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Can the Ford Focus capture the hearts and minds of hatchback buyers, or have its traditional rivals managed to perfect the formula?

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When the Ford Focus was launched in 1998, it became the class leader instantly and, in its first two generations, we can count on the fingers of one hand the number of months we haven't considered it as the leader in its segment. But does that still remain the case?

Rivals have come and gone with varying degrees of anonymity and success – Fiat Bravos, Renault Méganes, Honda Civics, Alfa Romeo 147s, Toyota Corollas and Aurises – and nothing, except the Volkswagen Golf, has come close to making the Focus anything other than the most easily recommendable medium-sized family car.

Nothing, except Volkswagen’s Golf, has come close to making the Focus anything other than the most easily recommendable car in its class

Today there are fewer differences than ever between Focuses made for different markets under the global 'One Ford' plan, so this is not just a Euro-centric car.

That said, as is usual for a European Focus, the car is available with myriad engine choices, including Ford’s excellent Ecoboost technology, most notably through a highly-efficient 1.0-litre turbocharged petrol unit. Trims include the usual names, including popular Edge, Zetec, Titanium and Titanium X levels.

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DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Focus rear lights

When the first Ford Focus arrived in 1998, it brought with it a styling theme that Ford dubbed ‘new edge’. It took a few people aback, but not by enough to stop the car from becoming Britain’s best-seller as early as 1999.

This time around, under the direction of Martin Smith, the Focus follows the latest Ford Fiesta and Ford C-Max in featuring its ‘kinetic’ design theme. The idea is that the car looks like it’s moving even when standing still, thanks to a series of creases and lines that emerge from and meld back into the body at various points down its length.

There’s a large gap between the grille and bonnet - large enough to make you wonder if it hasn’t been closed properly

In its engineering, the Focus features a layout that's as conventional as you'd expect: it has a front, transverse-mounted engine driving the front wheels through a choice of manual or twin-clutch automatic gearboxes. Suspension is by MacPherson struts at the front, with Ford's 'control blade' multi-link set-up at the rear.

What's unusual this time is that the Focus comes only with five doors. There's no three-door hatch option, while the estate line-up largely mirrors the hatch's, though with a small price premium. 

INTERIOR

Ford Focus dashboard

When it comes to roominess, the differences between the best and worst cars in this class are best measured in units no bigger than a millimetre. So although the Ford Focus is not the most spacious car in this segment, its inadequacies are not worth a great deal of quibbling about.

If you really need to maximise rear accommodation, look elsewhere, but the Focus's cabin is competitive, as is its boot capacity of 316 litres (with a space-saver spare) to 1148 litres (with seats down and a tyre repair kit).

Fit and finish in the front of the cabin is mixed

Fit and finish in the front of the cabin is mixed, with neat chromed touches and switches whose slickness of operation should fear nothing from Volkswagen, which contrasts with a lower-rent finish on the lower console and around the handbrake. 

It straddles the flambuoyant cabin design of the Alfa Romeo Giulietta and determined functionality of the Volkswagen Golf, in a fashion not dissimilar to the Vauxhall Astra, only with rather more success and a higher perceived quality. For the life of us, though, we still cannot fathom why any manufacturer – and so many do it – mould the dashboard top with a soft-feel rubber, which you never touch, yet top the door cards with a brittle plastic that you touch every few minutes.

Ergonomically, the Focus follows much the same path: more functional than Alfa Romeo, less so than Volkswagen. Its dashboard and centre console are, pleasingly, focused towards the driver, and the quality of the digital graphics on the two displays is first rate. But the stereo and navigation controls, via a large numberpad and arrow keys, aren’t as intuitive as a good touchscreen or control-wheeled interface.

An estate version of the Focus is also offered. The Focus Estate rides on the same wheelbase as the five door, so unlike certain other estates it offers those in the rear no extra legroom than the hatchback. There is a little more headroom back there, as well as a 476-litre boot that expands to 1502 litres once you’ve flipped up the rear seat cushions and folded the seat backs (which go almost, if not quite flat).

That’s not a class-leading capacity by any means but it’s enough for all but the very biggest loads. More importantly, the load bay is just about long enough, with the seats down, to carry fridges and the like. Thanks to new inclined rear dampers and a special boot floor, the estate’s load bay is also 119mm wider than the hatchback’s.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Focus front quarter

Whichever power source you choose for a Focus, it's unlikely you'll be dissatisfied with the performance: and one of Ford's petrols in particular is outstanding, which we'll come to in a moment.

The 114bhp 1.6 TDCi is a strong-seller. It’s not a hugely powerful engine with which to propel a 1380kg and that’s nothing of which to be ashamed, given current emissions and economy requirements. So it would be unfair of us to expect anything better than the 10.7sec it took to reach 60mph from rest, or the same 10.7sec it wanted to reach 70mph from 30mph, when we road tested the car.

We’ve found it difficult to be anything better than generally satisfied with the Ford Focus’s performance, whichever power source you choose

Neither is there a problem with refinement. That’s a theme, incidentally, that you’ll note with wind and tyre noise at speed, too – and it goes to make the Focus the standout car in the class when it comes to noise suppression.

