After discussing the dead centre of the car market, we take a visit there: the Ford Focus 1.6 CDTi Econetic. [First published May 11, 2014]
This is the third generation Focus that I have tried. The Mk1 is a landmark and indeed a benchmark for many. It casts a long shadow over its successors. The Mk2 added refinement at the expense of driver enjoyment. Compared to the Mk1, the successor felt like being in a fat suit. So, what is the Mk 3 like now I have finally gotten behind the wheel? The main impressions are described below.
The Focus 1.6 TDCi sits near the epicentre of the range of mass market cars, competing for sales with the Golf and the Astra and perhaps some also-rans like the Megane and 308. As such it constitutes a difficult vehicle to assess. The tendency, and indeed requirement, in this sector is to appeal as far across the board as possible while providing a small hint of something to distinguish your product from the others. The sector is about benchmarks and then careful twists of certain aspects to lend the vehicle its own personality.
To be uncharitable, the C-class consists of the automotive equivalent of very, very good ball point pens. I suspect that any demerits are within the range of the subjective or, if measurable, too small to really count. How does this Focus move the game along? One change Focus-fans will appreciate is the addition of a second interior lamp which is vital for those who have to fiddle with child-seats buckles in dark car-parks. But there is more, of course.
I won’t dwell on the exterior styling of the Focus other than to repeat my long-standing conviction that they put too many vegetables in this ratatouille. I suspect that for many the styling is an irrelevance, much like the day’s weather: here’s Tuesday, it’s a bit rainy, I’ll get on with things. And similarly, here’s the current Focus (or Golf, or Astra) and let’s get on with using it. Being fair, not one of the current crop of C-class cars are as striking as the 1998 and 2005 Foci, or 2002 Megane. The market has moved on from its tolerance of flair.
Inside the car, from the gear stick back, the Focus is unremarkable though there is evidence that the stylist got as far as the C-pillar interior during work on this iteration. An extra chamfer has appeared to give it the look of being actively styled as opposed to being just finished to a level. The previous versions were designed to the point of being inoffensive and I think this is about right for this class of interior fitting. The door cards for both driver and rear-passengers have been over-worked and still have some small flecks of glitch. I think all of this is in the fein-schmecker class of criticism. Most people won’t even see any of this stuff: it’s as unnoticeable as telephone cables running along the skirting.
What can’t escape attention is the dashboard which I initially considered bulky and over-worked. Having spent a day at the wheel I still consider it so but I note that some artistry can be discerned in the shading and highlights of the buttons on the centre console. Credit where it’s due. I suspect that after a few days of ownership the dashboard will also sink below the radar of the conscious mind. So, on balance, the dashboard makes a bad first impression, a bad second impression but is not unsatisfactory enough to remain uppermost in the driver’s awareness.
Much like the Golf discussed elsewhere here, the Focus is the median car. The main points of the engineering are by now not worth elaborating: front-wheel drive with four-cylinder engines and McPherson struts up front. It’s a refinement of the same package as the 1971 Fiat 127 though four decades have meant it functions like the 1971 Citroen GS was intended to.
What is different is the extent of the tweaking in the name of efficiency. The Focus TDCi has been liberally fitted with “Econetic” technology, a suite of refinements that aim to deliver reduced fuel consumption compared to the same car without it. For this car it meant an automatic stop and start function which operated seamlessly (to the extent that I didn’t notice it working until I started trying to catch it out). It’s expected (by Ford) that around 60% of Fords will be sold with these features.
Other elements are a more aerodynamic undershield to reduce drag, low-rolling resistant tyres and an active grille-shutter. There’s a dashboard prompter to encourage greener driving. I didn’t notice it though. The assisted steering is speed variable and only switches in when required. That was invisible to me. The engine’s catalytic converter is tuned for a lean burn and lower friction oils are used in the engine and transmission. The standard tyres have a low rolling resistance. And this is quite a nice touch, by lowering the tension on the ancillaries’ drive belt they’ve found an energy-saving advantage. I haven’t exhausted the list of features but these ones stand out as the most important and indeed interesting. Some of them will eventually become standard practice and some of them ought to have been a long time ago. As far back as the 50’s some Citroen’s had flush underbodies. It is a nice example of the aims of revolution can be achieved with a mass of small adjustments.
Under the car, the “Control Blade” suspension has been re-tuned (I suppose that was just part of the general redesign) but there is also a system at the front to balance the delivery of torque to the front wheels. This allows the wheel with the greatest grip (greatest resistance) to be fed the most power. I did not get a chance to drive the car (and chose not to drive the car) as a road-tester might so I can’t say I detected this system in operation.
The Focus moves off briskly, as fast you need without making a scene. The engine”s responses below about 1800 RPM seemed a bit delayed and then as the RPMs reached 2000 the Focus leaned into the job and got moving. This behaviour made itself apparent during 2nd to 4th gear activities. I noticed that the car provided the over-taking power I needed on a-roads and accelerated confidently between 50 and 70. For daily drivers, the take-home message is that you won’t notice anything deficient about the car’s ability to deliver the speed required in sensible, daily, I-want-to-keep-my-licence driving.
