Seems like everybody buying a small car now virtually expects to see a 40-mpg rating on the window sticker. Since the 2012 Ford Focus is the poster child for the Ford Motor Company's "One Ford" globalized product-development strategy, it's no wonder a special fuel-sipping trim level of the car has been developed: the 2012 Ford Focus SE with Super Fuel Economy package. (Whew, everyone calls it the SFE for short.)
Just as with the Ford Fiesta subcompact, the Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package uses low-rolling-resistance tires, an optimized dual-clutch automated manual transmission and aerodynamic tweaks to deliver the coveted 40-mpg rating for highway fuel economy. While the strong-selling Hyundai Elantra carries a 40-mpg rating for every trim level, most of the competition in this class offers special models like the SFE to achieve the 40-mpg standard, including the Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Civic and Mazda 3.
Prices for these cars all are within a few hundred dollars, so your choice largely is one based on styling, other features, or good ol' brand preference. The irony is, you'll never notice the Ford Focus SFE's special fuel efficiency until you do the math at the gas station, as it drives just like a conventional Focus. Then again, this might be considered a good thing, because the fundamental goodness of the Focus hasn't been compromised in the quest for 40 mpg.
Of course, the EPA rates the Focus SFE at just 2 mpg more on the highway test cycle than the conventional Focus, and the EPA combined number doesn't change at all, so the improvement isn't huge. At the same time, the Focus SFE gets its best fuel economy as it's cruising on the highway, while a typical hybrid gets its best fuel economy in the city, so the Focus SFE arguably better suits the way most Americans drive.
With its European-style chassis tuning, the 2012 Ford Focus already is renowned as one of the nimblest and best-handling cars in the class. The Focus seems immensely stable and well-sorted on the road, and its ride is so sublime that Ford's larger, more expensive models could take a few lessons from this compact sedan. Complementing the rewarding chassis calibration is a keenly accurate electric-assisted power steering system that manages to impart some useful communication from the tires — a trait that few electric-assist systems can claim, particularly in moderately priced vehicles.
The Focus SFE manages its 40-mpg rating using the same silken 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that's fitted to all models in the Focus range. Even though this inline-4 has direct fuel injection (all the rage because it helps deliver both better fuel efficiency and more power at the same time), its 160 horsepower is nothing more than competitive within this class. As with many other aspects of the Focus, though, the engine's refinement is the overriding trait.
The SFE package demands buyers choose the optional "Powershift" six-speed automatic transmission, a choice that has not been without controversy. The Powershift is not truly an automatic in the conventional sense; instead, it is a Getrag-built dual-clutch automated manual transmission with a sophisticated electromechanical module that automates clutching, relieving the driver of the burden.
Although the Powershift functions as a typical automatic, the transmission's behavior in certain driving situations has troubled some drivers because it launched the car from a stop with a shudder, proved reluctant to creep at idle speeds, shifted slowly and cycled unpredictably at low speed. The Ford engineers initiated an effort to recalibrate the Powershift and the improvement is dramatic, notably its smooth launch from a stop. This transmission doesn't perfectly mimic a traditional automatic, but we don't believe it should keep anybody from purchasing a Focus.
Big-car driving comfort is one of the most notable mannerisms of the 2012 Ford Focus. Although its 104.3-inch wheelbase is a fraction shorter than its prime competition (aside from the Mazda 3), the careful tuning of the suspension damping means the Focus not only rides smoothly but also delivers the firm body control that Americans prefer, a difficult balance to achieve.
Triple-sealed doors hush wind noise at anything but highly illegal speeds, although crosswinds whip up the noise factor. The refined suspension doesn't manage to totally eliminate road noise, although overall noise levels are very low for a car in this market segment. Ford also is doing wonderful work on improving the quality of its seats, and the chairs in the Focus seem like those befitting a more expensive car.
Ford has made a name for itself with its Sync voice-activated infotainment controls, and we recommend fitting a Focus with an option package that includes Sync. But the system doesn't save the Focus center stack from an overload of buttons, and the profusion of angular shapes requires a steep learning curve before you can operate things intuitively.
The rear-seat legroom isn't exactly ample in the Focus, although the trunk capacity is generous at 13.2 cubic feet of cargo space, which is exceeded only by the noticeably larger Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra. There's no arguing, though, that the Focus interior is fresh and decidedly more upbeat than what's found in compact cars of even the recent past.
Design/Fit and Finish
Another key attribute of the new-generation 2012 Ford Focus is the use of high-quality interior materials. While competitors such as the 2012 Honda Civic have visibly cut costs within the cabin, the Focus shows real attention to detail.
The dash top is soothingly soft and pleasant to touch, and hard plastics are relegated mostly to non-touch areas, although we don't like the look of some trim, including the prominent pieces around the gauges and dash vents. Combined with the excellent seats and precise steering-column stalks and secondary controls, the Focus interior comes as close as anything to giving more than you expect for the money.
Who should consider this vehicle
The compact class has been filled with a raft of new-generation models that are vastly more comfortable, sophisticated and efficient. If the 40-mpg highway rating is important to you, there is no shortage of choices, yet we think the fine-handling Focus sedan with the SFE package (only sedans can be fitted with the SFE option) might be the market's most satisfying 40-mpg compact car.
That said, the package's $495 option price — not to mention the fact that you also must opt for the not-inexpensive Powershift automatic transmission to get it — means the extra 2 mpg you get compared with a standard Focus equates to a payback time that amounts to several years. We can just picture those with serious fuel-sipping tendencies doing the math on this Focus, a diesel-powered car and a hybrid and trying to decide how the break-even point compares.
For us, the thing that clinches the deal for the 2012 Ford Focus SFE is it requires no sacrifices for the benefit of 40 mpg. This Focus drives well, rides comfortably and doesn't cost much. If this is the price of 40 mpg, then sign us up.
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