I have a three cylinder motorcycle. A “triple.”
For a 400 pound bike, it’s plenty. But how about a 2,900 pound car?
A 3,000 pound-plus car, once you add you.
But the Ford Focus manages — probably because its “triple” makes 123 hp — which is a lot of power for a 1 liter engine (the mighty Kawasaki triple — which was considered a terror in its time — only made 72 hp).
Now, it’s not as quick as the Widowmaker was (remember, it weighed 400 pounds) but it’s not slow, either. The three-pot Focus can make it to 60 in about 9.5 seconds, about the same as other small cars with larger (and thirstier) four cylinder engines.
Speaking of which: The EPA says 30 city, 42 highway — the latter figure about as good as it gets unless you get a hybrid or a diesel (good luck with that right now; courtesy of Uncle’s jihad against VW).
Of course, there’s a catch. There always is.
Well, two of them.
The first is that the Ford’s spunky little three isn’t standard.
The second is that Ford won’t sell it to you unless you first buy the more expensive SE (or top-of-the-line Titanium) trim.
It’s not available in the base (and just over $17k to start) S trim.
So, in order to get some more MPGs, you’ve got to spend some more money. Which takes away some from the value of saving money on gas.
But there are some other upsides that make up for this.
WHAT IT IS
The Focus is Ford’s “small car” — a compact sedan (and hatchback sedan) that’s a notch up from the really small (subcompact) Fiesta and one notch down from the mid-sized Fusion.
It uniquely (in its segment) offers a three cylinder engine and (if you buy it) segment-best fuel economy.
Unless you go hybrid — or diesel (if you can find one; at the time of this review — mid-May — VW was still in a holding pattern, forbidden by EPA edict from selling any diesel-powered cars and Chevy — the only other brand that offered affordable diesels — currently doesn’t sell any, either).
This review will … er… focus on the three cylinder-powered version of the Focus.
To get this one, you start with the SE trim — which has a starting price of $18,515 (vs. $17,225 for the base trim S sedan, which isn’t available with the three cylinder engine). Now you can buy the “EcoBoost” 1.0 engine (which replaces the otherwise standard 2.0 liter four cylinder engine). The add-on cost for this upgrade is $495, bringing the car’s sticker to $19,010.
A roomier (for cargo) hatchback version of the Focus is also available. Prices for that one start at $19,015 (for the SE trim) and run to $23,725 for the Titanium trim. Note that the hatch is not offered in base S trim.
Possible cross-shop include the just-redesigned (2016) Chevy’s Cruze — which comes standard with a very small four cylinder engine (1.4 liters) that’s also turbocharged.
Its base price — $18,120 — undercuts the Ford.
There’s also the just-updated Honda Civic — which also offers a small turbo four (1.5 liters) but the emphasis here is performance (it’s one of the quickest cars in this class) as much as economy — reflected in the turbocharged Honda’s $22,200-to-start sticker price.
But the Ford’s greatest worry is probably the Mazda3, which isn’t three cylinder-powered (or turbocharged) but is more economically priced ($17,845 to start) than all of them and also very economical to drive (41 MPG on the highway with the manual transmission) as well as very fun to drive.
All versions of the Focus get the upgraded (Sync 3) version of Ford’s infotainment system — three (no, four) cheers! — and the EcoBoost three is now available with an automatic transmission.
Previously, this engine was paired only with a manual.
Available in sedan or hatchback body styles (Cruze and Civic don’t offer the hatchback sedan layout… at the moment).
Available with a manual transmission — in all trims, not just the base trim.
Almost-hybrid/nearly diesel fuel-efficiency for much less than either.
Roomier than rivals up front (43.1 inches of legroom vs. 42 inches in the Cruze, 42.3 in the Civic and 42.2 in the Mazda3).
Accelerates decently even with the automatic (very tiny and usually torque-deficient engines tend to work not-well with automatics; this one does because it’s a turbocharged tiny engine).
It’s actually pretty fun to drive — as well as being economical to drive.
WHAT’S NOT SO GOOD
Lowest-cost S trim is only available in the sedan body style.
Cost to get the fuel-efficient and fun-to-drive version of the Focus — whether you go sedan or hatchback wagon — is higher than just-as-fun (and almost as efficient) Mazda3.
Tight back seat (33.2 inches) vs. Civic (37.4 inches) and Chevy Cruze (36.1 inches).
UNDER THE HOOD
The as-it-comes Focus is powered by a 2.0 liter, 160 hp — available with either a five-speed manual transmission (standard) or a six-speed automatic (optionally).
This is typical for the segment.
Atypical is the Ford’s optional engine, which is half the size (just 1 liter) and has only three cylinders. Ordinarily, this would be too small for a car — even a compact-sized car like the Focus.
Enter the turbo.
It boosts the output of this micro-engine to 123 hp (and 125 ft.-lbs. of torque at 3,500 RPM). This is more output-per-displacement than the power produced by the much larger (twice its size) 2.0 liter four that’s that standard (and only available) engine in the Mazda3.