As a real-world test the Focus was so far back from its performance limits I’d have needed a radio telescope to see them. Given the realities of driving unknown rural roads, it would be an act of incredible silliness to try to find out precisely how fast a Focus 1.6 TDCi can go before the tyres begin to slip. So, here, I have no data except to say the car stayed on the road just dandy.
At the same time, Ford have done a good job with tuning the suspension to deliver a very cosseting ride. On motorways even the long-frequency undulations are suppressed and blurred to obscurity. Pavement scabs and expansion joints can be heard in a dull, distant, ignorable way. Over two stretches of road that challenge my hydropneumatically-suspended Citroen XM, the Focus did a better job of smothering the thumps and thuds. It pleases me sometimes to drive my XM like a berk over a particular stretch of gravelly road near where I live and the Focus impressed me with its capacity to deal with the same surface of gravel, sand and potholes on a very cambered road. In fact it did a much better job. Steel springs and dampers have come a long way since Citroen tried to exceed their capabilities with their own inventions. At this point I have to say the game is over for hydraulic suspension. It was interesting for a while.
As far as this test is concerned, it would probably take blind-testing to discern ride quality differences among the Focus and its competitors. The car took criticism from my passengers to draw my attention to the brakes which proved difficult to deploy smoothly. And the steering led one passenger to complain of the car feeling unstable.
The Focus consumed 13.27 litres of diesel over a 261 km test drive which worked out as 54 mpg. The fuel tank holds 53 litres which means that if you want to drive from Le Havre to Cap Ferrat you will stop once to refuel, somewhere between Lyon and Nimes.
At the end of the driving day I decided that Ford’s engineers have polished the controls of this car very thoroughly. Everything I moved or touched did so smoothly and the steering and gear change were actively pleasant to use. Pity then about the brakes but I could get accustomed to them. Whether this car appeals depends on what kind of driver you are. I’m not the kind of person who wants to explore the outer limits of a performance envelope. I want well-judged controls, good linear responses and sufficient performance for legal driving. The Focus hits those targets unambiguously which means that if you want more driver appeal you’ll require a car that deviates more and more from the careful balance of characteristics offered by this version: more power, harder suspension, some other colours than grey over grey. You can’t blame the Focus for not being an Alfa Romeo 147 Cloverleaf (a car I consider to have bags of character and one I might like to drive) so compared to all the other 1.6 diesel family estates, the Focus is objectively the best of the bunch. If you factor in appearances, the Astra could win you over even if it’s marginally less, just marginally supposed to be less engaging to use.
One curiosity is that the Focus feels bulky and bulkier than its predecessor. As it happened I had on the same day a chance to compare the Focus with a car I consider to be in the automotive sweet-spot of size, conviviality and utility, the Peugeot 406. The 406 is spacious inside and feels as if it fits around you like a very well tailored suit of the best (that is, least obtrusive fabric) while being on the face of it, desperately anonymous. I took out the measuring tape and discovered that the Focus is just a shade narrower from glass-to-glass across the dashboard than is the Peugeot. So, my senses were misleading. The Focus bulkhead is higher though and you can’t see the bonnet. The doors are thicker than the 406 so I suspect these two factors account for the sense of invisible bodywork surrounding you. The measurable difference is far less than the perceived difference; certainly the immense and rather looming dashboard is adding to this sense of encroachment.
The boot is huge: 1500 litres with the seats down and they fold as near as dammit flat. A 60-40 seat fold is available but this version had no rear arm-rest. And the ashtrays are gone (but are they fitted to Russian cars?). One irritation involved the luggage cover cartridge which I found very hard to remove. It also scuffed the cloth-covered c-pillar. I had to consult the manual and discovered I was making the right sort of moves but not applying enough force. I can imagine older users and certain demographics with long finger nails hating this feature. There is a 12V socket in the boot for lighting cigarettes but no cigarette lighter is supplied. Two lamps (left and right) are fitted. That’s a nice touch. Personally, I found the driver seat conformed to Focus tradition and made my back ache after a two hour perch. Some will find the rear legroom adequate but not stellar.
The entire time I drove this car I was thinking of benchmarks: the other Foci I have driven, the current Mondeo, the XM that I run, the Astras and Golfs I have known over the years. Some of the differences between Focus generation are trivial: the rear lamps, the addition of second banana-holder, revised grab-handles for the lift-gate while some are more noticeable: the steady fattening of the car concomitant with a superb-ride quality and appreciably good refinement. Overall the Focus is a measurably better car than its predecessors and to the same extent less lovely. Personally, I don’t think I could live with the appearance inside and out and would be forced to choose an Astra and do so without apology.
The counterpoint is that I would have no hesitation in telling someone to buy this car and that if they didn’t bother to check the competition they would not be risking much at all. The oddity is that there are any faults at all in these cars, even minuscule ones like the door trim glitch shown above and the tricky luggage cover. In the next model cycle these will be corrected but three other things will take their place. And this is true for all the products in this class.