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

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.

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