A 103bhp version of the 1.6 TDCi is offered in a fuel-sipping Econetic version (as is a base 94bhp version). This model is a quiet, supple and practical way of sticking to the speed limit. The ultra-frugal Duratorq is much the same as we found it in its more potent guise: lumpy and grouchy at start up, a bit obstinate to get going from a standstill and then rather detached in its slow-revving, long-geared set-up.

The hottest diesel is the 2.0-litre TDCI 163. Performance is good: impressively, the weight of this Focus is almost identical to the outgoing model and while the engine's performance band is a little narrow, with peak power coming it low at 3750rpm, the six closely stacked ratios in the clean shifting box means you'll never have trouble keeping it on the boil.

There are good petrol engines too. The 1.6 Ecoboost 150 is a fine unit, with a large depth of flexibility and economy. It also makes for an extremely refined and relaxing motor in general.

The stand-out motor, though, is the 1.0-litre, three-cylinder Ecoboost, which offers spectacular performance and economy: we managed more than 50mpg while making respectable progress in the 123bhp variant (a 99bhp version is also offered); economy typically only on offer from noisier diesels. It also confers a remarkable new layer of smoothness and refinement on the hatchback. It's a real game-changer.

Other engines include 84bhp, 103bhp and 123bhp versions of a fairly tame 1.6-litre petrol, while a 180bhp version of the 1.6 Ecoboost petrol sits below the ST as a cooking Zetec-S model. Like all lukewarm hatchbacks, it seems disappointing if you’re secretly hankering after the gratifying pace of something hot, and even armed with the perkier Ecoboost, the Zetec-S is unlikely to set your pulse racing.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Focus cornering

The character of the latest Ford Focus suggests that ride and handling would best be separated into their two constituents.

Taking ride first, then, reveals that the Focus is one of the very best cars in this class for comfort. The Focus is not soft and baggy in the manner of the Citroen C4, for example. It has a sophisticated feel that lifts it above the impression one gains from, say, the Vauxhall Astra.

The Focus is one of the very best cars in this class for comfort

Both primary and secondary rides are truly composed, which makes it a relaxing cruiser on almost any road surface. It would be perfectly acceptable in the class above. From this class, only the Volkswagen Golf runs it close.

The tight body control also pays some dividends when it comes to its handling. The Focus is a faithful companion on B-roads and even in tight bends. An enthusiastic one, however, it is not: at least, not in diesel form. Some inertia seems to afflict the chassis of diesel-powered Focuses, though the lighter, petrol-engined, Focus is less afflicted and more rewarding.

Even though the steering’s ratio is quicker than in the previous Focus, it’s now electrically assisted, and that has brought with it smoothness but also an absence of road feel. 

As enthusiasts, we’ll mourn the loss of some of the old car’s warmth and dynamism. You didn’t have to be on a hot lap of the Nürburgring to enjoy it. Now, when it comes to being entertaining to drive, the Volkswagen Golf and Alfa Romeo Giulietta are both nearly as able to put a smile on their driver’s face.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Focus 2011-2014

When we gave the Focus 1.6 TDCi 115 a full road test, we didn't get near its fuel consumption figures, but the numbers we did return stand comparison with anything in the class. Ford still doesn't offer anything that nicks below the crucial 100g/km mark, but both the TDCi 115 and the 1.0 Ecoboost get close.

The lower-medium sector is one of the most fiercely competitive of all, so pricing and equipment differences are the stuff of spreadsheet dreams. The Focus is, again, competitive on the things you’d notice, like air-con and sat-nav. But while the range looks competitive next to Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra, it’s pricey up against the likes of the Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30.

While the range looks competitive next to Golf and Astra, it’s pricey up against the likes of the Kia Cee’d and Hyundai i30

However, Ford counters with an impressive array of luxury features that you simply can’t get on many of its rivals. Sure, VWs can park themselves, too, these days, but when it comes to features like adaptive cruise control, lane-change assist, traffic sign recognition, and so on – optional on most variants – it’s ahead of the pack. DAB and Bluetooth are also standard across the range.

Fords do not retain their value as well as Volkswagens in this class – very little does – but a Focus should hold its value better than an Vauxhall Astra and most of its other mainstream rivals.

VERDICT

4 star Ford Focus

Once, the Ford Focus represented the best drive in its class, with general competitiveness in other areas. These days its strongest merits have shifted somewhat.

Today it's so sophisticated in feel, so quiet at a cruise and stable at motorway speeds that it could quite easily come from the class above.

The Focus used to offer something unique. Now, though, that’s not the case

But we do mourn some of the loss of its old sparkle, its driving joie de vivre - the thing that gave it a unique edge in the segment. These days that's still sound, but not outstanding.

When it comes to prices and specs, the Focus is also in the mix. There's little to choose between it and its key rivals, even if Korean hatchbacks appear to offer better value. They can't touch the Focus for fit-and-finish and we like the big-car tech you can get in the Focus too.

The Focus is a very strong car, competing for the class lead and excellent in many respects.

But it’s a shame that a car that was, for so long, outstanding in the way it drove, is left to make a case for itself in objective areas, just like the rest.

Ford Focus 2011-2014 First drives