Saturday, February 5, 2011

2012 Ford Focus test drive review. New focus for the Focus

"This is not your pizza delivery guy's car."

That was one of the first things Ford Marketing Manager K.C. Dallia said during his presentation of the all-new 2012 Ford Focus during the Guidebook Publisher's ride and drive event in sunny Los Angeles earlier this week.

And it's hard to argue with that statement. Gone are the days of Ford's tinny econo-box. This new entry into the highly competitive C-car segment is richer, smarter, and more technologically advanced than many cars costing twice as much. The 2012 Ford Focus is actually a car that many people would want to own; not just a car they have to own based on price.

If you read automotive reviews on a regular basis, you've no doubt seen Ford critics blather ad nauseam about how the European market got all the good small cars, while us Americans were stuck with the crap. Well, they can't make that argument now, because this is the same Focus they'll be selling overseas. In fact, this follows Ford's latest efforts to build "world cars," something that can also be seen in the 2011 Fiesta, and the upcoming C-Max crossover.

The Focus still plays in the same sandbox as competitive cars like the Toyota Corolla and the Honda Civic. To that end, you can order a stripped sedan for about $17,000. That's not the raw bottom of the segment, but it doesn't exactly put it in BMW territory either.

On the other hand, Ford doesn't plan to sell this car as a value leader. There is a lot of cyber-gadgetry available on the new Focus, and Ford is going to sell the sizzle over the steak. The Blue Oval is betting that younger, higher income, tech-savvy buyers will be attracted to this new car, and they have the hardware (and software) to back it up.

Just look through the list of options: Ford's SYNC system, which includes traffic, directions, and other information utilizing their exclusive MyFord or MyTouch technology. Sony HD Radio with iTunes tagging. Voice-activated navigation. MyKey owner controls that basically let you operate everything on the car without taking the keys from your pocket. Reverse sensors. Active parking assist. Rain-sensing wipers. And the list goes on and on. The smartphone set will have a field day with this car. There's so much technology in there, you might think it was developed in the Knight Industries lab alongside the latest KITT. I forgot to ask if it was bulletproof.

If you don't happen to be a big technophile, you may be wondering if the actual car is any good. Well, that's what I went to California to find out.

I drove several iterations of the sedan and five-door hatch. Ford also provided a Honda Civic, a Chevrolet Cruze, a Hyundai Elantra, and the current Focus for comparison. And I have to say, the new Focus faired quite nicely among that crowd.

The Focus has quite a bit of technology built into it that you can't see by looking at the instrument panel. The six-speed PowerShift transmission did a clean, smooth job of selecting gears even over the demanding terrain of beautiful Santa Monica mountain roads. The 160-hp, 2.0-liter four did a mostly commendable job in its own right. And Ford's Advancetrac Electronic Stability Control, Electronic Power Assisted Steering, and a sophisticated torque vectoring control, all inspired confidence around the twisties.

The Focus also had a "feel" of quality to it. The interior and I.P. was on-par with the all-new Cruze, and beat the ridiculously laid-out and generally antiquated Civic by a mile. And unlike the Elantra, which looked decent from a distance, the Focus continued to seem nice when you sat down and started touching things. Compared to the current Focus, well, there was no comparison. They may share the same name, but they are in no way similar cars--the new one is simply light years ahead in nearly every measurable or subjective way.

Complaints are few. Now, I've never been a big fan of smaller, four-cylinder cars, and certainly that bias influences my opinion that it needs more power, especially on steep grades. Of course, the new Focus gets 40-mpg, and we were driving in the friggin' mountains, so maybe I'm just hard to please. I guess everything can't have a Chevy small block under the hood.

The dual-clutch transmission also has Ford's PowerShift option, which will downshift on steep grades or hold gears longer under heavy acceleration. The Fiesta had this feature as well, and I really didn't like it on that car. I don't like it any better on the Focus, but at least on this car you have the option of using it, or just putting the gear selector in a normal drive gear and bypassing it. I just feel like the sensation of the transmission making gear choices that are contrary to what I'm asking it to do via the accelerator pedal is unnatural and obtrusive. Reviews of this feature are generally positive, so maybe I'm in the minority. But whatever--I don't like it and I'm not changing my mind.

A five-speed manual is standard, and arguably more fun to drive. That transmission shifted nice and smooth, although it had a pretty long throw, and was sometimes easy to make an unintended gear choice when winding through the mountains. But again, the only manual transmission I own right now is a three-on-the-tree in a '63 Chevy pickup, so I may be a little out of practice.

In the end, no one can deny that the 2012 Focus is a very nice car that stands out among its competition. But I can't help but wonder if it's too nice. I mean, a Corolla is an absolute bucket of crud compared to this, but they sell the hell of them because they're cheap. And people know they're cheap. This new Focus isn't cheap, although it can be reasonable if it doesn't have any options. But if you load one up with the fancy Titanium package and all the bells and whistles, you can drive the price to more than twenty-seven-large.

Ford says this strategy will work because people are trading in nicer large cars for smaller nice cars that get better fuel mileage. Whether abandoning the bargain shoppers for the techno/eco-chic crowd is a winning marketing scheme remains to be seen. But regardless of how many cars they sell, the folks that do buy them will have an efficient, state-of-the-art American car that transcends any Focus that came before it. Just don't expect your pizza delivery guy to show up in one.

The slideshow below contains several pictures from my day with the 2012 Ford Focus in southern California this week. I took most of them, although there are a couple of really pretty ones that I borrowed from Ford Media. Check 'em out!

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