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Ford Focus, you've come a long way, baby. What was once just a middling compact sedan that got by on its low price and angular, chunky looks has grown into a leader in its class. The Focus Titanium is available with automatic parallel parking and an impressive MyFord Touch with Sync infotainment system. The whisper-quiet Focus Electric features a cutting-edge, 100 percent electric power train. Regardless of what model you choose, the Focus has benefited tremendously from increased cabin quality, fit and finish, and eye-catching design.
However, at the core of all that, the Focus still has to be an inexpensive runabout that a prospective compact-car owner with $20 grand to spend won't regret signing for. The 2012 Ford Focus Sedan SE is those things, offering a good blend of available tech options, fit and finish, and fuel efficiency without breaking the bank.
Freeway cruising and fuel economy
The bulk of my experience with the 2012 Focus Sedan took place during a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego for the 2012 Comic-Con International. My chosen route, California's bone-straight I-5, didn't offer much opportunity to test the sedan's cornering ability or slalom agility. We'll save those sorts of feats for the 2013 Focus ST when it eventually parks itself in the Car Tech garage.
What I did get to test was the highway fuel economy of the sedan's four-cylinder engine. Over the course of the first tank, the sedan averaged 35.2 mpg. That, however, was the high-water mark for the week's fuel economy, but the Focus still proved to be admirably efficient. Four days of scooting around San Diego and two trips through Los Angeles' rush-hour traffic only caused the weeklong average fuel economy to drop down to 33.6 mpg -- not a bad number at all, but with more than 80 percent of the driven miles being taken at a comfortable 65-70 mph cruise, it's no surprise that the Focus ended up closer to its EPA-estimated 36 mpg highway rating than its 26 mpg city estimate.
The 2.0-liter engine uses gasoline direct-injection technology and variable valve timing to generate 146 pound-feet of torque at 4,450rpm and a maximum of 160 horsepower at 6,500rpm. This engine is tuned for efficiency, but it's no slouch in the power department. There was plenty of grunt available at the low end of the powerband for squirts of acceleration away from traffic lights and midrange torque was so good that there really was no need to approach the top end of the tachometer during daily driving.
The Focus cruised effortlessly up and down the hundreds of miles on I-5 with nary a complaint and not much engine noise. Road and wind noise were also reasonably low thanks to excellent seals on the doors and windows and well-placed sound deadening. It's a good thing the Focus' cabin was reasonably quiet because the stock stereo needed all the help it could get, but we'll get back to that shortly.
In the case of our Focus SE, that engine is mated to a five-speed manual transmission that is not bad at all. The shifter's throw is econobox long, but the shifting effort is light and the engagement positive -- both great traits to have in a runabout that will likely see more traffic jams than autocross courses. Likewise, the clutch pedal is low-effort with a predictable takeup that's easy to modulate during a city traffic creep. The technophile in me wants to see a six-speed manual, but after a week with the five-speed I'm glad to report that the five forward ratios that you do get here are well-spaced and, as I stated earlier, deliver pretty good efficiency without much sacrifice in performance.
Prospective Focus owners who want even more efficiency can step up to an optional six-speed dual-clutch automatic gearbox for up to an estimated 28 mpg in the city and 38 on the highway. The six-speed SE model is also available with an optional Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package that bumps the highway miles-per-gallon estimate up to 40 -- our manual model obviously wasn't equipped with this. And if you're just sick of tailpipe emissions and fossil fuels altogether, there's always theto consider.