

You'll pay $16,500 for the base S Focus. A well-equipped Titanium hatchback will run you nearly $27,000. If you need to stretch your dollars, an SE with the MyFord SYNC package and automatic transmission is a good mid-range choice.

But if your budget can stand the extras, spring for a fully-loaded Titanium and you'll really see how far the 2012 Ford Focus has come.

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Scott Markle is an experienced automotive enthusiast and industry observer who is passionate about creating compelling content for car shoppers. He has fifteen years of experience building top-tier websites for the automotive industry and beyond, and was part of the team that launched AutoTrader.com.

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