Driven: 2012 Ford Focus

By John Beltz Snyder

January 31, 2011

—Los Angeles, California

For what seems like forever, we’ve been hearing the gripes (many originating in our own offices) about how Europe always gets the good stuff. For instance, they get all the small cars with diesel engines and hatchbacks that we don’t see but would love to drive, and maybe even own. It seems that times are a-changin’, thankfully, with the likes of the Chrysler-Fiat connection and Ford’s revised global strategy. The newest no-longer-forbidden fruit is the 2012 Ford Focus, which we were eager to sample when invited to drive it in smoggy sunny Los Angeles this winter.

The Focus currently comes in four trim levels: S, SE, SEL, and Titanium, with two body styles: sedan and hatchback, and two transmission options: a five-speed manual and six-speed dual-clutch automatic. The S is only available as a sedan. SE and SEL have standard sixteen-inch wheels (covered steelies on the SE, aluminum on the SEL), with the Titanium equipped with seventeen-inch sport aluminum wheels. The main differences are inside the car, with the SEL receiving MyFord and Sync, and the Titianium featuring the sleek MyFord Touch and eight-inch touchscreen. Our SE tester had the optional sport tuned suspension—which comes as standard in the Titanium—as part of the SE Sport Package.

The interior was roomy and comfortable. It’s pretty standard Ford fare, for the most part, which is already above par for the segment. Ours had some nice touches, like the metallic trim, and leather-wrapped shift knob and (most importantly) steering wheel. The leather—again, part of the Sport Package, and standard in the Titanium—was smooth and really nice to hold in hand. Also of note to those in colder climes (but not so important in southern California), a Winter Package option is available, which keeps buns and mirrors appropriately toasty.

The Focus’ new electric power-assisted steering made it a willing dance partner on the tight, curvy corners on and around Mulholland Drive. Flipping the steering wheel from side to side provoked accurate responses at the front wheels, a good thing on the narrow roads lined by steep dropoffs. While the wheel felt good in hand and reacted well to inputs, it wasn’t very expressive; a little bit of feedback would have gone a long way here, but in Ford’s endeavor to create a high level of refinement, it also managed a lot of isolation from the road in the steering feel. This is a minor quibble, because overall, the act of turning the car is a positive feeling, and one we enjoyed for many winding miles.

And this good-to-turn element goes far beyond steering. The Focus is really willing to rotate. And it does so with good balance and poise. It shifts its weight from side to side without trouble, giving the car the sense of having a very low center of gravity. We were a bit worried that it would have some of the wobble that little brother Fiesta has when flung from side to side, but the Focus exhibited very little in the way of body roll. It always felt planted, and when traveling over uneven pavement in the turns, the good bolstering of the driver’s seat did its job keeping us in place.

The one drawback we did find in the corners had to do with visibility. The Focus’ emphasis on aerodynamics gives it an aggressively sloped windshield. Thus, on some of the tighter corners, visibility was hampered by the A-pillar, which just happened to extend directly into the part of our field of vision that mattered most: the upcoming section of road. This forced us to slow down and crane our necks to be sure we weren’t headed for fallen rocks, a work crew, or the edge of the pavement. It’s really a small price to pay for cutting through the wind better, and one that we could certainly learn to live with, especially as it only affected us when turning left within a few specific degrees, in an otherwise totally capable cornering machine.

Another subtle helper in the corners was a bit of technology Ford was very proud of, but which helped out in an invisible and unobtrusive way. The 2012 Focus uses torque vectoring, distributing torque intelligently between the front wheels under cornering. In a turn, the brakes will slow the inside wheel, helping the car rotate. It doesn’t feel like a nanny in any way, with any clicking or pulsing neither heard nor felt. It’s this torque vectoring that mitigates understeer, keeping the Focus heading exactly where prompted by the steering wheel—a good, confidence-inspiring quality on these canyon roads.

Until we see the EcoBoost (in the Focus ST) or electrified versions in the next couple years, the single powerplant for the new Focus is an all-new 2.0-liter four. It’s Ford’s first naturally aspirated engine to use direct injection technology (the turbocharged EcoBoost engines also use this high-pressure form of fuel delivery). Also on hand to improve fuel economy is twin independent variable camshaft timing—another first for Ford in this engine class. This all translates to 160 available horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. With help from the aerodynamic improvements, the automatic-transmission version projected to deliver 40 miles per gallon on the highway.

Even in our manual-equipped tester (thank you, Ford), we noticed that power delivery was butter-smooth. While many of us Winding Roaders oddly enjoy a quirky, peaky engine, Ford’s priority in the grown-up Focus was providing a high level of refinement. As we stepped on the gas pedal and let out the also-smooth clutch, we were treated to a comfortable amount of acceleration. The sounds coming from the engine, while not raucous or emotionally stirring, were pleasant to the ear during the occasions that they are allowed to enter the cabin. Wringing the car out to the redline and shifting enthusiastically through the five gears, while done with great ease and smoothness, did not induce an onset of adrenaline. Instead, the Focus’ powertrain says “leave the thrills at the steering wheel; we’re going to do this the easy way.”

The comfort level, overall, was quite high in any situation. The cabin of the Focus, for the most part, is devoid of wind and road noise. Again the emphasis on refinement reflects the easy nature of the driving dynamics. The ride is also quite comfortable, and here, Ford did a great job of blending attention to NVH with creating a capable cornering companion. The suspension does have a firm quality to it, which really helps it feel stable, but when we encountered broken roads or surface irregularities, they were totally unable to thwart the composure of the car. Even pretty serious depressions—the type that would rattle one’s teeth in the last-generation Focus—were eaten up with little clamor. While we originally dismissed Ford’s comparisons to the Audi A3, the proof is in the potholes when it comes to the ride.

So what will be the Focus’ main competition? First thing that comes to our mind is the Chevrolet Cruze, but already, it seems the Ford vehicle offers more content and refinement for the buck. Then there’s Hyundai’s new Elantra, and this is where things start to get interesting. Two capable, affordable cars offering levels high levels of comfort and quality in a segment where those things are hard to find?  It seems a comparison test may be in order.

2012 Ford Focus SE Five-Door
Engine: Inline-four, 2.0-liters, 16v
Output: 160 hp/146 lb-ft
Weight: 2889 lb (est.)
Cargo Volume: 44.8 cu ft
Base Price: $18,065
Price As Tested: $21,450
On Sale: Early 2011