First impressions of the new Focus at the international launch this week were misleadingly unfavourable. This was Ford’s fault.
At the start, they made it look as if somebody only a woman could work its advanced technology systems because, as we all understand, all men are nitwits.
At the same time, they led us to suspect that the new Focus might have so little going for it as a car that the same new connectivity system, called SYNC 2, could be the most exciting development that Ford had to shout about. How boring that would be.
Throughout this year, we have been exposed to that (otherwise charming and beautifully shot) Fiesta ad on tv in which a quarrelling couple are eventually happily reconciled when the guy taps a text message into his mobile phone which the car’s Bluetooth system reads out as “Forgive him: he’s an idiot”.
Now, for the new Focus, Ford are illustrating the powers of the new SYNC 2 system – which answers voice commands to run the satnav, the air-conditioning, the phone and the audio set-up – with a series of little films that show a nincompoop bloke struggling sweatily with old technology (such as a paper map or a hand-held mobile phone) while his cool and glamorous wife or girlfriend at the wheel demonstrates her innate superiority by flawlessly operating SYNC 2. Ford showed us these films on the plane on the way out to the launch in Spain. Those images gave us, therefore, our first inklings about the car.
The little dramas in the films exude that old, irksome, sexist cliché which has dominated British advertising for 20 years – that all men are gormless twits while their women are supremely competent organisers who effortlessly master the practical business of life. Yeah, right.
The new Focus is so superb in every aspect that its new information technology – good as it seems to be – might rate as just about the least of its virtues.And the films make you wonder if – with companies like Kia producing such excellent products as the Cee’d at lower prices than the Focus – Ford might have been reduced to loading the new car with high-tech gadgetry in order to keep up sales of the world’s most popular car (12 million sold worldwide since 1998). Was this the best thing they could say about it?
Wrong, wrong and wrong again. The new Focus is so superb in every aspect that its new information technology – good as it seems to be – might rate as just about the least of its virtues. For design, build quality, engineering, driving dynamics and utility, this is not just the best Focus ever: it’s as good a car as you can possibly buy for the price (£13995-£25585). Outstanding as the new VW Golf unquestionably is, the new Focus may be arguably the better buy. Higher praise is not possible.
“Toned” is the word Ford like to use for this car – as if it has just emerged from a hard session in the gym and a long breather in the steam room.For one of his last creations for the company before he retires, Martin Smith – Ford of Europe’s design chief – has made the body of the new Focus more composed and mature. Some of Smith’s recent Fords have been so busy in their multitude of edges and shapes that barely a surface has been left alone to live a quiet life. The new Focus still has the scoops and swoops and accents over the wheel-arches that are unmistakable Smith signatures but it is less mannered, less fidgety, less like a teenager on uppers. “Toned” is the word Ford like to use for this car – as if it has just emerged from a hard session in the gym and a long breather in the steam room. Its more settled character is emphasised by a lower, wider stance and by powerful sculpted shapes on the bonnet. A high domed roof over the front seats declines sharply to low tail and a small rear window in the hatch, emphasising the strong lines of the rear end.
Following Peugeot’s sweeping efforts to de-clutter the fascia and dashboard in the new 308, Ford have, at last, tacitly acknowledged that the centre stack they have installed in all their cars for the last seven years has been – with its 40+ buttons and switches – impossibly fiddly and counter-intuitive to operate (a criticism which, naturally, they adamantly refused to countenance throughout all those years).
All those vexing controls have been swept up into a new 8” colour touch-screen display in the centre of the dashboard that links to a smaller display for the driver behind the steering-wheel. Classier upholsteries and door trims make the interior feel closer to Audi in quality than to the Ford we knew of old. And a barrage of driving aids – from Perpendicular Parking and Active Park Assist to Cross Traffic Alert, Park out Assist and Active City Stop – are available to ensure that, even if you are a natural-born klutz (ie male, of course), this car will protect you from yourself.
The top-selling engine in the new Focus range is expected to the one-litre EcoBoost petrol version but that was not available at the launch. Instead, we drove the 1.5 litre and – in the estate version they call Wagon – the two-litre TDCi diesels. Both were gob-smackingly good. Not only did you forget when driving the Wagon that you were at the wheel of a family estate car: in both versions, it was hard to think of any car in this price range – other than perhaps an MX-5 or a Toyota GT 86 – that would be more of a joy to drive on the twisty Spanish mountain roads of the test route. With top speed of 130 mph and 0-60 mph in about 8.5 seconds, the two-litre diesel is not far off the performance levels of some hot hatches; and the peppy 1.5 litre diesel blows away the sluggish 1.6 diesel in Kia’s Cee’d; but it’s in the sublime balance of driving dynamics that this new Focus puts all existing rivals in the shade
Ford’s engineers have applied endlessly painstaking efforts to improve the already class-leading ride, steering and handling of the Focus. By stiffening bushes and engine mountings they have reduced unwanted body movement on the road and by subtle modification in the torque of the steering wheel they have reduced the effort of steering inputs while preserving the sharpness of feel when the car is cornering. Massively finicky labours have gone into improving noise insulation in the cabin, including thicker carpets and thicker glass in the windows. At 90 mph on the motorway, the only sound disturbing normal conversation was a slight whuffling of wind around the wing-mirrors.
It’s a magical amalgamation of characteristics, resulting in an overall driving experience which is both relaxing and engaging. You could drive this car hundreds of miles and step out feeling ready for more.
If you’re a stupid man, however, you’ll need to take a woman to work the SYNC 2 system. Or, maybe, you should buy a map.
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