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.
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.
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.
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.