2012 Ford Focus 1.6 Review

New Focus is bigger, but is it better?

By Imthishan Giado

Three generations and its time for the Ford Focus to finally put its grown-up shoes on, get a shave and a job in that order. But has the more mature Focus lost its charmingly playful side?

Growing up in the UAE, I never really thought about small cars that much. Back in the ’80s, everyone drove Cressidas or Caprices, or at least aspired towards owning one. There were few singles or young couples, and every family came prepackaged with at least two kids, so space was a priority. Good small cars were also in short supply, most importers throwing up their hands in defeat and choosing to concede market share to the all-conquering Corolla – which wasn’t really all that conquering back then, at least not compared to today

My family was a little different, because we spent most of the ‘80s and ‘90s progressively downsizing. When my father arrived, the first thing that he bought was a gigantic – at least compared to where he was from – Mazda 626 station wagon, and then followed it up with a barely-working Toyota Crown. He was on track to go down to a midsize Honda Accord when he spotted a Honda Civic and was smitten by its remarkable blend of space, frugality and amazing-for-the-time features like a combined radio and tape deck. Compared to the simple beasts of the time, it was the Starship Enterprise.

I felt much the same when I first laid eyes on the first Ford Focus and its aggressively carved New Edge styling. How could they possibly bring those concept car looks to the mass market? And yet they did, proving that you could have your stylistic cake and dynamically eat it too, because the littlest Ford proved to be the best handling car in its class. So seismic was its impact that nearly every manufacturer went back to the drawing boards to inject some sex appeal to their bread-and-butter cars. It’s the reason the last Civic went so space-age, Mazda put smiley faces on all the cars, and why Toyota is desperately working so hard to revamp its styling.

So why then is the new Focus so dull to look at? Blame European economy and pedestrian regulations, and the Germans. In the case of the former, everyone now wants the thriftiest car possible so shapes are being massaged for the cleanest possible way to cut through the air, while pedestrian safety regulations mandate blunter frontal areas. About the only place carmakers can innovate is in the lighting, so the Focus flourish is in the tailamps, C-shaped boomerangs that meet at the base of the tapering rear roof. In front though, it’s tedium in a car shaped box.

And the Germans? In a way, they’re responsible for the rest of the changes to the Focus. Volkswagen has sold a huge amount of cars this year by promising cool sophistication and sober style at knockdown prices, so Ford has followed them down this path of no return. Inside, the Focus feels positively German now. Plastics quality is solid and if there’s a panel gap, I couldn’t find it.

Gone though, is any sense of occasion. OK, it’s not as bad as the Corolla, but it’s far too sober suited for a tough segment like this. Rivals like the Chevy Sonic are bringing motorcycle-inspired instrument clusters, the Nissan Juke (which is in the same price range remember) has cool little boost gauges – and what does the Focus contribute? Erm, automatic parking. Except that you can’t get it on this top-spec 1.6 hatch – there’s no longer a saloon version – only the 2.0-litre version.

To be honest, the spec sheet is looking a bit bare. You get alloys, cruise control, sunroof, electric windows…and that’s about it. Surprise-and-delight must cost extra. It certainly does when it comes to the seats, which are supportive and well padded on long journeys, but Ford continues to use a rather rough cloth fabric, which feels like a bit like sitting on sackcloth. Again, you want toys? Get the 2.0. Which is considerably more expensive, nearing Mondeo price levels. Hardly anyone will buy that car.

But hey, the Focus was always good to drive right? Europe’s best handling hatch? Yes and no. This Focus feels far more substantial on the road, like a car one size class above and at highway speeds, rides with Germanic grace and comfort. Turn it hard into a corner and it won’t embarrass itself either, holding your chosen line and stubbornly resisting understeer.

But there’s a description-defying numbness to the electrically-assisted steering, an artificiality that extends to the whole experience. Like a car in a videogame, the Focus goes and stops just like it should, but there’s little in the way of feedback to indicate that you’re in the real world.

Better news from the 1.6-litre engine. That output of 125bhp may not seem like much on paper, yet the Focus pulls away smartly from the line right up to 100kph after which the power drops away quite rapidly. No matter; this is a perfectly adequate motor for the kind of driving you’ll be doing in the Focus. New to the car is a six-speed double-clutch transmission. Around town, it changes gears as slushily as an auto, but it can occasionally get confused at low speeds. And forget about the ‘manual mode’; there’s no paddles so you can only change gears via a silly plus-minus toggle on the gearshift itself, and half the time, it doesn’t listen to you anyway, changing up at the redline.

This may all seem like a negative review but it’s really not intended to be one. I’d still take this car over a Corolla or the forgettable Civic. It’s better built, sips gas and has plenty of space for four people and their luggage. What it doesn’t do, however, is feel special in any way to own, something those Koreans are getting very good at now. What this Focus feels like is exactly how the new Volkswagen Jetta feels – like a rental.

Ford Focus 1.6
Price: AED69,000 ($18,785)
Engine: 1600cc four-cylinder, 125bhp, 117lb ft
Performance: 0-100kph 11.2 seconds, 195kph, 6.6L/100km
Transmission: six-speed dual clutch, four-wheel drive
Weight: 1316kg

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