2008 Ford Focus Expert Review:Autoblog
Save the hot hatch for last. That's what we kept telling ourselves as we wandered the Belgian countryside looking for Ford's Lommel Proving Ground. As it turns out, the facility, located next to an air force base – restricted airspace, you know – is so secret, our hosts at Ford could hardly find it. So we had a little extra time to repeat the mantra: save the hot hatch for last.
On our way to Italy to drive the new Fiesta, we took a detour to Lommel to sample some of Ford's European C-segment offerings. A variety of vehicles, including one with the new dual-clutch gearbox, a Kuga crossover and the fire-breathing Focus ST, would be on hand for us to drive around the track. But we knew that if we gave into temptation and drove the ST first, the rest would seem sluggish by comparison, even though the vehicles aren't comparable. So did we resist the urge, or give into the little demon that's always whispering in our ears to go faster? Follow the jump and we just might tell you.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
Before hitting the track, we sat through a series of briefings on the company, the products and the facility. But one declaration caught our attention more than the rest: Ford VP Derrick Kuzak declared that the Focus ST was the best driving machine that Ford has to offer. That's quite a declaration from the company that brought us the Ford GT, the Shelby Mustangs, and such rally-bred rockets as the RS200 and Escort Cosworth. Needless to say, we were keen to put Kuzak's affirmation to the test.
The Focus ST is based on the European model, which went its own way from the North American version for the second generation. Following the launch of the new Fiesta, the next Focus will once again be a global vehicle sol simultaneously in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere. Until then, the 225-hp Focus ST – available with either three doors or five and carrying a Volvo-sourced 2.5-liter turbocharged inline-five – will remain a coveted offering exclusively for overseas customers.
But we knew we should drive the diesels first. So once the briefings were done, we stepped outside to find an assortment of Focus-sized vehicles. Maybe we'll sample the DCT first, to see Ford's take on the latest in transmission technology. Or the Kuga, to see how a European soft-roader handles the twisty bits. There was even a C-Max, a little Focus-based minivan. But what's that over there? "There's a Focus ST waiting for you, Noah". Was that my little demon piping up again? Nope, that was one of our hospitable hosts from Ford's European headquarters in Cologne. He knows what we came for. And in that glowing orange hue, it couldn't be missed from a mile away. And I don't even like orange.
Temptation won again, and we slipped into the ST's leather-lined cabin, into the convoy and onto the sharply banked high-speed oval, one of 17 circuits at Ford's vast 800-acre test center. Unfortunately, safety concerns – and a lack of certification – meant that our laps around Lommel would be escorted by pace cars – Mondeo wagons fore and aft – to make sure we kept things within reason. Or at least at a reasonable speed. Fair enough, this would force us to drive under similar conditions to what the everyday driver would face on the daily commute, only without any "everyday drivers" around to get in the way. Or traffic lights, pedestrians or speed cameras, for that matter.
This is exactly what LPG was made for: putting Ford vehicles to the test under safe conditions away from public roads. The facility first opened its doors – to those few with access, anyway – in 1965, and every European Ford vehicle since has undergone testing there. Nestled in the forest, LPG encompasses some 80 kilometers of track. Over the past nine years alone, Ford has invested over €23 million to keep it at the cutting edge. Aside from the dynos, climate chambers and suspension rigs, LPG features 17 distinct tracks, including the two on which we'd be driving: the high-speed oval and the infamous Road 7, a notoriously challenging circuit with more bends than a can of worms on ecstasy.
Pulling out onto the oval track, our rate of acceleration and top speed were limited by the pace cars, but the slightest gap between the nose of the ST and the car in front gave ample demonstration of the hot Focus' ferocity. The turbo comes on linearly and with little lag, giving a smooth progression of power that ultimately proved intoxicating. As our speed built up and we pulled up into the embankment, the Focus ST tracked steadily and securely with a "bring it on" attitude. But it wasn't until we pulled infield that the competence of its chassis really shone through.
The multitude of curves along Road 7 meant that once we got off the oval, we hardly had the chance to climb out of third gear. Not that the Focus didn't try, though. After a lap or two, the unflappable Focus ST gave us enough confidence to push it into a bit of wheel-slip, which the car provided with pleasure and a linear progression that was easy to control, even for this novice driver. But oh, what fun. By European standards this is no small car, and compared to something like the junior Fiesta ST, the Focus carries a bit of weight. But that wasn't about to stop it from showing us a good time. Neither was its front-drive layout, which usually makes tail-sliding a challenge, but even with the traction control and stability management engaged, the Focus still demonstrated a playful nature. We would have switched the systems off, but the option was buried deep within an electronic menu that we didn't have time to navigate.
Those guys in the Mondeos did, though. Turns out these weren't just minders, but Ford's crack team of performance engineers. Towards the end of the day, we got to ride shotgun with one of them, electronics off and helmets on. Whatever we thought we had come to understand about the Focus ST's capabilities went out the window, the same direction through which we had to watch the road as our expert pilot hustled the Focus sideways around the track like a turbocharged shopping cart.
