First Drive: 2008 Ford Focus

2008 Ford Focus First Drive

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2008 Ford Focus Coupe

(2.0L 4-cyl. 5-speed Manual)

The Focus Gets in Sync

Ford is probably the last automaker you think of when it comes to high tech. Perhaps that's why it chose Seattle, with its backdrop of computer technology and trendy WiFi-equipped coffeehouses, to showcase the substantially revised 2008 Ford Focus.

Some 10 million people visited the 1962 World's Fair in Seattle. It offered a glimpse of a space age future that never quite materialized, but it left Seattle with a high-tech legacy that continues to dominate the city just like the Space Needle, one of the fair's last remaining landmarks. The fact that Microsoft's world headquarters is located in nearby Redmond, Washington, doesn't hurt the city's high-tech image either.

The 2008 Focus serves as Ford's own high-tech world's fair on wheels. It introduces Sync, a voice-activated interface developed by Microsoft that connects with cell phones, media players and USB music storage.

Ford Focus? Microsoft? Wrap your imagination around that one.

New Look, Low Price
Although the 2000 Focus came to the U.S. as the last word in European driving dynamics, the Focus hasn't exactly evolved into something that people aspire to own. That doesn't mean the Focus is unpopular, since 2004 Ford has sold nearly 700,000 of them second only to the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla. So if you're just out of college and caught in purchase limbo between the Civic and Corolla (and maybe the Honda Fit and Scion tC), then the revised 2008 Focus is trying to find you.

It shares all the dimensions of the four-door Focus sedan almost exactly, including its 102.9-inch wheelbase and 175.0-inch overall length. Curiously, the coupe is 67.9 inches wide while the sedan is a tenth of an inch narrower at 67.8 inches in overall width. The coupe and sedan are now the only choices you get in the Focus, as the previous Euro-style hatchback and wagon never moved the needle on buyer enthusiasm in the U.S., Ford tells us.

The most obvious change to the 2008 Focus is the new sheet metal. It doesn't threaten the adventurous look of the Honda Civic, but it doesn't spin away into design irrelevancy like the Nissan Sentra or Toyota Corolla, either. With a prominent chrome bar across the front grille, plus headlights that have been pulled back at the corners, the Focus now has a visual connection to the Ford Fusion.

This isn't much in the way of design flair, but it's all Ford has to offer in this country, as the new Euro-specification Ford Focus ST is too expensive for importation to America.

Improved, but Not New
There are some improvements hidden beneath the revised sheet metal. The structural bar that crosses the chassis between the A-pillars has more rigidity, and there's been some improvement in the way everything fits together. Some acoustic measures dramatically reduce wind noise and others isolate road rumble. But basically everything here is familiar in function as well as form.

You can start with the 2.0-liter Duratec inline-4, now making 140 horsepower at 6,000 rpm. There's also a squeaky-clean version of this engine for states with squeaky-clean air emissions regulations, and you get 132 hp in a PZEV-certified (partial zero-emissions vehicle) car that makes a hybrid seem like an expensive self-indulgence. You can forget about the 150-hp 2.3-liter Duratec, though.

The revised 2.0-liter Duratec motor provides more than adequate torque, with 136 pound-feet at 4,250 rpm, so it never feels weak or sluggish to us. It's also remarkably quiet at anything less than full throttle. A four-speed automatic seems like little more than yester-tech of the 1990s, but David Foulkes, Ford's vehicle engineering manager for small and medium cars, says, "Shift points have been revised and the final-drive ratio is [taller] to improve fuel economy."

The Focus automatic is utterly transparent, downshifting smoothly and upshifting with hardly a noticeable reaction. Even on hills, this four-speed never hunted between ratios, proof that too few gear ratios are better than too many. But the bottom line here is fuel economy, not performance. The automatic delivers 24 mpg city and 33 mpg highway on the EPA cycle, and the five-speed manual transmission improves the highway number only to 34 mpg.

Sporty-ish Handling
The 2000 Focus came to America with the blessings of Ford's best ride-and-handling experts, an alert, alive and exciting package that set the standard for small cars from America, Europe and Japan. But since then, fewer and fewer people seem to care about such things beneath a Ford badge, so maybe it's no surprise that the 2008 Focus gets softer springs for a plush ride and a nice big front antiroll bar for straight-line stability.

All isn't lost, for while the Focus is no Mazda 3, it hasn't descended to the depths of the Toyota Corolla either. Once you step up from the base S-model Focus and its 195/60R15 Hankook tires to SE and SES trim, you get a rear antiroll bar to balance the chassis and 205/50R16 Pirelli tires to take advantage of it. Overall, there's noticeably less body roll than before, while the steering (always this car's strong point) proves quick and precise.

On the open highway, the 2008 Focus feels stable and secure, more like a midsize sedan than a compact. Impacts from potholes and expansion joints are also effectively muted, and this gives the Focus a feeling of quality compared to the harsh-riding Honda Fit or soggy Scion tC.

Fresh Interior, New Technology
The interior is also completely reworked with new gauges, a different steering wheel and new seats. The seats prove supportive for long driving stints, while the interior environment is fresher and much more attractive. Most of all, you'll notice blue illumination for the gauges and adjustable ambient lighting for the cupholders and footwells. See what you started, Scion?

Several Ford models are featuring Sync this year and the Focus is the first one we've tried. Sync is basically a voice-recognition system that allows for complete hands-free use of cell phones and portable music players. It sounds like one of those hokey demonstrations you see at a world's fair, but this one really works. Sync is standard for the Focus SES and a $395 option on lower trim levels.

Sync works with Apple iPods, Microsoft's Zune and other "Plays for Sure" portable devices like iRiver and SanDisk. If you don't know what a Zune is, skip the next paragraph.

Sync works like this: Press a button, say a command followed by artist name, song name, genre, album title or playlist, and then Sync finds the selected track. There's even an option that lets Sync find music similar to what's already playing, based on genre, beats per minute, rhythm and pacing of the song -- just say "similar music."

Sync also offers control over a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone -- as many as six cell phones at a time, in fact. Unlike other in-car Bluetooth systems, you don't have to make a list of voice tags, as Sync automatically gets into your phone and builds its list directly from there. Sync also has a limited ability to send and receive text messages.

This is pretty advanced stuff considering that some of the cars with which the Focus competes don't even offer the most basic technological features. (We're looking at you, Corolla.)

Practically Perfect
The future of a generation ago never really materialized. Look no further than Monsanto's House of the Future or the '62 Ford Seattle-ite to see innovations that ultimately proved impractical and awkward. In contrast, what Ford has done with Sync is taken advanced technology and made it fit seamlessly into our lives.

Really, that's what Ford has done with the revised 2008 Focus as a whole. All the things that made the original Focus a unique driving experience have been firmly pushed aside, leaving behind a small American-built (Wayne, Michigan) car that's unlikely to be a passionate purchase for anyone.

At the same time, the 2008 Ford Focus is made to fit seamlessly into the lives of compact-car shoppers. Its affordable price, uncomplicated utility and unique electronic entertainment reflect the lessons that Ford has tried to absorb from the success of Scion.

Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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