When the Ford Focus was first introduced to the U.S. in 1999, it was a nice departure from the American small cars available at the time, especially in the area of styling, where it offered a decidedly European look, along with three- and five-door hatchback models. Handling was quickly established as a strong point, too.
For 2008, the Focus gets a pretty thorough cosmetic redesign inside and out for a different, more "contemporary American" look, along with some substantial re-engineering that help improve its ride and handling and make it more efficient. It's just short of a redesign, as it keeps the same basic dimensions and proportions as the previous Focus. The hatchback and wagon models are completely gone, with the sedan and a new coupe remaining.
In front, the Focus bears some resemblance to the larger Fusion, with new wrap-around, clear-lens headlamps and a front grille with horizontal chrome bars. The back end is clean but quite basic, with new clear-lens taillamps flanking a rather clean, squared-off trunklid, with an LED strip mounted high and the license plate bracket now down below on the bumper fascia.
From the side, the view includes a new, prominent sheetmetal crease extending from the front fender upward toward the decklid, and to top it all off - or perhaps, put it over the top - there's a cheap-looking, non-functional side gill, with black plastic in the middle, chromed around the edges.
Much has changed on the inside, and that's a good thing. We loved what has been done with the interior. There's much more attention to the little details; the completely redesigned dash looks very attractive, clearly influenced by both Volvo and Land Rover in layout and switchgear, respectively. The nice soft-touch knobs and buttons for the climate control and audio aren't are laid out quite simply, and they have a nice tactility that had been lacking in Ford's previous small cars. And while the dash itself doesn't use materials that are particularly soft, the overall impression throughout the interior is one of tightness and solidity.
Also of note are the seats. They're new and look to be a similar design to those used in the Fusion. There's not a lot of lateral support, but they're an unusual combination of adequately apportioned yet firm and supportive.
Pep and circumstance
Under the hood is Ford's established 2.0-liter Duratec four-cylinder engine, which makes 140 hp, a few more, this year due to new intake and cooling systems. California-emissions states get a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) version that makes 132 hp. It's hooked up to a standard five-speed manual transmission or optional four-speed automatic. For 2008, both transmissions have higher ratios for improved fuel economy.
We spent drive time in both the automatic and manual versions. The four-speed automatic actually functions quite well with the engine, which is quite torquey and happiest in the middle of the rev range; shifts are smooth, too. The five-speed manual shifted smoothly and precisely, but the takeup point on our test car's clutch pedal was unusually high. With either version, we found plenty of power for daily driving, though you may be wishing for more is in high-speed passing or on mountain roads.
If you've driven a Focus in the past, you'll surely notice that the interior is a lot quieter - in engine, road, and wind noise. Engineers did extensive wind-tunnel work to reduce wind noise and increase fuel economy for the '08. Various incremental improvements were made with more sound-deadening materials, an acoustic windshield, thicker front-door glass, a stiffer front air dam, and improved side-mirror sealing. And altogether, they managed to save weight, too; compared with the 2007 model, the '08 is about 100 pounds lighter.
The climate control system was completely reworked; it's both quieter and lighter than the system is replaces and has improved cooling and heating, according to Ford.
Weight was also saved through the aluminum calipers in the Focus's brake system. On the down side, the Focus still has economical drums in back, and anti-lock control is optional.
The result is much improved pedal feel that is more progressive than the outgoing Focus, which tended to be overboosted at first touch, then difficult to modulate. While the pedal feel was nice as low speed, we wished for a bit more actual braking capacity; the system felt less confident on our drive when braking abruptly from 70 mph down as fast Interstate traffic suddenly slowed to a 20-mph crawl.
Handling is claimed to be better than the previous Focus, and it truly ranks the new Focus in the upper echelon for those who want a good mix of ride comfort and decent handling. The previous Focus handled well but the ride tended to be quite busy, so to address that the suspension has been completely recalibrated for 2008, with different spring rates, dampers, stabilizer bars, and bushings.
The overall effect is that it feels a bit softer, absorbing jittery surfaces, severe bumps, and expansion strips much more easily. But throw it into a corner and you're due for a pleasant surprise: the heavy body roll you might expect does not come. Instead the Focus's steering, which is weighted nicely, communicates the road surface, and the body controls itself nicely while roll is minimal. It's nice to know that a measure of emergency handling is there when needed, even though most aren't going to drive the Focus aggressively.