So what about those other cars in the motor pool? Yeah, we almost forgot about those, too. We'll have another report on the Kuga for you soon. We also took a couple of laps in a Focus with the new PowerShift dual-clutch gearbox, which, when hooked up to a diesel engine at least, came across as more comfort- than performance-oriented. It'll be interesting to see if Ford will offer PowerShift on any performance models, but so far no word has come on whether that will transpire. With a quick-shifting clutchless gearbox, who knows, we might have gotten out of third in the ST. On the diesel version, however, the DCT proved more of a replacement for a conventional torque-converter automatic than a substitute for a manual.
Of course, that was after driving the Focus ST. And after a few laps in that orange beast, we have a feeling that most cars would feel rather lethargic. But everything is relative. Case in point: Ford is working on a new, even more powerful Focus RS. Enthusiasts were initially disappointed when the announcement came from Ford that, due to cost and weight issues, the RS would stick with front-wheel-drive instead of all fours like the championship-winning rally car it's built to emulate. Those who've driven the prototype around Road 7 promise we won't be disappointed. Looks like we'll have to arrange another visit to Lommel, then. We just hope we can find it again.
Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.
Travel and lodging for this event were provided by the manufacturer.
New Car Test Drive
Redesigned for 2008.
Ford has reworked the Focus for 2008, giving it new styling inside and out but maintaining the same platform and basic size.
The new design shares a family look with Ford's other cars, distinguished by a two-bar version of the company's characteristic razor blade-like grille.
The new, 2008 Ford Focus comes in four-door sedan and two-door coupe body styles. (Wagon and hatchback body styles are not offered.)
The big news for 2008 is the introduction of Ford's new Sync entertainment and communications system. Developed with Microsoft, Sync provides a hands-free link to cell phones and MP3 players through a series of voice commands. It recognizes your cell phone's address book. It can even read text messages to occupants through the stereo system. It's an amazing system and Ford appears to be ahead of everyone else in this area.
The redesigned interior is aesthetically pleasing. It looks better than that of the outgoing model, with nicer graining on the plastics that continue to dominate the cockpit. The ambience is not luxurious but appropriate for the price. While interior noise is also down from the last model, there is still plenty of road and engine noise, which are typical of economy cars.
As in the past, the Focus handles well. We experienced lots of road feel with little body lean in corners while driving the top-line SES with its a sportier suspension. That road feel can make the ride a bit harder than some might prefer, but it isn't harsh and we appreciated the handling response.
With 140 horsepower, the Focus has decent power for most needs, but passing on a busy two-lane road will require a lot of space. Fuel economy is quite good, with up to 24 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway.
The 2008 Ford Focus is offered in two-door coupe and four-door sedan body styles, each with the choice of three trim levels: S, SE, and SES. The lone engine is a 140-hp four-cylinder. A five-speed manual transmission comes standard; a four-speed automatic is optional ($815).
The S coupe ($14,075) and sedan ($14,375) come with cloth upholstery, air conditioning, AM/FM /CD/MP3 player with four speakers and auxiliary input jack, 60/40 split folding rear seat, tilt steering wheel, a tire inflation kit, antitheft system and P195/60R15 all-season tires on steel wheels with hubcaps. Options for S include cruise control ($215), Sirius satellite radio ($195), and a temporary spare tire ($60).
The SE coupe ($15,075) and sedan ($15,375) add power windows, locks and mirrors; remote keyless entry; vehicle message center; and aluminum alloy wheels. SE options consist of an Audiophile sound system with six-disc CD changer and subwoofer ($645); sunroof with overhead maplights ($625); the Driver's Group ($415) with cruise control, auto-dimming rearview mirror and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls; Ford Sync in-car communications and entertainment system ($395); a Deluxe Package ($395) with chromed, heated mirrors, chrome door handles, P215/50R16 all-season tires on aluminum alloy wheels, fog lamps, a rear stabilizer bar and sportier suspension settings, metallic interior trim, four-way adjustable driver's seat and a chrome exhaust tip; heated front seats ($115); Ford's Ambient Interior Lighting ($295) that uses LED lights to illuminate the front cupholders and front and rear footwells with the driver's choice of seven different colors; and an alarm ($125).
The SES coupe ($16,075) and sedan ($16,375) add fog lamps, rear spoiler, four-way adjustable driver's seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel with redundant audio controls, cruise control, Ford Sync, rear stabilizer bar and P215/50R16 all-season tires on aluminum alloy wheels. Leather upholstery ($695) is optional, and the SES is available with the SE options.
Safety features that come standard consist of dual-stage front airbags; torso-protecting, seat-mounted front side airbags; head-protecting side curtain airbags; tire pressure monitor; and LATCH-style child seat anchors. Four-wheel antilock brakes with traction control are optional for all models ($385).
Ford Focus has been reskinned for 2008, giving it a Ford family look while not greatly changing many of the dimensions. The result is at best conservative and at worst awkward and dull.
The front end is dominated by a two-bar version of the three-bar, razor-like chrome grille that first appeared on the Fusion. The grille is flanked by headlights that wrap around to the sides and follow the curve of the hood toward the windshield. A too-large expanse of bumper is located under the grille and below that is a large air intake that houses fog lights at the corners on the topline SES model.