It makes 155 hp and 150 ft.-lbs. of torque at 4,000 RPM.
Ditto the Chevy Cruz’s also-larger (and also-turbocharged) 1.4 liter, 153 hp four cylinder engine. The Ford edges both of them out — just slightly — on MPGs: 30 city, 42 highway with the standard six-speed manual transmission (an upgrade over the five-speed that comes with the 2.0 engine) vs. 30 city, 41 highway for the Mazda (with the automatic; manual versions notch down to 29 city, 41 highway).
The Chevy Cruze is also right there with Ford: 29 city, 41 highway.
You might also want to have a look at the Honda Civic with its optional 1.5 liter turbo four. It’s the wild card of the bunch because it makes much more power (174 hp) than any of them and delivers best-in-class acceleration (6.6 seconds, about 2-3 seconds quicker than either the Ford or the Chevy) but still manages to deliver an extremely impressive 31 city, 42 highway.
Of course, there’s a catch — and it’s the Honda’s MSRP.
At $22,200 to start (for the EX-T equipped with the 1.5 liter engine) it costs $3,190 more than the EcoBoosted Focus ($19,010) and $4,080 more than the new Chevy Cruze.
As mentioned earlier, Ford now offers the 1.0 engine with an automatic (optionally) in addition to the standard six-speed manual.
If you go with the automatic, your mileage will dip slightly to 28 city, 40 highway — which is also slightly less than the automatic-equipped Mazda3.
But it’s a negligible difference in real-world driving.
I averaged 34.6 MPG during a weeklong test drive in mixed city-highway conditions, including some highway cruising at 80-plus MPH.
That is excellent economy.
Especially relative to the four cylinder-powered/manual five-speed transmission-equipped Focus — which carries an EPA rating of just 26 city, 36 highway. This is mediocre for a compact-sized economy car (see the stats posted by rivals like the Cruz and Mazda3 with their standard engines).
The mileage goes up — a lot — if you go for the optional automatic: 27 city, 40 highway. But then acceleration wilts to just over 9 seconds — considerably less quick than the manual-equipped version, which does the run in just over 8 seconds.
If you want a manual and good gas mileage and decent acceleration, too — the EcoBoosted three is the way to go.
ON THE ROAD
I was surprised — pleasantly — by the three cylinder’s ability to work well with an automatic transmission.
About six months ago, I test drove the Mitsubishi Mirage — which is also powered (if you want to use that word) by a triple.
But not a turbocharged one.
Result? 74 hp — about the same as my triple — but saddled with an additional 2,500 pounds to haul.
The Mirage — though very economical — is a three-legged dog.
It takes about 12 seconds to get to 60. The Ford is a Ferrari in comparison.
Both cars deliver outstanding fuel economy, but the Ford doesn’t leave you always playing catch up. The Mirage — which I like — is a great choice for a city car or suburban short-haul commuter. But it is on the edge when on the highway. It’ll get to 80 … eventually.
But it won’t go much faster.
Which means you’re running pretty much all out just to keep up with the flow of today’s Interstate traffic.
The Focus — with almost twice the power — has power in reserve at 80. No problems keeping up with traffic.
No problems passing traffic, either.
I think the car is more fun with the manual but the automatic doesn’t hurt its ability to get going. In Sport mode, the thing shifts almost ferociously — holding revs in each gear until (like Paul Masson wines) it’s time to upshift. It makes use of every hp and every foot-pound of torque you’ve got.
Put it back in Drive and things calm down.
You will be surprised — pleasantly — by how well it performs. By how much fun it is to drive. Even with the automatic. That’s rare praise for an economy car — especially one with an automatic.
It’s got game in the curves, too.
I was (again) pleasantly surprised by how hard (and how far) I was able to push the Focus before it began to slide — and pleasantly surprised by the controlled way it slides. Keep in mind that Ford uses this car as the basis for the high-performance Focus RS (reviewed separately) which is a demon seed car that’ll wake you up faster than an IV drip of cuban espresso.
Ford’s main worry here is that the Mazda3 is also Big Fun but doesn’t carry a big MSRP.
Neither does the Ford, to be fair. But it does cost more than the Mazda — and much as I’m a fan of the punchy little EcoBoosted engine, I’m still (personally, if I were buying) a little leery about turbochargers — which the Mazda hasn’t got.
Especially because the engines are now direct-injected, too. The potential issue here is carbon build-up on the intake valves and the possibility of carbon flakes migrating to the turbo’s innards… with unhappy results.
AT THE CURB
These cars all look pretty much the same.
None of them are ugly. But they are pretty homogenized. You tell them apart chiefly by the shape of the grille — and the badge on the grille.
The differences that matter are — chiefly — inside.
And here the Ford has its good — and bad — points.
