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Choosing the best small car for your driveway just got a whole heap harder. Until this week, the Volkswagen Golf was king of the kids and the Mazda3 was the best way to balance class against cash. But now there is a Ford Focus that runs head-on into the Golf - a former Carsguide Car of the Year champion - and takes the top selling Three down a peg.
It's priced from $21,990, drives more like a go-kart than a budget buy, and has the same combination of funky looks and technology that's already worked so well for the Fiesta. The Focus works so well because Ford has put all its small-car smarts into one package to create its first truly global car.
That means Australian buyers get a payoff in all sorts of ways, although we're not sold on the American-style auto shifter or a fourth-quarter delay for satnav assistance in a car that's claimed to be a techno champion. Ford Australia hopes the Focus - which it once planned to build at Broadmeadows, before refocussing on the Falcon and its local inline six - will give it the buyer boost it has always needed in the small- car class, which now provides around a quarter of the country's monthly showroom action.
"We decided to take a more radical step," global Focus boss, Gunnar Herrmann, says this week at the Australian preview of the third- generation car. "The vehicle starts to feel like a grown-up vehicle. But when you start pushing it around corners . . . it's a complete different dimension of driving and having fun."
The starting price of $21,990 says Ford is serious about the new Focus. It's the same sticker as the outgoing starter car, despite a huge number of improvements and a shipping label marked 'Saarlouis'.
The Focus for Australia will come from Thailand from the middle of next year, but until then supplies will be limited because the German factory is running at full capacity. The basic lineup for the 2011 Focus is simple: hatchback and sedan bodies, three engines - 1.6-litre petrol, 2.0-litre turbodiesel and 2.0-litre petrol - with five-speed manual and six-speed DSG PowerShift auto, and four trim levels from Ambiente to the Titanium.
Basic equipment is everything you expect in the small class, from (electric) power steering and aircon to electric windows, audio and minor controls on the steering wheel, and a space-saver spare. But Ford is going funky and youthful and that means Bluetooth connectivity with voice control, right off the bottom, with a bunch of stuff added as you roll up the range. It's rear park sensors, alloys and cruise control headlining the Trend package; Sony sound, dual-zone aircon, auto lights and wipers, and a rear hatch spoiler on the Sport model; then active park assist, keyless entry and start, partial leather trim and 18-inch alloys on the Titanium.
Ford says satnav with a larger central screen is standard on Sport and Titanium, but not until fourth-quarter deliveries, and there is an optional convenience pack on the Trend with the auto lamp and wiper package for $300, with a $2300 Sports Executive pack on the Titanium that tips in bi-Xenon lamps, adaptive cruise control and a sunroof. The top line on the bottom line translates to $38,390 for the Titanium diesel auto with pack upgrade, either as a sedan or hatch.
Herrman talks passionately and in depth about everything from the steel in the new Focus through to the voice control system that could - but does not - make all the buttons on the dash redundant. "This vehicle has the most technology worldwide in a vehicle of this type. That's a proud story," he says.
The headline act for the Focus is automatic parking - seen first in Australia on the Toyota Prius - that also stars in the television advertising. You still have to control the brake and accelerator, but it does everything from measuring the gaps automatically to working the steering for a perfect reverse park. There are plenty of gags that could go here, but let's move on to the trip computer, keyless access and starting, even the shape and position of the steering wheel. As always, the really smart stuff - active cruise and bi-Xenon - costs more and the smartest of all, including road sign recognition, is only for Europe at the moment ...
The Focus looks edgy and youthful on the outside, youthful and very busy on the inside. You could even say the design of the central infotainment area is very Korean, like a Hyundai i45. The shape stands out from the traffic, and especially alongside a Golf or Holden Cruze, and that's entirely deliberate. Ford wanted to make a statement with the Focus and it has succeeded, creating a look that reflects movement. The basic body was done in England, then finessed in Germany and spun into the five-door hatch and a four-door sedan that looks more like a hatch. Inside, the seats are a global move that works surprisingly well but somehow the American-style auto shifter survived the Euro design focus to pacify the Homers of the world.
Five-star ANCAP says it all, from high-strength steel in the body to six airbags with a special shaping of the driver's cushion to minimise leg injuries. More importantly, as safety switches to prevention of crashes, the Focus gets ABS, ESP with smart programming, hill-start assist and a torque-vectoring control for the differential that helps keen drivers but also provides a safety net for anyone in slippery conditions or bad weather.
Focus or Golf? Golf or Focus? That is the obvious question as Carsguide heads for the new Ford and a surprisingly frank evaluation course that includes the nastiness of Punt Road, Melbourne in peak hour and slimy rally roads high in the Dandenongs.
It's immediately obvious that the Golf is still ahead on cosseting comfort and cabin simplicity, but the Focus hits with the youthful bodywork, look-at-me dashboard, great seats, and an eager response to all the controls. The 1.6-litre engine is dozy until you get beyond 4000 revs, but the diesel is solid and the 2.0-litre petrol is handy. The manual is short a gear by 2010 standards but the shift is good and the ratios are fine, while the Powershift is a bit too 'auto' for our liking. And a silly little switch at the base on the T-bar for manual changes in the Sport setting is a joke in a car that's aimed at keen drivers.
Ford quotes all its engine numbers using 95 RON fuel but says 91 is fine for petrol power. Still, the chassis is as taut as a Zumba-toned body, the steering almost talks, and the grip in corners is strong, consistent and impressive. There is some tyre roar at times but it's down from the previous Focus, and wind noise around the door tops can be excused in a Victoria wind rush.
Every time the road turns twisty the Focus is keen to play, and we cannot wait to see how the car will go as an RS - one of the Carsguide favourite funsters of recent years - once Ford gets beyond the basic stuff. The Focus is definitely a winner, definitely a four-star car, and definitely at the front of the small-car pack. It's on target and a car for drivers, not just passengers in the commuter belt.
Another winner from Ford and you have to wonder how the future would look for Broadmeadows if the car was still going to be built in Australia. It will take a back-to-back against the Volkswagen Golf to get a final result for the class championship but keen drivers should already be backing the blue oval.
|Ambiente||1.6L, ULP, 5 SP MAN||$3,900 – 6,380||2011 Ford Focus 2011 Ambiente Pricing and Specs|
|CL||2.0L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO||$4,300 – 6,930||2011 Ford Focus 2011 CL Pricing and Specs|
|LX||2.0L, ULP, 4 SP AUTO||$4,600 – 7,370||2011 Ford Focus 2011 LX Pricing and Specs|
|RS||2.5L, PULP, 6 SP MAN||$17,200 – 23,980||2011 Ford Focus 2011 RS Pricing and Specs|