By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
People who read car reviews are rightly jaded by the endless press-kit recycling PR stroke jobs. Every car is a good car; no car has any real faults – let alone, just flat-out sucks.
So when I say that the 2012 Ford Focus is clearly one of the top three compact economy sedan on the market right now – and arguably the best compact economy sedan on the market right now – and obviously, objectively better than the former benchmark Honda Civic – you may be thinking, did Ford slip this dude a check?
But do yourself a favor. Check my words against the car itself. Go take a look. Better yet, go for a drive. Then take a look – and drive – the Civic and others in this class.
Your decision will come down to one of three – and I’m betting one of those three won’t be a Honda.
And one of them will be – or at least, should be – a Ford.
WHAT IT IS
The Focus is Ford’s compact entry-level sedan/hatchback sedan. It competes against others in this size and price range like the Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze, Mazda3 and Hyundai Elantra, among others.
Prices start at $16,500 for a base S sedan and run to $22,200 for a top-of-the-line Titanium edition.
The 2012 Focus is completely redesigned.
Feels quality; looks great. Drives exceptionally well.
Strongest standard engine/best performance in class.
Offers unusual for this class/price range technology and luxury features, including an automated parallel parking system.
Great gas mileage (40 highway) with optional six-speed automatic and fuel economy package.
Loaded, it’s just over $22k.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Gas mileage drops 4 MPG on the highway with standard five-speed manual transmission.
Mediocre 3/36 standard warranty coverage.
Hyundai Elantra and Mazda3 start out about $1,300 less.
UNDER THE HOOD
Every Focus comes standard with a 160 hp, 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine driving the front wheels through either a five-speed manual or six-speed (dual clutch) automated manual called Powershift.
The Ford’s engine is larger and significantly stronger than competitors’ standard engines. For example, the Honda Civic’s standard 1.8 liter, 140 hp engine. Also the Chevy Cruz’s standard – and even less powerful – 1.8 liter, 136 hp engine.
The Ford also outpowers the sporty Mazda3, which comes standard with a 2.0 liter, 148 hp engine. Another rival, the Hyundai Elantra, comes standard with a 1.8 liter, 148 hp engine.
All of the above-mentioned competitors take more than 9 seconds to reach 60 MPH. A few, more than 9.5 seconds.
The Ford gets there in the mid-eights, a significant – and noticeable – difference.
Gas mileage is also top-drawer: 28 city, 40 highway with the optional Super Fuel Economy package that includes aerodynamic improvements and lower rolling resistance tires. The Focus without the package still does well, too: 28 city, 38 highway with the six-speed automated manual.
The base Civic, meanwhile, gets 28 city, 36 highway; the Cruz with its standard engine rates 25 city, 36 highway. And Mazda’s 3 comes in at a sub-par for the segment 25 city, 33 highway. Only the Elantra beats the Focus – and only just barely. It gets slightly better city mileage (29 MPG) and exactly the same highway mileage (40 MPG) as the Ford is capable of.
But, there’s a catch.
If you want to shift for yourself – or just want to keep the purchase price as low as possible by not ordering a higher-trim model equipped with the six-speed automatic – you’ll pay a bit more at the pump. The manual-equipped Focus registers 26 city, 36 highway – a significant MPG drop. In years past, a manual-equipped version of a given car would usually get better mileage, but that’s no longer always true. The six-speed dual clutch automated manual in the Focus has more favorable gearing (six speeds vs. the manual’s five) and it shifts more precisely and consistently (and so, more efficiently) than most human drivers can. But, of course, it will cost you extra to enjoy these perks.
Also, both the Cruze and the Mazda3 offer optional engines that match or even exceed the power/performance – and MPGs – the Focus delivers.The 2012 Mazda3, for example, offers a “SkyActive-G” version of its 2.0 liter engine that produces 155 hp – almost as much as the Focus’s engine – and matches its 40 MPG on the highway.
There’s also an Si version of the Civic that costs about $22k (roughly the same as a top-of-the-line Focus Titanium) and which comes with a 201 hp engine and 6.9 second 0-60 time. But this version of the Civic will cost you almost 10 MPG at the pump, too.
ON THE ROAD
Acceleration-wise, the Focus is the clear pick of the litter. The numbers tell you this before you even turn the key. But once you do turn the key, you’ll discover how much more pleasant it is to drive a car with a margin vs. one that hasn’t any.
