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Ever since Alan Mulally nailed his cost-cutting plan to Ford's corporate doors in 2006, the reformation has been in full swing at the company, most notably among its small cars, expected to be a growth segment. Ford went smaller than ever before, at least in the U.S., with the European-designed Fiesta last year.
Now the Focus gets its turn, with not only a major upgrade for the 2012 model year, but also the coming together of European and U.S. versions in one unified model. The 2012 Ford Focus gets a new set of efficiency technologies, pushing its fuel economy well into the 30s, but a sometimes clunky dual-clutch transmission sours the driving experience. Oh, and the car can park itself.
In hatchback form, the new Focus looks sharp, carrying the Kinetic design language seen on the Fiesta. That theme is apparent in angled contour lines down the sides. A large maw in front, resembling Mitsubishi's jet-fighter grille, looks like it could take in enough air to inflate a thousand bouncy castles. The bubble-butt hatch resembles that of the Subaru Impreza.
The Focus' fuel hatch hides in the rear body panel.
A small, but nicely integrated, fuel filler hatch, nearly hidden on the rear right fender, shows that Ford's designers are paying attention to the details. This hatch covers Ford's cap-free fuel filler, a very convenient innovation launched previously on other models.
The big, black air intake up front suggests the upcoming ST version of the Focus, eagerly awaited by boy racers. But after a few fast starts and hard corners, the 2012 Focus, even in top Titanium trim, shows that we still have to wait for that hot hatchback. Call this new Focus a mild hatchback.
Although still using the Duratec brand, this engine gets direct injection.
The 2012 Focus Titanium shows more interest in practical matters, namely fuel efficiency, rather than satisfying the "need for speed" crowd. As such, its direct-injection 2-liter four-cylinder engine produces a reasonable 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. This mill may not lead to thrilling acceleration, but it works, giving the car adequate acceleration for merging and passing.
Fuel economy is the real win here, with the Focus Titanium, equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch transmission, getting 28 mpg in the city and 38 mpg on the highway. After a mix of city and freeway driving and some time spent thrashing around in the hills, CNET's car sipped an average of 30.7 mpg, not bad considering a complete lack of hypermiling technique.
Similar to what you get with the Fiesta, the automatic transmission option in the Focus is actually an automated manual, a six-speed gearbox with two computer-controlled clutches. But unlike the Fiesta, this transmission gets a manual shift mode in the Focus. Ford is exploiting this type of transmission as a fuel-saving technology.
But beware: those stepping into the Focus not knowing of this technology, assuming that it is a standard automatic, will think it is broken. Although it generally shifts smoothly, at times its clutch logic gets confused, leading to an abrupt thunk of a gear change. It also isn't prone to creeping; the car initially stands still when the shifter drops into Drive.
A rocker switch on the shifter allows manual gear selection.
The transmission's Sport mode initiates a downshift when the car brakes hard, holding its low gear for some satisfying engine whine, if not massive power. A rocker switch on the side of the shifter changes gears manually, a type of control that does not suggest sport driving. In fact, the Focus has a tendency to take over shifting even when you think you are in control. For example, it won't tolerate near-redline acceleration, opting to upshift early.
For ride quality, the Focus is all sharp edges covered in foam rubber. There is an odd softness to it that's unlike other cars. It does not bounce with long-suspension travel; rather it stays reasonably planted. And while you feel bumps and holes in the road, the jouncing is muffled. It is like the Focus wants you to know the road is there, but also wants to protect you from it.
Put into tricky corners, the Focus softly leans outward, stabilizer bars holding it from getting out of sorts but not entirely keeping out the roll. When really pushed, it shows some slight desire to rotate in a turn, with its rear, unpowered wheels stepping out--a good omen for the upcoming ST version.
The electric power-steering rig that points the wheels offers a good feeling of resistance, and turns back to center exiting a turn. But it shows typical comfort tuning, making it easy to maintain direction while going down the freeway.
Distant touch screen
Ford pulled few punches in making cabin tech available for the 2012 Focus. CNET's Titanium trim model came with a touch-screen LCD with navigation, audio, and a Bluetooth phone system, plus a premium Sony audio system. The Sony system uses an ingeniously simple interface, with a single knob for volume surrounded by buttons for tuning, skipping tracks, and changing audio sources.