On the good side of the ledger, it’s got best-in-class driver/front seat passenger legroom: 43.1 inches. That is a lot of legroom. For a frame of reference, the Mercedes S-Class sedan — which is a full-sized, six-figure luxury sedan that’s several feet longer overall than the Focus — only has 41.3 inches of front seat legroom.
On the bad side, the Focus is narrower inside than rivals like the Mazda3, which has an incredible (for a car this size) 57.2 inches of front seat shoulder room as opposed to 55.6 for the Ford. Backseat legroom in the Ford is also tight — 33.2 inches — which is much less than in the Cruze (36.1 inches) and less than the Mazda3 (35.8 inches) and — though not by much — the Honda Civic (34 inches).
The Ford does have a bit more backseat headroom than most of its rivals, though: 38 inches vs. 37.2 in the Honda, 37.3 in the Chevy and 37.6 in the Mazda. It doesn’t sound like a big difference on paper, but if you have a tall torso, it can be a difference that makes all the difference.
You can also get the Focus in the hatchback sedan body — which almost doubles the Ford’s cargo space behind the second row (to 23.8 cubic feet from 13.2 in the sedan) and more than… triples it (to 44.8 cubes) when you fold the second row flat.
The Chevy Cruze and Honda Civic currently come only as sedans. Both of them will be available as hatchbacks — but not until next year (model year 2017).
But the Mazda3 is available as a hatchback right now — and it has about the same cargo capacity (20.2 cubes with the second row in place, 47.1 with the seats folded down).
Once again, it stands out as the Ford’s strongest rival.
Another example of which is the size of the two cars’ standard infotainment screens. The Ford comes standard with a pretty small (4.2 inch) screen that’s not touch-activated. The Mazda comes standard with a 7 inch LCD screen that’s both knob and touch activated. Even in base trim, the value-priced Mazda does not come across as value priced. The base (and even SE) trim Ford don’t come across as cheap-looking. But neither do they come across as being nicer than their price.
On the other hand, you can upgrade to an 8-inch touchscreen that’s bigger and (arguably) nicer than the best-you-can-get in the Mazda3 (even top-of-the-range Gran Touring trims get the same 7-inch screen as the base trim). Of its immediate rivals, only the Chevy Cruze also offers an 8-inch screen.
Additionally, Titanium trims get Ford’s unique exterior touchpad entry system, which you’ll appreciate if you ever misplace your key fob. You’ll also get exterior puddle lamps and heated seats — and you can order a self-parking system, too. This latter is impressive technology but — c’mon — if you can’t parallel park a compact-sized car without the assistance of technology, maybe you shouldn’t be driving at all.
I like that the Focus has an old-school emergency brake lever; the kind you pull up to engage the rear brakes manually. To me, this is a genuine emergency brake — as opposed to a parking brake that’s engaged electronically, by depressing a button (which is what many new cars have). The pull-up brake is something you could actually use to slow the car in a controlled manner if the main brakes ever failed (forget this with the electric-activated button brake, which is either on or off and can’t be modulated). More importantly, you can use the pull-up brake lever to have fun with the car — by locking up the rear wheels and simultaneously hard-cranking the steering wheel to perform Secret Service-style 180s.
This is, after all, a young person’s car.
Let the old coots drive Camrys.
The EcoBoost engine comes standard with an auto-stop/start system which — happily — can be turned off so that the engine doesn’t turn off every time you hit a red light. Unfortunately, you have to turn the system off every time you go for drive.
The default setting is on unless you select otherwise.
Do not curse Ford.
Ford — and a growing roster of car companies — are resorting to auto-stop/start to eke out fractional gains in fleet average fuel economy. In order to avoid Uncle’s fines. We pay for this in add-on costs and add-on hassles.
To turn off the traction control, meanwhile, do not look for an old-timey button. Instead, scroll through the digitized menu selections (look at the secondary LCD cluster in between the speedo and the tach) and check “off” … if you’d like to chirp the tires a little.
I’m not a fan of Ford’s RV-style outside rearview mirrors — which have two mirrors each. One is the normal style that gives you the normal rearward view; the other (smaller) mirror is supposed to help with blind spots but (and maybe this is just me) looking from one to the other forces your eyes to shift focus from one view to another view. I find it disconcerting and prefer the regular/one-piece mirrors. Even more preferable would be less-thick B and C pillars (necessary to comply with Uncle’s ridiculous roof-crush/rollover standards) which would greatly reduce blind spots… which would greatly reduce the need for RV-style mirrors on compact-sized cars.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The package is very appealing overall — if only the price were just a little lower.
The triple is definitely worth considering if you really like the Focus — and like the mileage of the base Focus with the 2.0 engine — but can’t abide the sluggishness of the 2.0-equipped Focus with the automatic.
Or its thirst with the manual.
But that snarky little Mazda3 is hard to knock — and Ford’s got some work to do (and some prices to slash) to make the Focus an easier sell against that one.
*** Photo courtesy of Caricos