What I mean is this: The Ford’s competition starts out on the marginal side, power-wise. With just the driver on board and assuming no hills or fast-paced, aggressive traffic to deal with – they are adequate. But add a passenger or two (which means, adding a few hundred pounds of weight) or point the car onto a road teeming with close-cropped and fast-moving traffic – and you’ll quickly discover what marginal means. The Focus, on the other hand, is quick with just the driver on board, with plenty of margin – reserve power – on tap to deal with some extra weight or a request for the speedy surge that’s often necessary to assert yourself in the modern driving environment.
The optionally available engines in the Cruze, Mazda3 and Civic fix the bad case of The Slows that afflicts the base engine-equipped versions of those cars. But you have to pay extra to get them.
Ford gives you more-than-margin as standard equipment.
The other thing to mention about the Focus is the solidity of the car – literally. It weighs several hundred pounds more than the Civic (2,907 lbs. vs. 2,608 lbs.) which imparts the feel of an almost mid-sized car, not a compact.
How Ford managed to get the Focus to beat the Civic on gas mileage – and power/performance – while weighing 300 pounds more is a mystery for the ages.
AT THE CURB
$16k goes a long way today.
As recently as five or so years ago, you had to spend closer to $20k to get a decent car. By decent I mean something more than just an MPG machine – you know, basic transportation.
This Focus is a really nice car, not just relative to the competition – but a really nice car, period. It looks nice; it has a nicely laid out (and fitted out) interior. It drives nicely (see above). There are also numerous thoughtful small details, such as the twin molded-in cubbies you’ll find in the back seat area.
What’s not to like?
And for the price, there’s a lot to love.
In addition to its class-leading standard engine (and class-leading MPGs), the as-it-sits $16,500 Focus comes with all the essentials, including AC and power windows, locks and a four-speaker stereo with CD.
Competitors like the Elantra, Mazda3 and Cruze are similarly equipped – and in the case of the Mazda3 and Elantra – cost about $1,300 less to start, too. However, none of the Ford’s competition offers equipment like the optionally available Parking Technology Package, which in addition to the now-common back-up camera and buzzer also includes an automated parallel parking system that literally parks the car for you. Now, as a purely personal matter, I am not a big fan of this kind of technology, which I think takes too much responsibility for mastering what ought to be basic driving skills away from the driver of a car so equipped. But the fact is no other car in this class offers such a feature, which is generally available only in much more expensive cars.
Ditto the Wi-Fi enabled MyFord LCD touchscreen display for the GPS/audio units.
You can also order your Focus with a Winter Package that includes toasty seat heaters (some aren’t, incidentally) as well as outside rearview mirrors. Another high-end feature in the Focus is Ford’s Sync system which integrates external electronics such as cell phones/iPods with the car’s built-in infotainment equipment.
My test car had Sync, the MyFord screen, premium HD audio with Sirius satellite, the Winter Package with seat heaters, leather and brushed aluminum trim and a set of handsome black-powder coated 17-inch “mach” snowflake wheels and the sticker came to $21,150.
I have only a few complaints – most of them minor and at least one, entirely subjective.
The first minor one is the awkward location of the controls for the seat heaters that come with the Winter Package. They are mounted far back on the center console, and partially buried beneath the center console storage cubby’s arm rest. The 12V power point is also mounted here – between the two dials for the seat heaters – and it, too, is awkward to reach/use, especially while the car is moving.
The second minor nit is Ford’s “euro” style outside rearview mirrors, which include two mirrors. The main mirror is your normal rearview mirror. The second mirror is a wide-angle smaller unit mounted toward the outside of the housing. When you glance at them together, you get two views at once – which can be a little confusing when you’re used to the regular, single-view American-style rearview mirror. But you probably acclimate to it quickly and the dual-view mirrors do let you see more than the conventional type.
These are small things and may not matter to you at all. But there’s one thing that’s objectively weak about the Focus and that’s its 3/36 basic warranty coverage (5/60 on the drivetrain). The new benchmark – set by Hyundai – is a 5/60 basic warranty and ten years, 100,000 miles on the powertrain. Ford’s warranty coverage is merely par.
It’s the only thing about it that’s average.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Have you driven a Ford lately?
If not, you really ought to.