Dan Edmunds, Director of Vehicle Testing
For many, the road to the 2012 Ford Focus is paved with seven years of envy, disbelief, confusion -- even anger. It began in late 2004 when an all-new second-generation Ford Focus was revealed to the rest of the world at the Paris Motor Show. Also revealed that day was the sad fact that we wouldn't be seeing it here in the United States.
Longer and wider, Europe's new Focus had attitude, more interior space and a higher level of trim. In the intervening years it came in hopped-up versions called ST, RS and RS500, and went rallying in the WRC. North Americans could only read about all this and develop bad attitudes on message boards.
Meanwhile, the U.S. and Canada witnessed the demise of Focus hatchbacks and SVT sport models amid a steady descent into fleet sales optimization. The final insult came in 2008, when the "new" reskinned North American Focus turned out to be a warmed-over first-gen car that looked like a Daewoo instead of the spiffy European Focus we'd all been hoping for.
This ends now. Our new 2012 Ford Focus is the same as the world's new Ford Focus. All-new third-generation Ford Foci for everyone.
Longer, Lower, Wider
Europe is used to the idea of a slightly larger Focus because their second-gen car was sized similarly to this new machine. From our perspective, however, the 2012 Focus seems like a whole new animal.
Gone is the somewhat tall and skinny form we're used to, replaced instead with more aggressive proportions and a ready stance. The new Focus sedan has ballooned a full 4 inches wider and been stretched 3.5 inches longer (to 71.8 and 178.5 inches, respectively) while at the same time squishing 0.8 inch lower than the outgoing equivalent. The same is true of the resurrected hatchback we're sampling today, though its 171.6-inch length is 3.1 inches longer than its forgotten counterpart. And all of them ride on a 104.3-inch wheelbase, 1.4 inches more generous than before.
This of course opens up gobs more interior space, especially in front, where maximum legroom and shoulder room swell by 2 inches or so. On paper, rear legroom takes a bit of a hit, but that's mainly because the front seat can slide farther aft. Our tallest tester can sit behind himself, but a taxi this ain't.
...And Nicer, Mostly
The cockpit is, well, a real working cockpit now, with well-shaped seats and a readily adjustable driving position. The steering wheel is now telescopic, presenting a thick, sculpted rim for the driver to grasp and flail. There's a clear view of a full complement of gauges through its four properly placed spokes. A handsome center stack hovers nearby within easy reach.
But that's our first problem, as the MyFord Touch system that's standard on our top-level Titanium (and optional further down) proves to have slow responses, a steep learning curve and, ultimately, no real advantage over well-placed buttons and knobs. And, we're sorry, but voice control isn't a cure-all for a finicky design. The standard audio layout found on lower grades is only slightly better, as it's essentially a repeat of the overly busy flying-vee arrangement that is the single worst aspect of the Ford Fiesta.
That said, it's all made to a much higher quality standard than we're used to in a Focus. And there are options like never before. A navigation system is now a possibility. So are keyless start with passive entry, dual-zone climate control and rain-sensing wipers. You can even opt for an automated parallel parking assist system.
Of course, more size and more stuff equals more weight, so it's no surprise that the average Focus has gained about 300 pounds.
Direct Injection Intervention
More power is the usual remedy for that, and the newly minted base 2.0-liter engine delivers. Direct fuel injection, a stout 12.0:1 compression ratio and independently variable intake and exhaust cam timing help churn out 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque, 20 more ponies and 10 lb-ft more than last year's retired Duratec 2.0-liter engine.
Last year's four-speed autobox is history, replaced instead with Ford's Powershift six-speed automatic. Reality is more impressive than marketing here, because this is a dual-clutch automated manual that can be had with "Select Shift" manual shifting on the Titanium, SEL and SE Sport package.
This more sophisticated powertrain is also more efficient at the pump. EPA fuel consumption figures are not final, but Ford suggests 28 city and 38 highway mpg as ballpark figures -- some 3-4 mpg better than last year. An SFE package available on the SE sedan should produce 40 mpg on the highway through the use of low-rolling-resistance tires and other tweaks.
