It's exactly a year since Ford unveiled its completely redesigned 2008 Focus at the 2007 Detroit auto show, and for a company desperately in need of a successful vehicle--especially in the newly fashionable compact segment--Ford needs its entry-level model to be a hit. The revamped Focus represents something of a radical styling departure from its predecessors. Out go the hatchback and wagon body styles of the previous generation, replaced with a more bulbous and curvaceous European design reminiscent of a squished Ford Mondeo. It is on the inside, however, that the game really changes for the 2008 Focus, with the availability of another product that headlined in Detroit last year: Ford Sync. Designed by Microsoft, and exclusive to Ford Motor products, Sync represents a quantum leap forward for Ford (and the auto industry in general) in terms of controlling in-car media and communications. Our 2008 Ford Focus tester was the review car we have seen with Sync (it comes as standard equipment on the SES), and, after testing it to its breaking point, we can report that despite a few niggles, we're impressed. Very impressed.
Test the tech 1: The telephone game
The two standout functions that Sync offers are control of Bluetooth hands-free calling and control of digital music via a combination of voice command and a hard-button control interface on the car's central column. (There are several additional features, which we cover below: See the In the cabin section.) So what's so different with Sync? We have seen more than our fair share of Bluetooth hands-free calling systems in the past, some of which were voice-activated; many of which are best forgotten. The problem with many Bluetooth systems is that they are often more trouble than they're worth. With the notable exception of Acura and Honda systems--and some recent Infiniti systems--hands-free calling is often far from "hands-free," requiring drivers to physically punch in numbers (either to their cell phone or an in-car keypad) to make a call; to remember specific numbers for voice dialing; or to go through the lengthy process of voice-tagging entries in an address book to dial by name. Even with the few high-end factory systems that copy over cell phone address books, drivers have to use some kind of interface (Audi's MMI, COMAND, iDrive, etc.) to scroll through names before making a call. With Sync, the whole process is a lot more straightforward and intuitive.
Sync comes as standard on the 2008 Ford Focus.
The setup process for the Bluetooth hands-free link on Sync is similar to that on many other systems: set the car and the Bluetooth phone to search for each other, and then enter a passcode on the phone when the connection is made. In fact, we actually had more problems pairing our Samsung SGH-T619 to the Sync system than to others we've tried, but we had more luck with a Motorola Z6C. With the connection made, the simple dash-mounted display asks whether the user would like to transfer the phone's address book to the system. The transfer process took about 1 minute for us, but may take longer if you have more friends. With the contacts transferred, users can access the names on the display using the menu button and the scroll wheel, and make a call by pressing the Enter button.
Voice commands are initiated by pressing a button on the right of the steering wheel.
Big deal, you might think--up to here, the process is no different from any other advanced Bluetooth system. It is with the voice-command system, however, that Sync stands head and shoulders above the competition. With the phonebook transferred, Sync automatically indexes all of the contact names, which are then accessible to dial by voice command. Where other systems require voice tagging or a dodgy connection between the car system and the (equally dodgy) voice recognition system on the phone itself, Sync indexes the text names of phonebook entries and makes them all accessible by voice command. And it is accurate.
For our test of the voice-dialing feature, we decided to enter into our cell phone six names with similar spellings and pronunciations to try to catch the system out. Our test names were: Andrew, Andrea, Andreas, Andre, Andy, and Anthony. For each one, we attempted to call the contact by voice command (saying "call Andrew," for example). With one exception, Sync managed to understand our requests the first time. On the occasion that it did struggle (calling Andrea instead of Andreas), we enunciated more deliberately the second time, and the system dialed the correct contact.
Or is that Andrea?
Test the tech 2: Play it again, Sync
We usually do just one tech test with our review cars, but seeing as this was our first review of Sync, we awarded ourselves another challenge, this time based on the system's music playback ability. As with phone calls, Sync can be used to control music using either hard button controls or via voice command. While we generally like the hard button interface for searching and selecting music from connected iPods, Zunes, and other MP3 players and USB devices, we did have some minor issues with them (see In the cabin). For our test, however, we once more opted to use the voice-command system.
Ford has made much of its partnership with Microsoft as its partner on the Sync project, so we thought that an interesting evaluation of the system would involve pitting Microsoft's very own Zune MP3 player against the Apple iPod. Would there be any advantage, we wondered, in the ability of the Sync to play music from the Zune versus its ability to find tracks on the iPod. Sync's voice-command interface for music selection is much the same as it is for the phone, although the initial data download process is obviously longer. For our Zune loaded with 30GB of music, the system took nearly 3 minutes to index all the tracks--a one-time process, thankfully. In the interests of impartiality, we loaded the same test tracks onto both our Zune and our iPod. We would use voice commands to select music by artist name, album name, and track name for both players and record the results. For artist, we chose Badly Drawn Boy; for album, Ultra Chilled; and for track name, "Come back loaded roady." Pressing the voice-command button, we tried each in succession on both players (we felt a little silly saying "play track come back loaded roady" to our car's steering wheel, but it actually worked!).
We were very impressed with Sync's ability to recognize songs and artist by voice command.
In practice, we found no difference between Sync's ability to work with the Zune and the iPod. With both players, the system managed to understand our request for album, artist, and song name the first time: a very impressive feat. Having completed our initial test, we sat about trying numerous ways to confuse Sync, mostly to no avail. However, we finally came upon a track that we could not get to play via voice command from either the iPod or the Zune. The track name was "1980 - 1990" by an artist called Barcelona. No matter how we tried (and we tried), we could not get the system to understand our requests. It came pretty close, playing 1979 by the Smashing Pumpkins, 1984 by David Bowie, and even a cover of Prince's 1999 by Mike Flowers Pops--but it would not play the original track. So, Microsoft's engineers do have some work left to do, but not much. In our experience, Sync's voice-command system is the best we've seen to date.