Admittedly, we only drove the top-of-the-line Focus SES model, which comes with an "enhanced European-inspired suspension," rear stabilizer bar, and larger 16-inch alloys; though on the lower-priced models what we said about the steering would certainly apply. Throughout the model line, the body has been strengthened in the roof and rear floor area, and a stiffened cross-beam behind the instrument panel improves lateral stiffness.
The interior is definitely a big improvement, but it's likely that even more people will be keeping the Focus on their shopping lists for what it has in the middle of its instrument panel. The small hooded electroluminescent screen, which serves as a display for sound system functions, plays double duty as the display for a new Microsoft-developed interface, called Sync in Ford products.
Sync, which is without a doubt the star of the Focus interior and feature list, provides a simple, speech-driven interface for accessing multiple telephones and audio devices. This, it does much more effectively than other far more complex, all-encompassing vehicle systems like BMW's iDrive or Mercedes-Benz's COMAND. Without going over exactly which commands do what, with Sync it really is simply a matter of holding down the voice system button and saying "call Bob," or "play Free Bird," with an immediate voice confirmation of what you've ordered up. It will even read incoming text messages, allowing you to reply with one of many standardized replies.
We were absolutely amazed with how quickly and easily we could pair multiple devices. At one time we had two phones paired - one of them with Bluetooth audio streaming, which also worked well - and an iPod hooked up, and everything worked as claimed. But as would be expected, while driving on coarse surfaces the system sometimes had trouble understanding long band names or song titles, and there were several times when the humorous flowed into the frustrating - for instance, when "play genre jazz" or "play genre rock" was consistently greeted with "playing John Lennon."
Curiously, the Sync interface cannot be turned completely off or temporarily disabled if, for instance, you have teenage drivers taking the car out for the evening and want to keep them from spending the time chatting and texting while driving. The radio preset buttons can be programmed to speed-dial frequently called numbers, but if you don't like voicing all the time you should be aware that there's a general lack of straightforward keypad controls for frequently accessed Sync functions. Microsoft officials said that the capability is there for hot buttons, but with Ford the priority was keeping the interface as simple as possible.
Close, but not tops
On the safety front, the Focus is well equipped but not at the top of its segment. With side bags a federal requirement beginning next year, front thorax side airbags and Safety Canopy side curtain bags for both front and rear occupants are now standard, but stability control is still not at all offered and anti-lock brakes are an option.
The Focus comes in three different trim levels, and the interior treatment and equipment spans a wide range between them. The base S comes with wind-up windows; both the S and SE come with a black instrument panel treatment, but the SE brings power windows, locks, and mirrors, along with alloy wheels and some interior extras. Besides the additional suspension improvements and 16-inch wheels, the SES also gets an attractive faux-metallic instrument panel treatment, the Sync system, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls.
In addition to the availability of Sync, the nicely done interior, increased refinement, and good fuel efficiency, the other big reason to consider the Focus is price. The base Focus S coupe starts at $14,695, including the $620 destination charge, while the Focus S sedan starts at $14,995.
We spent most of our drive time in a top-of-the-range SES sedan, which begins at $16,995; ours was optioned all the way up to $19,495 with the addition of automatic, anti-lock brakes, heated leather seats, the ambient interior lighting package, and Sirius satellite radio.
Overall, we feel a little lukewarm about the new Focus. Overall performance is decent but nothing to write home about, and styling is a little odd from some angles on the outside. On the plus side, the availability of Sync, the nicely done interior, increased refinement, nice ride/handling package, and good fuel efficiency might be enough to win you over. Our advice is that if it looks right to you, keep it simple with the SE model, which starts at $15,695, has Sync as a $395 option, and adds the power accessories and alloy wheels that you'd likely prefer for a slight bit more.
The bottom line is that with the styling changes and lack of body styles, the Focus isn't going to be the best small car for everyone. But if your field of focus emphasizes the day-to-day driving experience itself, you should be aware that it's much improved.
2008 Ford Focus SES sedan
Price: $16,375 base; $19,495 as tested
Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 140 hp/136 lb-ft (132 hp/133 lb-ft for CA emissions)
Drivetrain: Five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission, front-wheel drive
Length x width x height: 175.0 x 67.9 x 58.8 in
Wheelbase: 102.9 in
Curb weight: 2623 lb (2588 lb coupe)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 24/35 mpg manual, 24/33 mpg auto
Safety equipment: Dual front, side, and curtain airbags
Major standard equipment: Rear defroster; 60/40-split rear seat; padded armrests; MP3-compatible AM/FM/CD player with four speakers and audio input jack
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles
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