When the Ford Focus first emerged in 1998, it blew everything else away to become the best hatchback on the road. But, despite a facelift now and again, the car didn't change much for nearly 13 years. Time and rival cars were really catching up with the old girl.
This year marks the start of a fight-back, however. The latest Focus has been revamped, with a new chassis, trick suspension, updated looks and a slew of 21st century technology -- all of which, Ford hopes, will help it regain its position as the finest family car in the world.
Previously, we tested thewith a 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol engine. The car tested here is the five-door Focus Titanium with a 140PS (138bhp), 2-litre TDCi diesel engine and six-speed manual gearbox. It retails for £20,745.
Substance before style
Ford has stuck largely to the original car's roots, so, at a glance, it's instantly recognisable as a Focus. Look longer, though, and you'll detect plenty of new and noteworthy differences between this model and its predecessors.
The 2011 edition has new front and rear lights, new bumpers, and lashings of what Ford refers to as 'kinetic design'. Essentially, this means the smooth surfaces of the previous car have been carved up, with more edges and fussy details added, making for a very busy appearance that almost appears over-designed.
That said, our only real design real gripe is a practical one. The car's boot opens far too high, so anyone shorter than 5' 5" will need a ladder to reach up and close it again. If you spot any 2011 Ford Focuses driving around with the boot open, this is why.
Brake it down
The new Focus may not look too different to the previous car on the surface, but it couldn't be more different underneath. Ford's installed a host of active safety gadgets designed to keep the car's occupants safe and make the driver's life far easier. The most impressive of these technologies can be found in the optional £750 driver assistance pack.
The pack includes Ford's 'active city stop' technology, which can automatically apply the brakes to prevent low-speed accidents. A forward-facing Lidar scanner mounted just ahead of the rear-view mirror scans the road for obstacles. Should the driver fail to brake as the car approaches something stationary, perhaps because they're admiring a hot stranger at a bus stop, the system applies the brakes fully to bring the vehicle to a safe stop.
If travelling at less than 10mph, the active city stop feature will stop the car before you hit an object. If you're travelling any faster, you're likely to crash, but the system will still activate the brakes before impact to reduce the severity of the accident and the amount of damage caused to the vehicle and its occupants.
See no evil
Not only can the new Focus see static objects, it can also read road signs on your behalf. The driver assistance pack includes a traffic-sign recognition system that uses a camera adjacent to the Lidar sensor to monitor the road ahead for signs. If it spots a speed limit or 'no overtaking' sign, an appropriate icon is shown on an LCD display in the instrument binnacle, between the speedometer and rev counter. The system worked flawlessly in our tests, although we've yet to see how effective it is in the dark.
It's a feature that sounds completely unnecessary, particularly for those that are blessed with the gift of eyesight. But users should find it handy when driving on unfamiliar stretches of road and, since the system also tells you when you've left low-speed zones, it's a great reminder of when you're allowed to nail the throttle again.
Currently, the system only recognises the two aforementioned road signs, but Ford says it's working on adding more signs to its database.
The Focus' most impressive party piece is its ability to steer by itself. The same camera that keeps an eye on road signs also watches the road ahead for lane markings. If the car detects you're veering off course -- that is, if you're not indicating, not actively turning the steering wheel towards the direction you're driving in, and you're bouncing over lane markings -- it physically turns the steering wheel or applies the brakes on one side of the car to pull you back towards the centre of the lane.
Seeing and feeling the car steer itself away from potential danger is bizarre to say the least, but the system works incredibly well. When used in conjunction with the Focus' adaptive cruise control, which maintains a preset speed and distance from the vehicle in front, the car can effectively drive completely by itself.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the lane-keeping aid won't work unless you're doing more than 38mph and your hands are on the wheel. That's a decision Ford has taken to discourage people from kicking back and reading a newspaper while the Focus gets on with the driving.