The sides feature a chromed triangular applique at the back of each front fender that simply seems like tacked on ornamentation. This piece, which looks like an F on the driver's side, is the starting point for a pair of character lines that flow back. The bottom line leads to the rear wheelwheel, while the top line rises from front to rear and teams with a high tail to give the Focus the appearance of at least some dynamic motion. The rear of the coupe's roofline stays almost as high as the sedan's, which makes it look a bit clunky. The car looks best from the rear, where the simple angular shapes seem to work.
The overall result is a look that seems like a poor attempt at a family design statement.
Inside the Ford Focus is an aesthetically pleasing cockpit. The dashboard is dominated by a shiny plastic silver inset that covers the middle of the dash and leads into the center console. This is surrounded by black plastic top and bottom. There are no soft-touch materials here, but the graining looks nicer than it did in last year's model. The center console is deep, though not especially wide.
On top of the dash is a hooded cutout that displays trip computer, radio, and, when ordered, Sync information. The instrument panel has two large gauges, the speedometer and tachometer, and two small gauges, the fuel gauge and water temperature gauge. With markings every 20 mph that light up with a turquoise hue, it can be hard to judge your speed at a glance.
Thanks to Sync, the center stack has more controls that you'd expect to find in an economy car. Along the top are buttons for 10 radio station presets. When Sync and Sirius satellite radio are ordered, drivers can store up to 60 stations: 20 FM, 10 AM and 30 Sirius. That's impressive.
Below the stereo presets are a group of controls that include the volume and tuning knobs, as well as six buttons around a four-way central pad, all of which control the Sync system. Of course, none of these controls are necessary if you simply hit the steering wheel's voice control button and learn to use the voice commands. An easy-to-use set of climate controls is located below the stereo and Sync controls. None of these buttons are hard to identify or reach.
At the base of the center stack is a nice rubberized tray. This area is fairly important because it is where drivers will keep their phones and iPods when they use the Sync system. We found Sync to be genuinely useful and fairly easy to use. When an MP3 player is plugged in, Sync charges it and has access to the complete playlist. The driver can tell Sync to play a specific song, artist, or genre of music from his MP3 player. Sync will also stream MP3s wirelessly from a source like a phone/MP3 player enabled with Bluetooth technology. When a Bluetooth-enabled phone is in the car and paired to the system, Sync can access its phonebook. It can even play back incoming text messages through the speakers and allow the driver to respond with one of 15 predetermined messages, all while the driver keeps his hands on the wheel. There are a couple glitches, though. I couldn't get the system to recognize 'Kirk.' Instead it heard my name as 'Curt,' which is another number in my cell phone. And in general, the system is a bit tricky to learn at first.
The front seats are comfortable, with plenty of head and leg room. Thanks to large mirrors and small rear pillars, the driver's seat affords a good view to all corners. The rear seat has decent room with shorter people up front, but leg room disappears as the seats are moved back for taller front seat occupants. Head room is decent in the sedan, but a bit lacking in the coupe.
The trunk is fairly large at 13.8 cubic feet. That's as big as or bigger than some midsize cars. The second row seats fold mostly flat to allow loading long, flat packages. And in a touch expected of larger cars, the trunk has struts, not large sickle-shaped hinges that can crush packages.
The Ford Focus has been known as a car that offers good handling since its introduction for the 2000 model year. This Focus, though different in appearance, is basically that same car, which means it still handles well.
We drove the 2008 Focus SES and found a lot of road feel is communicated through the steering wheel. There is little lean in turns; after an initial shift, it takes a nice set. The SES model benefits from the addition of a rear stabilizer bar for sharper handling. We have not driven the base model.
Good road feel means the ride quality is a bit harder than some might prefer. But the Focus isn't a penalty box. It's not harsh over bumps.
Antilock brakes do not come standard, and we strongly recommend opting for them; ABS is optional with traction control.
Ford has outfitted the Focus with its 140-hp, 2.0-liter Duratec four-cylinder for better fuel economy. With the manual transmission the Focus gets an EPA-rated 24/35 mpg City/Highway. With the automatic, it gets a healthy 24/33mpg.
The 2.0-liter is competitive with most engines in this class. It has decent power for most needs, but passing maneuvers will require plenty of space. The automatic transmission downshifts quickly to give you what power the engine has.
Cars in this class tend to be buzzy and allow a lot of ambient sound to enter the cockpit. While the engine does whine under heavy throttle, it is no louder than most competitors. Likewise, road noise and wind noise are noticeable, but not out of line for an economy car.
The redesigned 2008 Ford Focus offers decent handling and miserly fuel economy. The Ford Sync system offers the latest in entertainment and hands-free communications and technology.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report from Chicago.
Ford Focus S coupe ($14,075); S sedan ($14,375); SE coupe ($15,075); SE sedan ($15,375); SES coupe ($16,075); SES sedan ($16,375).
Options As Tested
automatic transmission ($815), heated front seats ($115), antilock brakes with traction control ($385), Sirius satellite radio ($195), leather upholstery ($695); Audiophile sound system ($645).
Ford Focus SES four-door sedan ($19,225).
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