Test Drive: '08 Focus is quite nice, but rivals are, too

Ford didn't start from scratch to come up with the 2008 Focus, but did thoroughly modify the small car.

Key dimensions are unchanged, wheelbase length and track width. But body panels and the interior are different. The engine is different. Features and accessories are different. Model lineup is different.

On the other hand, the 2008 Focus, at dealerships this month, reeks of lame-duck. There are just two body styles, not three or four as in past years. There's only one engine, not a choice between two. No money was spent providing a manual-shift mode for the automatic transmission, nor giving the back-seat passengers head restraints to improve safety in rear-end crashes, nor to furnish reading lights in the rear, nor to make stability control available.

Ford notes that rear head restraints and stability control will be standard on the 2009 Focus.

But the ultimate clue that Focus in its current form is headed for the exit: Ford is emphasizing gadgets, such as you-choose-the-color interior lights, and styling gimmicks, such as the phony chrome vent on the front fender.

Too bad, because the new Focus is pretty nice to drive thanks to significant changes to its chassis, engine, steering that combine with some nice interior touches to give it a sophisticated persona that's a pleasant surprise in a small, modest-price car.

Ford has managed to bleach out all the quirky appeal of the original, hoping to broaden the car's audience. Focus now looks and feels like a small version of an almost-premium midsize sedan. And it snagged lots of long looks from people obviously puzzled by, and interested in, what it was.

While Focus' corporate cousins Mazda3 and Volvo C30 are similar to the Focus sold in Europe, the Yank Focus stands apart mechanically.

"In North America, the plan in place for more than two years was to significantly improve the current Focus. At the next freshening point, the products will be aligned," says Derrick Kuzak, Ford Motor group vice president in charge of global product development.

So probably three or four years until the trio of small sedans ride atop similar underpinnings that, driving enthusiasts hope, reflect Europeans' tastes for tight, crisp-handling vehicles. Ford Motor owns Volvo and has a controlling interest in Mazda, so merging underpinnings to save development costs is relatively easy.

Test vehicles:

• Two manual transmission models with leather upholstery, one a mid-level SE four-door, the other a high-end SES two-door that Ford calls a coupe. It's really a two-door sedan because it lacks the lower roofline, smaller overall size and swoopy looks that are coupe hallmarks. Those two were driven a day on highways and back roads here.

• One automatic transmission, four-door with cloth interior, priced $19,535, that Ford said was typical of what most people will buy. It was driven a week around the suburbs of northern Virginia.

Salients:

•Comfort:Good in front, not in back.

Leather and cloth front seats both felt good, not always a sure thing in a Ford.

Despite what read like generous specifications, Focus has limited rear-seat knee and leg room. The knees of a teen sitting behind the driver poked into the front seat hard enough to stab the driver in the back. Open space under the front seats, where passengers in back put their feet, was compromised by the intrusion of trim and hardware that snagged toes upon exiting.

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