Quality with Quantity
The Ford Focus is the top-selling nameplate in the world, says Ford; therefore, other automakers should fall in line and emulate the product because of untold riches and bragging rights … right? If this is your line of thinking, immediately head on down to your neighborhood Ford dealer, where the 2015 Focus has been on sale since late last year. But Toyota declares its direct competitor, Corolla, is also the best-selling nameplate in the world. So depending on whose bookkeeping you believe, you might have to stop by the Toyota store after seeing the Ford show floor.
Cross-shopping the Corolla and Focus is an inconceivable task to enthusiasts, and, to put it bluntly, it’s hard to imagine anybody deliberating one over the other for any period of time. But variety is the spice of life, and we as consumers are lucky the C-segment is as wildly diverse as it is, as evidenced by Ford and Toyota taking entirely different cuts at the compact car. The Focus’ handling prowess is flaunted, embraced, and long considered a major part of the nameplate’s equity. Then, of course, Ford sought to improve the 2015 model’s road feel. The electric power steering software was revised — the 14.7:1 ratio and 2.6 turns lock-to-lock carry over from 2014 — so your hands’ inputs would be met with greater clarity, responsiveness, and stability. The compromise was a slight clipping of the steering tune’s comfort target. Meanwhile, the Corolla’s handling claim is that at the right speed it can turn. “As with the Civic and Elantra, the Corolla lets the driver know it’s not looking forward to Mulholland Highway, but it begrudgingly goes along,” we established during our Big Test of compact sedans. And its steering? “Lacks feel” and “a bit wandery on the freeway,” we lamented.
We recently drove on famous Mulholland again, this time in a 2015 Focus Titanium hatchback. It quickly reveals it’ll go along very willingly. The $625 18-inch alloys with 235/40-18 Pirelli P Zero Nero All Season tires communicate their intentions to the driver clearly, though perhaps without the peak grip ability of 2014’s optional, summer-loving Michelin Pilot Sport 3. The Titanium model runs 17-inch wheels wrapped in 215/50-17 rubber as standard. There seems to be a touch less harshness over large wheel impacts and reduced road noise accompanying the compound change, but Ford also focused heavily on NVH abatement with measures such as thicker front side glass and different interior carpeting and wheelwell liners for 2015. We’ll make the final call on noise volume once we put the car through our normal test series.
On winding sweepers and sudden switchbacks, the Focus with the restyled front and rear bodywork aims to thrill. There are more than 10 unique compact offerings, and just a handful provide what could pass for satisfying handling. The Dodge Dart and Volkswagen Jetta don’t disappoint. But when it comes to flickable and fun rides reminiscent of the yesteryears when drivers couldn’t lean on the stability control crutch, there’s the Mazda3 and Focus. The Focus’ steering response remains very sharp, and the immediacy in its reactions will be felt during typical everyday driving. It’s great when diving from bend to bend, where small tugs at the steering wheel are able to retain (relatively) big cornering speeds. The front end is always straight when communicating with you, steering effort builds in a natural manner with corresponding cornering load, and the Focus is among the class’ most skilled at masking the feeling you’re dragging the back end along for a long ride.
The standard naturally aspirated, 2.0-liter I-4 (160 horsepower, 146 lb-ft of torque) and optional turbocharged, 1.0-liter I-3 (123 hp, 148 lb-ft, up to 35 combined mpg EPA) put out satisfactory thrust to lug around about 3,000 pounds worth of metal and plastic. The engine profiles are night and day: The 2.0-liter is peaky and needs the high engine speeds to display its full talent whereas the less powerful 1.0-liter can boost its way through the powerband to deliver a stronger and more consistent sensation of acceleration. A second Focus we drove — a mid-grade SE sedan with an I-3 and 215/50-17 Cooper Zeon RS3-A tires bundled together in the $1,495 SE EcoBoost Package — felt a click less connected to the road yet wilder with a turbocharger doing the heavy lifting. Truthfully, the I-3 ($795 as an a la carte option) feels stronger than the I-4 and would work well in replacing the 2.0-liter outright, assuming an automatic transmission is made available. As it stands, the EcoBoost’s six-speed manual shifts with a bit more precision than the five-speed employed with the Fiesta’s I-3. The clutch is fairly low effort, but anyone who’s ever changed his or her own clutch will think the I-3 needs a lighter flywheel. The I-3’s start/stop system is surprisingly generous with the battery cycling, allowing us to stop and restart the engine three consecutive times at a single stop. Yes, the system can be defeated with the push of a button on the center console. Yes, the whole car shakes when the engine is revived.