There's also a five-speed manual, but with just the five cogs and a flaccid clutch it's not really optimized for either performance or fuel economy. It's more of a value proposition on the low end of the price scale, which explains why it's confined to S and SE models.
Full Steam Ahead Already
Finally under way, the new 2012 Ford Focus engine revs happily and feels strong. It's no speed demon -- Ford has a 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine that makes 247 hp waiting in the wings for that -- but it doesn't feel weak-kneed, either. The Powershift transmission shifts smartly in "D" on real roads, but an autocross set up for our amusement is another matter.
Manual shifting is accessed through "S," the dedicated Select Shift mode, but the computer can't keep its hands to itself. Breathe off the throttle to transfer weight for a corner...and you might get an upshift. Get close to the engine's redline and you get an upshift. Ford engineers say they did it this way to save the motor and ultimately the warranty claims from rev-limiter-crazed drivers, and they defend it simply by saying, "That's the way BMW does it," like that makes it right. Still sucks from where we sit.
We'd like to say there are paddle shifters on the steering column for manual mode, but the steering spokes are already crowded with a spasm of other buttons. Instead there's a +/- rocker switch on the thumb side of the console shift lever, an awkward placement that favors an odd skyhook grasp from above. Not good. And to pile it on, they made the gear readout on the IP miniscule.
Touch That Dial
The steering, on the other hand, is right on. It's Ford's EPAS electric power steering, but that's OK because they nailed the calibration. Response is quick, owing to a 14.7-to-1 steering ratio that produces just 2.6 turns lock-to-lock, and there's a goodly amount of effort buildup as the 225/50R17 Continental all-season rubber does its job.
Familiar MacPherson struts prop up the front end and Ford's so-called Control Blade multilink setup handles the rear. It's a proven combination that earned a lot of praise for the original Focus before they softened things up and dumbed the calibration down over time. Here, with Ford of Europe doing the suspension tuning, there's an admirable level of control and poise, and little harshness.
A wider body allows a healthy increase in track width, 2.6 inches in front and 2.3 inches out back. Also, the standard stability control contains a brake-based torque-vectoring algorithm, put there to quell understeer on corner exit by dragging the inside front brake to kill wheelspin and shunt extra drive torque to the loaded outside tire.
It works. Even on all-season rubber, our Titanium hatch blasts through San Diego County's famous back roads, staying steady on our preferred line and knifing accurately through tight corners with nary a chirp. The brakes, too, deserve a nod in the most relentless stretch of twisties, where their progressive response and precise release characteristics make it easy to trail-brake and control the car's pitch attitude when rushing corners.
It should be said that our 2012 Ford Focus Titanium Hatchback benefits from a sportier suspension tune than that of lower-grade Foci, but an SE Sport package we drove earlier does nearly as well. An optional Handling package ($595) on the Titanium takes things up yet another notch with asymmetrical 18-inch Michelin Pilot Sport PS3 summer tires and dampers specially tuned to take full advantage. This setup shaves 2 further seconds from our best autocross time in a standard 17-inch-shod Titanium.
Lots of Range
If you're thinking that prices must have shot up, the answer is yes...and no. A base 2012 Focus S sedan costs $16,270 -- the same as last year's base car. Our Titanium hatch starts at $22,765, far more than any Focus before it but miles ahead in fit, finish and equipment. SE and SEL trims are evenly distributed between these endpoints, with hatchback variants costing about $800 more than sedans.
We remember 2007, when a Ford marketing insider told us that Americans weren't prepared to spend money on small cars equipped like the Euro Focus. (That conclusion was based on focus groups, obviously.) But that was before $4 gasoline, Cash for Clunkers, the death of Hummer and a couple of major bailouts we could mention.
Circumstances are different now. The case for a more substantial 2012 Ford Focus with more polish, more appeal and more stuff makes sense as folks who can afford more are aiming to spend less. That's great news for North American Focus fans, even if they did have to suffer through a lost generation to get here. Perhaps now they'll dive into those message boards and be a little less nasty. Naaah. Where's the fun in that?
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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