The Sony stereo interface is nice and simple, but the LCD is a long reach.
The touch screen is much improved over recent new interfaces in Ford vehicles. In new models such as the 2011 Ford Explorer, the touch screen has not been very responsive, but the Focus' LCD is better, the onscreen buttons executing functions more reasonably when touched. The problem comes in trying to reach those buttons, as the LCD is set far from the driver.
Fortunately, just about everything in the Focus' cabin tech suite responds to the voice command system. For years now Sync has offered precise voice control over MP3 players and cell phones, eliminating the need to browse through a library of music on the touch screen. Ford has improved this voice command system more, letting you enter destinations by speaking an entire address string, for example.
There are two USB ports in the console, along with RCA and composite video jacks for line-in sources. Those USB ports work equally well with a flash drive, iPod, or other MP3 player. In each case, the system indexes music and arranges it in the onscreen music library by artist, album, and genre. Likewise, you can use voice command to tell it what specific music to play.
The Focus gets two USB ports, along with RCA and composite video jacks.
The Sony premium audio system, with a 355-watt amp and subwoofer, does an excellent job with bass, delivering a solid, but controlled, punch. The system turns out reasonably detailed highs, but the midranges get a little muddy, with different tones sounding compacted.
As the navigation system is flash-based, there is no hard drive in the car for music storage. Ford uses an SD card from Telenav to deliver navigation, a newish system that in past tests lost satellite tracking too easily. In the Focus, the system worked better, showing the car on its proper road even when driving through heavily forested areas. It got off track briefly among trees and the tall buildings of downtown San Francisco, but not more so than other systems.
The maps in the system show good resolution, and integrate with traffic information. That data comes courtesy of Sirius Travel Link, which also brings fuel prices, weather, movie listings, and sports scores into the car. Ford has also been expanding Sync to allow app integration, so smartphone-based services such as Pandora will become available in the Focus.
The Focus also features two surprising bits of driver assistance technology. The first is a backup camera that includes distance and trajectory lines, which should aid in parking. But the second technology means you won't have to park the car yourself.
Push a button, and the Focus will begin to look for parking, although only parallel parking spots on the right side of the car. The LCD indicates when the car has identified a spot in which it can fit. The driver needs to look out for things such as driveways. Once it finds a spot, the car tells the driver to stop, let go of the wheel, and put the car in reverse. As the driver works gas and brake, the car turns the steering wheel.
The Focus can look for suitable parking spots.
This system worked very well in testing, cutting close to, but not touching, the parked car in front. It put the Focus in very close to the curb, straightening out the wheel for its last maneuver. It is a very neat trick, of particular benefit to people who dread parallel parking. But a blind-spot detection system might have been more generally useful. Ford takes a low-tech approach for this latter issue, fitting auxiliary mirrors into the side mirrors that show what's next to the Focus.
Sync, Sirius Travel Link, and one of the best voice command systems in the business remain the linchpin of Ford's cabin tech offerings, giving the 2012 Focus an excellent array of features. Recent iterations of the navigation system and touch screen were problematic and cause for concern, but Ford engineers seem to have ironed out most of these issues for the Focus.
Although its sporty looks suggest otherwise, the 2012 Focus is no racer. Its engine and suspension are tuned for efficient everyday driving. The transmission, while exhibiting interesting technology, occasionally acts a little buggy.
As a hatchback, the Focus presents practical space for people and cargo. The seating positions feel comfortable and the hatch opens easily. The new styling is also very distinct. The cabin tech interface still suffers a few design issues, such as the long reach to the LCD.
|Model||2012 Ford Focus|
|Power train||Direct-injection 2-liter 4-cylinder engine, 6-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||28 mpg city/38 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||30.7 mpg|
|Navigation||Flash-based with traffic|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, SD card, auxiliary input, satellite radio, HD radio|
|Audio system||Sony 10-speaker 355-watt audio system|
|Driver aids||Automatic parallel parking, rearview camera|
|Price as tested||$26,275|