The Titanium hatch we drove featured the six-speed twin-clutch automatic, probably the least desirable auto in Compact Land. Serviceable at best and infuriating at worst, the automatic costs $0 extra over the five-speed manual at the Titanium level ($1,095 on S and SE). The PowerShift six-speed’s programming has improved substantially since 2012, but overall refinement still lags behind competitor transmissions. There’s the occasional stubborn takeoff, as it seems the countermeasure against the old software’s proclivity for lurching from a stop was to drastically slow the power delivery to the wheels. Upon downshift summons, it sounds like the Focus tranny has to slip the right gear’s clutch before engaging, presumably to limit shift shock that’d be felt in the cabin. A transmission that is generally slow to respond in both Drive and Sport modes and has to rev the engine before slotting in gear is not helpful when Los Angeles’ windows of opportunity to pass on traffic-clogged freeways are very narrow.
To our eyes, a more polished automatic and extra back seat space would make the Focus better. The current generation continues budgeting for nice-quality interior materials, and the 2015 model gains a restructured center stack with an easier-to-reach climate control din and standard backup camera. Our Big Test of compact hatchbacks dinged the ’14 Focus for lacking storage pockets for tchotchkes up front, but we can gripe no more. Ford partitioned out a bin at the base of the ’15’s center stack, replete with USB port and adjacent to a relocated 12-volt receptacle. Another USB port resides in the center console’s cubby.
“The seats are snug without being uncomfortable,” we said of the Focus in the hatchback Big Test, and the sentiment is the same for 2015. The front cupholders have been reoriented from being splayed across the width of the cabin to flowing down the length of it, positioned closer to the front passenger. The steering wheel design is new, and the door lock/unlock switch has moved from the center stack to the doors. All the changes are meaningful and appreciated.
With both Focuses parked, we walked away strangely content. Driving the new cars affirms the status quo bias: The Focus still has one of the firmer rides in the C-segment, the Focus’ handling is still superb for a mainstream compact, and the Focus’ tighter aft compartment is still more likely to put its passengers’ knees and shins into the front seats’ backsides than in other small sedans and hatchbacks. The Focus is in many ways the bizarro Corolla. Isn’t it great that so many different buyers can put money down on two such unashamedly different cars?
Making Sense of EPA Ratings
The 2015 Focus has different EPA fuel economy certifications. Here’s how it breaks down (with equivalent Canadian fuel ratings also noted):
26/36/30 mpg city/highway/combined (10.8 city/7.8 highway/9.4 combined L/100km): base rating for the 2.0-liter I-4 with five-speed manual (all trims)
26/38/30 mpg city/highway/combined (10.8 city/7.4 highway/9.4 combined L/100km): 2.0-liter I-4 with six-speed twin-clutch auto, with rocker switch-controlled SelectShift gear control (SE with Appearance Package and Titanium)
27/40/31 mpg city/highway/combined (10.5 city/7.1 highway/9.1 combined L/100km): 2.0-liter I-4 with six-speed twin-clutch auto, without rocker switch-controlled SelectShift gear control (S and SE)
29/40/33 mpg city/highway/combined (9.7 city/7.1 highway/8.6 combined L/100km): 1.0-liter, turbo I-3 with six-speed manual (SE with SE EcoBoost Package and 17-inch wheels)
30/42/35 mpg city/highway/combined (9.4 city/6.7 highway/8.1 combined L/100km): 1.0-liter, turbo I-3 with six-speed manual (SE with 16-inch wheels) — The 35 combined mpg ties the Focus with the Corolla LE Eco (there’s that rivalry again) and the HF version of the Honda Civic for tops among gas-fueled compacts. It’s also just 1 less mpg than the 36-mpg Fiesta SFE EcoBoost, which had been revised down from its original 37-mpg rating last year.
|2015 Ford Focus|
|BASE PRICE RANGE||$17,995-$19,785|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, FWD, 5-pass, 4-door sedan and hatchback|
|ENGINES||2.0L/160-hp/146-lb-ft DOHC 16-valve I-4; 1.0L/123-hp/148-lb-ft turbocharged DOHC 12-valve I-3|
|TRANSMISSIONS||5-speed manual, 6-speed manual (I-3 only), 6-speed twin-clutch auto.|
|CURB WEIGHT||2,900-2,950 lb (mfr)|
|LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT||171.6-178.5 x 71.8 x 57.7 in|
|0-60 MPH||7.4-8.5 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY/COMB FUEL ECON||26-30/36-42/30-35 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS., CITY/HWY||112-130/80-94 kW-hrs/100 miles|
|CO2 EMISSIONS, COMB||0.56-0.65 lb/mile|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|