Owning a Ford Focus is something that's inescapable, like death, taxes and Bruce Forsyth. Since its launch in 1998, 1.4 million have been sold in the UK alone, and Ford has predicted that its redesigned 2011 model will shift at a rate of 90,000 cars per year. It's in the interests of us all, then, that the new version of the car, due out in the next few weeks, is good. Just think of the hours of motorway driving that will be ruined if Ford gets it wrong.
We tried out the Focus Titanium model, with a 1.6 EcoBoost petrol engine. The Titanium is one below the top of the range, and will set you back £19,745.
Having driven the 2011 Focus, we can tell you that the new car is 100 per cent less boring than the old one. Whereas the designers of the previous Focus went out of their way to avoid offending anyone, the new car is much more of a Marmite affair. Ford's name for what it's done to the body of the car is 'Kinetic design'. You can see a similar design on cars like the new Fiesta and Mondeo.
'Kinetic design' essentially means the Focus has plenty of pointy, swooping bits. Given the broad base the car needs to appeal to, it's a risky strategy, but we very much approve. Most of the competition looks pretty dull on the outside so, even if you don't like the Focus' appearance, it's great to see a large car manufacturer trying something new. Crucially, it also helps to set the car apart from its main rival, the Volkswagen Golf, which is the epitome of design conservatism, however well it drives.
As well as slick design, Ford also wants to be associated with car gadgetry. Indeed, the new Focus has a barrel-full of gadgets for you to choose from. Bluetooth for hands-free phone calls, USB connectivity for your music, a future-proof DAB digital radio for when the FM signal is switched off, and a Thatcham category 1 alarm come as standard across the range, which is good going for a car whose list price starts at just under £16,000.
Inside the Titanium model, one of the side effects of Ford's car-tech ambition is a serious case of button overload. The dashboard has so many buttons that it looks like something you'd see on Star Trek -- but not the stylish 2009 reboot, rather one of the ropey mid-90s spin-offs.
The steering wheel has two four-way controls. One of them works the sat-nav and audio system, and the other lets you fiddle with the on-board computer. There's also a bunch of buttons on the bottom left of the wheel for operating the cruise control, and another set on the right for the Bluetooth phone stuff. At first, working out what does what is confusing -- and that's before you even get to the heap of buttons on the centre console.
The controls on the centre console include five buttons for changing between the sat-nav, radio, CD player and so on; a phone keypad; another four-way control; a volume/selector wheel; and four keys whose function changes according to the on-screen menu. Oh, and there are more buttons and wheels towards the bottom of the centre console for the climate-control system and various pieces of parking-assistance technology.
We applaud Ford for shoehorning so much into one car, but wish the company had spent longer thinking of a simpler way to control everything.
Simplicity issues aside, there's some cool tech inside the car we drove. Keyless start is a standard feature on the Titanium, along with automatic wipers and a rear-view mirror that automatically dims when nasty drivers are shining their horribly bright lights at you from behind. There's also an integrated sat-nav that can cope with full postcodes, with the maps supplied by SD card, so you could one day swap the card out for newer information. The Sony audio system has nine speakers, and will work with your iPod.
We tried out a model with the optional 'active park assist' feature fitted. It essentially parks the car for you. It's simple enough to use -- you turn the system on, drive past a parking space and it tells you to stop and put the car into reverse. You then work the pedals as normal while the car turns the steering wheel to manoeuvre you into the space. The system then tells you to put the car back into first gear and you pull forwards until it tells you to stop. It worked perfectly during our test drive, although the space was considerably larger than the area we usually try to squeeze into. We'd like to test this feature more thoroughly in the real world before giving it the full thumbs up.
Ford is pushing a £750 'safety pack' pack that bundles together several clever features. Among them is a camera mounted on the windscreen that reads passing road signs before plastering them on the central display. The idea is that you just need to glance at the car's central console to see what the speed limit is, whether there's a ban on overtaking, and so on.
Another feature is a 'lane-keeping aid' that makes the car steer itself back into lane automatically if you start to drift out of it. Ford says this feature is very sensitive and will recognise if you're making a deliberate turn out of the lane or not. The system turns off if you let go of the wheel, so you can't just turn it on and read the paper while you're bombing it down the motorway.
Also part of the safety pack is a 'low-speed safety system'. It will activate at speeds below 19mph, braking automatically if it senses you are about to hit something, and flashing the hazard lights to let everyone know what a rubbish driver you are.
The car will also tell you if it thinks you need a break. It monitors your driving performance and, if you start behaving erratically, a progress bar cycles through green, amber and red signals. When it gets to red, it's time to pull over, and the car will nag you with a noise until you do so.
Unfortunately, none of this safety tech had been perfected by the time our test car was made, so we couldn't test any of these features.
Less fuel, more power
Something we could test was the engine. Ford says the 1.6 EcoBoost petrol engine in the car we drove provides more power, more torque, better acceleration and better fuel economy that the 2.0 engine in the old Focus.
The company's figures bear this out. The engine has a stated fuel consumption of 47.1mpg (combined), and emits 139g/km of CO2, which means you'll currently only have to pay £110 per year in road tax. All the Focuses should be relatively cheap to run, as all the engines come in at below 140g/km of CO2. That makes them affordable not only in terms of road tax, but also in terms of company car tax.
In the short time we spent driving various models, the engines seemed to have reasonable levels of power, although we did find it slightly tricky to get away quickly in first gear -- we had to change quickly from first to second gear and floor it to get a level of power we were happy with. Perhaps that's just us, though -- Ford says the car can go from 0-60mph in 8.6 seconds.
Auto start-stop, which should turn the engine off automatically when you're stationary to save fuel, is included in all 1.6 engines, although it didn't work on our test model. We have our doubts as to how useful this feature would be. Ford says it will only cut in when the engine is warm, the external temperature is between 0 and 30C°, there's 'no high demand on the climate control', the battery has sufficient charge, you haven't disabled it, and, crucially, when the gear is in neutral and the clutch is released. When we're waiting for a red light to change, we tend to stay in first gear with the clutch depressed, which makes this version of start-stop rather useless in our case.
Given that we're all destined to own one anyway, we're pleased to report that the new Ford Focus Titanium is a rather natty motor. We like the design, it drives pleasantly enough, and it offers some useful tech too.
It's a shame about the button overload, but you'll learn to live with it. If you can stretch to the top-end Titanium LX, you'll probably find that model's touchscreen easier to use. We'll update this page with a full review once we've had a chance to drive the car for longer.
Edited by Charles Kloet