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.

The middle rear seat was useless because a cupholder stuck off the back of the center console and eliminated what little leg room remained after the center hump was done pillaging.

And that lack of rear head restraints is quite troubling. Passengers who measure more than about 27 inches from rump to cowlick could be vulnerable in rear crashes.

•Driving feel:Fair to good. The four-cylinder engine was sufficiently, competitively powerful, though not a standout technologically, and a bit boomy sounding under hard throttle. Up- and downshifts were disciplined and smooth in the four-speed automatic transmission and easy in the five-speed manual.

The cars felt agile and sporty at moderate speed, but lost composure at higher speeds in tight corners. Body lean became uncomfortable.

Steering benefited from being among Kuzak's priorities. Responsive but not twitchy. Strong on-center feel but not dead or numb. Just about right.

•Refinement:Good. There was almost no vibration or noise at idle. Little thumpity-clunk from the suspension over rough pavement. Most knobs and switches operated smoothly. Trunk hinges are struts tucked out of the way, instead of the goose-neck devices that swing down and swipe some luggage room. Even the phony aluminum trim on the dashboards of some models looked nice, like matte-finish, silver-gray, high-quality plastic instead of like an overly obvious metal wanna-be.

•Gadgets:Plentiful and in one case unique.

A dash-top pod displays information from the trip computer and stereo. An optional package lets you choose among seven colors to illuminate the footwells and cupholders. Satellite radio (Sirius only) is a modest $195.

The feature you'll hear most about is Sync, mainly developed by Microsoft. Ford will advertise Sync solo, as if it's a vehicle, to generate as much buzz as it can during the next 13 months that it has exclusive use of the system. It's scheduled to be on a dozen Ford, Lincoln and Mercury models by year end. Standard on some, including the high-end Focus SES, and a $395 option on others.

Sync is a control system. Plug in your iPod or USB flash drive and Bluetooth cellphone — actually, it will accommodate up to six different cellphones (one at a time) in case lots of people use the vehicle — and control them, along with the car stereo, using voice commands. After short familiarization, it was easy to use, and it didn't require training to recognize specific voices and pronunciations.

The system can read the numbers stored in your cellphone; no need to program them into the car separately. "Call Bill Gates," Microsoft's Velle Kolde said after plugging his phone into the car to demonstrate. (Show off.) "Office or home," Sync inquired, noting that he had both numbers in his phone files. He rang off before reaching the chairman.

If you have the right kind of phone, Sync's synthesized voice will read you text messages, even interpreting those goofy symbols, such as ;) (wink and a smile) and LOL (laugh out loud).

Sync is designed to be easily upgraded if, say, you get a new phone that works differently.

"You might say, 'Doesn't it do more?' We're Microsoft, and we make huge systems. But consumers were saying, 'Just give me an intuitive, easy-to-use interface for all these things,' " says Kolde, product manager at Microsoft's auto unit.

Ford hopes to hit the car market at the convergence of two advantageous phenomenon: Shoppers giving small cars more consideration because they use less fuel, and a "small is big" trend, in which people decide they've been too indulgent and move into smaller houses, buy plainer clothes, drive smaller cars.

We'll see.

Focus might fall off your list because of desirable rivals for about the same price — recently redesigned Honda Civic, an overhauled Toyota Corolla coming soon, the sportier-feeling Mazda3 or, if you're not too conservative, Toyota's newly redesigned Scion xB. It's roomier than Focus, more powerful, lots more fun and much hipper. Focus gets better fuel economy, though.

Nice enough car, but Focus could be a hard sell against the competition.

2008 Ford Focus

•What is it? Small, front-wheel drive, two- or four-door sedan. More refined, different-looking inside and out, and more comfortable than previous model. Manufactured at Wayne, Mich.

•How soon? On sale this month.

•How much? S two-door with manual transmission starts at $14,695 including $620 destination charge. SE two door is $15,695. SES two-door is $16,695.

S four-door starts at $14,995. SE four-door is $15,995. SES four-door is $16,995.

Automatic transmission is an $815 option on all models.

•Who'll buy? Everybody, Ford hopes: See, it has these youth accessories, so c'mon kids. And, hey, it drives like a mainstream car, so take a look, mom and dad. It's not terribly expensive, so put it on the list, budget-minded of all ages. It's built in Michigan, so give it a tumble, Yank-o-philes. Pretty good mileage, so consider it, fuel savers.

•How many? Ford, in the modern manner, won't forecast. The automaker has been averaging about 14,800 Focuses a month through 2006 and so far in '07.

•What's the drivetrain? 2-liter, four-cylinder engine rated 140 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, 136 pounds-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm; five-speed manual transmission. Traction control is optional.

Engines in cars sold in California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine, required to meet stricter anti-pollution standards, are rated 136 hp at 4,250 rpm, 133 lbs.-ft. at 4,250 rpm.

•What's the safety gear? Front- and side-impact air bags in front, head-curtain bags front and rear. Anti-lock brakes are optional.

Stability control is not available. The government requires all cars and trucks to have stability control by Sept.1, 2011.

•What's the rest? Air conditioning; AM/FM/CD/MP3-compatible stereo with auxiliary input jack; power steering, brakes; tilt-adjustable steering column; rear-window defroster. More details at www.ford.com.

• How big? 175 inches long, 67.9 inches wide, 58.6 inches tall on a 102.9-inch wheelbase. Weights range from 2,588 lbs. (two-door, manual transmission) to 2,642 lbs. (four-door, automatic).

Rated to carry 827 lbs. of people, cargo. Don't tow with it, Ford says.

Passenger space is listed as 93.3 cubic feet, trunk as 13.8 cubic ft.

•How thirsty? All versions are rated 24 miles per gallon in town and 28 mpg in combined city-highway driving. Automatic is rated 33 on the highway, manual is 35 on the highway.

Trip computer in automatic test car showed 24.4 mpg in 165 miles of suburban driving.

Manual test cars registered about 27 mpg in short trips mainly on rural two-lane roads.

Tank holds 13 gallons. Regular (87-octane) gasoline is specified.

•Overall:Classy, pleasant to drive, but crowded in back and lacks safety head restraints in rear.

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