Ford Focus king of hatches again

OVERWROUGHT STYLING: The Focus III's front end has more slots than a Las Vegas casino.
OVERWROUGHT STYLING: The Focus III's front end has more slots than a Las Vegas casino.

Despite having lower speed limits than most other countries, New Zealanders see the most popular Ford Focus overseas - the 1.6-litre model - as underpowered.

We don't like to be seen opting for a small engine if there's a bigger one to be had.

Ford New Zealand knows this and lists four Focus III models with 125-kilowatt, two-litre engines, but just a single version each using the 92kW 1.6-litre unit or the 120kW 2.0-litre tubodiesel.

THE FOCUS: A lesson in comfort, agility and refinement.
THE FOCUS: A lesson in comfort, agility and refinement.

Would that the great unwashed of this fine nation understood how good the wee 1.6 is. A British friend of mine uses his 1.6-litre model to run from Birmingham to Norwich and back several times a week, and he says in no way is it underpowered.

But here we prefer the 2.0-litre, which is a rare car in Europe, although I have to say after a week in the car in New Zealand conditions, the engine on tap isn't the star - it's the chassis.

Why all makers can't make their cars handle as well as the Focus I do not know. After all, they use much the same materials, suspension setups and tyres.

DOORS OPEN: A peek inside the Ford Focus III Sport.
DOORS OPEN: A peek inside the Ford Focus III Sport.

While Renault's Megane and the ubiquitous Volkswagen Golf help fill the ride and handling rostrum, the Ford goes into the gold-medal winning position.

It's 13 years since the launch of the first Focus at the Geneva Motor Show, when I remember Jeremy Clarkson wading into the pool in which the revolving plinth bearing the show car was placed, ensuring that no-one could photograph the car without including the Top Gear presenter in the picture.

That was the idea, I guess.

That first Focus was striking in the extreme, entering as it was a C-segment awash with similar two- box styling. That Focus offered designer Jack Telnack's "new- edge" styling.

The Focus III uses what Ford calls Kinetic styling, although with its fussy rear lamps, unnecessary triple grille slots and busy side strakes, I'd say it's more "kin- awful" than kinetic. But in terms of turning heads, it does work and the longer, wider and slightly lower body liberates much improved occupant and load space.

The interior is almost as swoopy and dramatic as the exterior. Some say it's a tad over the top. I don't, because I love the look and the feel of the materials and their textures, and the slick, well-oiled action of every lever and button. When you take all that in, you start to understand why the top models in the range ask not far short of $50,000.

The 125kW, 2.0-litre Sport model on this page, which like all Focus models is a six-speed twin-clutch automatic-only prospect, is the second most expensive model in the Focus range at $44,490, a price that brings it into Golf territory.

The entry-point 92kW, 1.6-litre Focus is what they call the Ambiente model at $35,490, while Trend models are available in 2.0-litre 125kW petrol and 120kW turbodiesel forms at $38,490 and $41,490, respectively.

The lineup's flagship cars are the Titaniam sedan and hatch models, each with leather and even the ability to park themselves, for $49,490 each. You can tell the Ambiente by its 16-inch steel rims, while Trend models have alloy rims of the same diameter.

The Sport has multi-spoke alloy 17-inch items, while the Titanium hatch and sedan have five-spoke 18-inch alloys, and if they aren't visible, the top-of-the-range models also have power sunroofs.

So, they're not cheap, but neither do they feel it.

The Focus remains the lesson in comfort, agility and refinement it has always been, able to dispatch bumps as if they aren't there, while cornering and changing direction quickly with remarkable body control and poise.

The steering feels good too, and while it has now gone to full electric assistance, the driver can still feel what's going on.

The pecking order among new Focus models is obvious when you dig into the detail strengths of the engines and Sony stereo systems, (six speakers on most, eight for the best) and the provision of climate air on the Sport and Titanium, while lower-echelon Focus IIIs get a manual system. Then there's the choice of wheels and fabric textures.

Every Focus gets the important stuff, such as the same number of airbags, along with standard traction and stability control systems, that brilliant chassis, and all the evidence of excellent build quality.

The 2.0-litre engine with 125kW is a useful performer, slipping slickly through its six-speed Powershift automated transmission like a warm, rather than hot, hatch.

I managed repeated mid eight- second runs to the 100kmh mark, but didn't do much over-riding of the transmission, because I didn't like the lever-side button that you have to use to make manual shifts.

Being a "Sport" model, Ford could have fitted shift paddles behind the wheel, but the fact that after a few days I forgot about that switch altogether and left the transmission to its own devices probably explains why Ford didn't option them.

I've spent a few hours in the base 1.6-litre Focus both in New Zealand and Britain, where it's a top seller. While it lacks some of the flashier equipment found in the Sport and Titanium models, the 1.6-litre car has some benefits. Its engine is quieter and smoother, it appears to be as relaxed at 100kmh and, of course, it uses a little less fuel at cruising speeds.

It's obviously not quite as brisk as the 2.0-litre, but in day- to-day running, you wouldn't notice.

The base 1.6-litre Ambiente model's 16-inch steel wheels provide an even better-quality ride than the larger, lower profile hoops further up the range, with no discernible difference in grip levels and responsiveness, although body roll is a little more pronounced.

If you're in the mid-$30,000 to late-$40,000 budget for a new car, this is the first Focus to ever beat the Golf at its own game for quality and finish.

While I enjoyed the extra kit and grunt of the 2.0-litre, I think the best value in the range is the 1.6, being thousands cheaper and just as nice to drive.

Truth be known, 92kW is more than enough.


Drivetrain: Transverse FWD 1997cc fuel- injected DOHC 16-valve four. Six- speed Powershift automatic.

Performance: 125kW at 6600rpm, 202Nm at 4450rpm, 0-100kmh 8.5sec, 6.4L/100km, 149g/km CO2.

Chassis: Front MacPherson struts, rear independent multi-link "control blade" system, ventilated front, solid rear disc brakes.

Safety: Standard ABS; dynamic stability control; driver and front passenger, side thorax front and side curtain airbags, front and rear; 5-star Euro NCAP crash safety rating.

Dimensions: L 4358mm, W 1823mm, H 1484mm, W/base 2648mm, fuel 60L, weight 1270-1461kg.

Pricing: Ford Focus III Sport as tested $44,490. Other Focus II models from $35,490 to $49,490.

Hot: Brilliant chassis; good space; top build and material quality; equipment level.

Not: Overwrought styling; better value at entry point; fiddly shift button; dark interior; polarising body and dash design.

Verdict: Costs as much as a Golf, because it's at least as good as one. Recrowned king of hatches.

The Press