In the cabin
One of the most remarkable things about our Sync-enabled 2008 Focus was the fact that, at first glance, the car's cabin looks extremely threadbare in terms of luxury appointments and tech toys. While our top-of-the-range SES came with some metallic appliquÃ© for the dash, a performance-inspired white-on-black instrument cluster, and option leather and heated bucket seats, the Focus cabin is more functional than fancy. This is equally true of the head unit controls, which comprise a mixture of hard black plastic buttons and dials. Navigation is not even an option on the Focus, and the only visual indication of the presence of the Sync system hiding behind the drab facade is a USB port, an auxiliary input jack, and a small badge buried at the bottom of the car's central stack. These ports are flanked by two 12-volt cigarette-lighter adapters--a nice touch that shows Ford has recognizes that people using Sync are likely to have portable electronics they want to charge.
Our test car came with the Focus' upgraded Audiophile system complete with six-CD in-dash changer and the ability to play MP3 format discs, as well as Sirius Satellite Radio. Drivers are faced with a familiar and relatively easy-to-use interface for controlling tracks from MP3 discs or USB-connected audio sources by hand. For MP3 discs, music can be listed by track, artist name, and album title, with ID3 tags showing up on the simple dot-matrix display. Drivers can browse through folders and files using an iPod-inspired rotary dial to the right of the central column. The same interface can be used for controlling music from iPods and other digital audio players, which can be searched according to standard categories (album, artist, genres, tracks, etc.), and played by pushing the Play button in the middle of the dial. One gripe we did have with the audio selection interface was the fact that you can't back up just one level in the menu structure--for listening to another song by the current artist, for example; instead you have to press the Menu button to go right back to the root menu and start your selections from the top.
For those who don't want to talk to their car, there is an old-fashioned manual selection interface for music.
For those who want to dispense with the hands-on selection of music, there is the wonderful Sync voice-recognition system we have already mentioned. In addition to the ability to call out songs by name, Sync has a feature called "play similar music," whereby the system searches metatags of tracks on the connected player to find tracks with similar attributes to the one currently playing. We found that requesting similar music often just resulted in getting a different track from the current artist. Aside from the control of USB-connected sources, Sync also supports Bluetooth audio streamed from music phones with the A2DP profile as well as line-in audio via its 1/8-inch auxiliary input jack. Unlike USB-connected audio sources, the audio from these two sources cannot be requested by name, but it can be activated and--in the case of Bluetooth audio--paused using voice command.
Sync also has some extra phone-related features aside from its phenomenal contact-book recognition. Those who want to dial by number rather than name using voice command can do so by saying "dial" (rather than "call") followed by the number in digits. In our tests, the system proved to be very accurate at recognizing numbers in this way. Another advanced feature of Sync is its ability to read and send text messages from compatible cell phones. Our cell phone did not support this feature, but CNET's Brian Cooley can be seen experimenting with this feature in a video from last year. And for those who don't want any truck with talking to the car at all, there is a convenient 10-digit keypad above the stereo with which Luddite drivers can use their fingers to dial a number.
Despite all of its many features, we did have a couple of niggles with the Sync system, principally related to the process of the voice-command interface. For a particular command to be recognized, Sync has to be in the correct mode: Thus, when in music playback mode, drivers have first to press the voice button and request "phone" before pressing it again and requesting "call Andrew." Similarly, in phone mode, the driver has to request "USB" before going on to order up any music. Following each request, the Sync system confirms each selection, adding to the delay. We are also less than impressed with the Sync's voice, which sounds too much like a robot to us--hopefully Microsoft's software engineers can make it sound a little more natural for Sync 2.0.
Under the hood
The 2008 Ford Focus comes with a single choice of power in the shape of a 2.0-liter Duratec four-cylinder engine producing 140 horsepower, which can be mated to a five-speed manual transmission or--as was the case with our tester--a four-speed automatic for an extra $815. We found the Focus to be surprisingly sprightly around town, with decent low-end pick up. On the freeway, performance is less remarkable, and the Focus can feel a touch underpowered in passing maneuvers or on-ramp mergers. We were, however, impressed with the ride quality and cabin damping of the car at freeway speeds.
According to Ford's marketing bump, the Focus SES has "Enhanced European-inspired suspension." We're not exactly sure what is so European about the springs and dampers, but the car does manage to damp out road imperfections well, leading to a comfortable ride. We were also impressed with the minimal amount of road noise admitted to the cabin on the freeway, although some wind noise was conspicuous.
The Focus' white-on-black racing dials are stylish, if a bit out of place.
The most impressive feature of the Focus on the freeway was its cruising-speed fuel economy. On a clear 50-mile run on U.S. 101 we observed an average gas mileage of 38.1 mpg, far above the EPA's estimated highway mileage of 33 mpg. On the other hand, in the preceding 315 miles of mixed highway and city driving, our test car had recorded an average mileage of 22.1 mpg, slightly less than the EPA's city estimate of 24 mpg.
The 2008 Ford Focus SES comes with a base price of $16,375, which includes the Sync system and manual transmission as standard. For our tester, we added the automatic gearbox ($815), leather ($695) and heated ($115) seats, antilock brakes with traction control ($385), and the Audiophile sound system ($645), for a final sticker price of $19,650. For that kind of money, the Focus is a compelling proposition. With its fresh exterior styling, economical engine, and phenomenal Sync system, the 2008 Focus may just be the shot in the arm that Ford needs.