Every few years, it seems, Ford announces in a fanfare of publicity that its latest offering is truly a “World Car”. We saw this when the first generation Fiesta had a brief fling in America, and a more serious effort with the closely related European and American first generation front wheel drive Escorts in 1980. Ignoring minority appeal vehicles like the Probe and the Escape/Maverick, the real global-car effort in the 1990s was with the Mondeo. The clue was in the name, but the American versions, Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique were conspicuously unsuccessful, panned for being “too small”. Undeterred, Ford decided to have another go, and the much lauded European Focus was adapted to meet the perceived needs of the US market and debuted there more than a year after its European launch. Once initial quality problems were resolved, it became quite successful, but then fell foul of a prolonged period where Ford US ceased to invest in new products. Ford Europe presented the second generation Focus in the autumn of 2004, but America only received a mildly facelifted version of the first generation model. Despite a lot of suggestions from the press and public alike that America wanted the new model, Ford persisted with a range centred on the four door saloon, selling small numbers of the three and five door hatchbacks and the estate. At the Detroit 2008 Show, a completely different looking American Focus was presented, this time offered only as a two or four door saloon (although in American parlance the two door is called a Coupe), but disappointment reigned when it transpired that this was simply a facelift of the original car, now a 10 year old design, and not something new. Rumours persisted that Ford would indeed return to the “World Car” philosophy with Focus 3, and as this was only a couple of years away, the 2008 launch was simply a stop gap solution. Surprisingly, given that this is cited as the sample compact car by the US rental agencies, a test of this model had eluded me until this week, when I collected a slightly battle scarred 2 year old (yes, Hertz really do keep most of their cars for up to 2 years these days!) and 44,000 miles on the clock SE sedan.
With the advent of this iteration of US Focus, any choice of engine has gone. You now get a 2 litre which in the 4 door cars delivers 140 bhp and on the coupe 143 bhp. Standard transmission is a five speed manual, but in the best of rental car practice, the test car had the optional 4 speed automatic. Although this engine was seen as a retrograde step from the optional 2.3 litre 4 of the previous model, it is more or less up to the job, and makes the Focus moderately brisk. It is noisy, though. It is an odd sort of noise, and it is augmented by some wind noise and a certain amount of additional sound from the road surface, but I can best describe it was if you can hear the pistons bouncing up and down hard in a resonant cylinder chamber, and whilst noticeable at 65 mph, it amplified notably from 70 mph. It was nearly annoying enough to make the Focus an unpleasant long distance cruiser, but not quite. Rev the engine hard, and it is nippy enough, though, so I had little difficulty keeping up with the traffic and shooting into gaps on the freeway when joining a busy section. The gearbox is quite smooth in shifting between the gears, and as befits the low price of the car, offers no choice of mode or tiptronic style self selection of the gears. Fuel economy proved rather better than in the comparably sized Jetta I recently drove, averaging out at 31.9 mpg US, which equates to 38.1 mpg Imperial. European Focus has always been the absolute best for steering feel and handling. Sadly, that accolade eludes the American one. There was nothing really wrong with either steering or handling of this car, but it was distinctly average in both regards. The ride is decent enough, as are the brakes.
It is when you open the door and get in the Focus that you realise that you are at the Hair Shirt spec end of motoring. One major annoyance I had was that the car lacks central locking. What it does have, which actually compounds the problem, is what are called “power door locks”. This means that the doors do all lock when you start the engine, but irritatingly, they also unlock when you stop the engine and open the driver’s door. So, that means that all 4 doors are now unlocked and the only way to lock them is to push the sill top button down on every door. Quite the worst system I have come across ever. There is no remote release button for the boot, so the only way into that is with the key. Look a little closer, and you can see that the 2008 facelift was clearly designed to take cost out, and this was done by sourcing some of the cheapest and nastiest quality plastics I’ve seen since I last sat in a Jeep, and commissioning a 10 year old to mark up the dials with a thick felt tip pen. Not only are the interior plastics of unremitting hard nastiness, but the fit and gaps are poor and mis-aligned. A swathe of cheap and nasty silver plastic in the centre of the dash does not help matters. European Focus is not renowned for having an upscale interior, but compared to this, it is the height of sophistication. Look beyond the nastiness, and what you get is quite neatly presented and easy to use. Despite the truly horrid graphics on the instruments, they are easy to read, and all the controls fall readily to hand. I did find another frustration and that was with the wiper control. You twist the end of the column stalk away from you through umpteen intermittent settings to get to continuous wipe. It was awkward to use, and I found myself more than once turning the wipers off when I wanted more of a screen wipe, as the test did coincide with a couple of days of heavy rain.
The test car was in SE spec, which is one above the bottom of the range (the S), and positioned below the SEL and SES. Considering how basic the SE feels, I wondered what other sacrifices have to be made by the cheapskate who selects an S, and the answer would appear to be not much. Indeed, the SE adds electrically adjustable door mirrors, the cursed power locking system, all round electric windows and – gratifyingly – a satellite radio. which I did use and enjoy, as well as alloy wheels. The SEL adds 16″ wheels, a rear spoiler, a leather wrapped steering wheel with audio controls, cruise control and heated mirrors. The top spec SES gives you heated leather seats. Even the basic S models have air conditioning, but if you look at the lists of proud boasts of other standard features, things such as bucket seats and a heated rear window are listed to pad out the inventory. At $16,400 when new, the Focus SE was cheap, but not spectacularly so. It was also nearly $1000 more than the entry level S model, and looking at the list of additional features, it is questionable whether there is real value in this model over the basic car.
Having been quite harsh thus far, it is only fair to point out that this is quite a roomy car, with plenty of space for four adults, with a fifth likely to be reasonably comfortable for short journeys. The seats proved comfortable, although the stepped backrest adjuster did only offer positions that were too far apart for my perfect setting. The boot is a decent size, and can be extended by folding down the rear seats. There is a small glove box, modest door bins, and a small cubby under the central armrest for odds and ends.
For someone who is used to Euro Focus, this one really was a disappointment. Ford appear to have thrown away all the best bits, and taken the weaknesses and amplified them. Focus 3 looks very promising, and provided that the US cars are not changed beyond all recognition from the European ones, could well prove to be the cars to beat in this sector. For now, though, anyone looking for a US compact car really would be well advised to look elsewhere.