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Britain's biggest-selling family hatchback gets a mid-life refresh, but can the Ford Focus hold off the likes of the Volkswagen Golf and the Seat Leon?

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Ford calls the Focus the best-selling nameplate in the world. There’s an asterisk and a bit of a disclaimer to go with that, but no one in the UK can deny that the Blue Oval’s family hatch has achieved ubiquity.

Whether in the guise of a first-generation model bought for peanuts or an example of this, the sixth iteration (counting major and minor revisions), the Focus is as common a sight on the average journey as traffic lights or roundabouts.

The first-generation Focus was a leap forwards for Ford

That it has achieved this kind of omnipresence has something to do with Ford’s historically strong position in the UK and a command of the mainstream that can be traced back to the origins of the motor car itself.

However, much credit is owed to 
the Focus itself. Its standout feature, at least for us at Autocar, has been its handling – a feelsome, responsive mix of comfort and verve not bettered anywhere until the arrival of the most recent Ford Fiesta.

Recent versions of the Focus haven’t excelled in this regard quite like the first few, but Ford’s attention has been redirected as it seeks to meet the challenge of a new breed of upmarket alternatives - such as the Volkswagen Golf, BMW 1 Series, Audi A3 and Mercedes-Benz A-Class.

This facelifted Focus continues that effort. As before, the C-car global platform underpins the model, but its new look doesn’t offer any additional cabin space.

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Instead, this update is about consolidating the Focus’s lead position, so driver assistance, connectivity, in-car tech and interior design are revised, and a new engine line-up of four core powerplants – the 1.0 and 1.5-litre Ecoboost petrol motors and new 1.5 and 2.0-litre diesels – in various outputs, introduced.

Ford has now unveiled the new fourth-generation Focus, which is due to go on sale later in 2018.

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Focus rear

The Focus has moved in and out of handsomeness, generation by generation. Fortunately, this model has found the Twister dial of design in a favourable position.

The car’s chiselled old nose makes a welcome return, largely thanks to the incorporation of the latest ‘face of Ford’, which introduces slimmer headlights alongside elongated foglights and a widened grille.

A number of chassis components have been fettled for a better sense of connectedness with the road

Beneath the sharpening of the styling, Ford’s engineers have taken a similar attitude. According to the manufacturer, the stiffness of the Focus’s frontal structure has been enhanced by the use of a stronger arc welding technique and some thicker brackets in the engine bay.

The fine-tuning continues on a number of chassis components, with the suspension geometry, control arm bush stiffness and dampers all fettled for a better sense of connectedness with the road.

Engineers have also concerned themselves with what happens at the limit of that connection. Ford claims a car industry first with the introduction of what it calls its Enhanced Transitional Stability system. This is claimed to be able to predict when a skid might occur and apply the brakes individually to counteract the condition before the worst can occur.

The metering of the electric power steering is essential to this process and this, too, has been retuned to give what Ford calls a “more instinctive reaction”.

Improvements under the bonnet are more easily quantifiable, with an engine range that is claimed to be up to 15 percent more efficient than before. This fact is helped along no end by the introduction of the new 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrol and 1.5-litre diesel engines to the Focus line-up.

The former, available in 148bhp and 180bhp variants to complement the returning 1.0-litre three-pot, replaces the old 1.6-litre powerplant and features the now-familiar combination of turbocharging, direct fuel injection and variable camshaft timing that comes with the EcoBoost badge.

Its diesel equivalent, sold in 94bhp, 103bhp and 118bhp variants, also replaces a slightly larger engine and includes what Ford calls the “most fuel-efficient combustion process to date” from one of its oil-burners, thanks to an optimised piston bowl, liberal internal coatings of friction-reducing diamond-like carbon, a revised turbocharger and the latest generation of diesel injectors.

Both the 1.5 and 2.0-litre diesel engines also get an after-treatment NOx trap to comply with Euro 6 emissions standards. The diesels share a variable-nozzle blower, while the 2.0 TDCi gets a modest power boost to go with significant economy gains. All of these powertrains put the Focus toe-to-toe with the Volkswagen Golf TSI and TDI engines.

A household Focus model is the ST range which is powered by two powertrains - a 2.0-lite Ecoboost engine pumping out 247bhp, which is more than the Volkswagen Golf GTI but 50bhp less than the Seat Leon Cupra 300, while a more economical 183bhp diesel completes the fast Focus range - which is by no small coincidence slightly more powerful than the Golf GTD.

Heading up the range is the fiesty and racous Focus RS - equipped with all-wheel drive and a 349bhp turbocharged 2.3-litre Ecoboost engine, which has revamped the mega hot hatch sector and takes on a raft of hot hatches from the Honda Civic Type R, BMW M140i, Mercedes-AMG A 45 and the formidable Volkswagen Golf R for domination in this segment.

INTERIOR

Ford Focus interior

Ford’s aim was not only to bring the Focus’s interior up to date with this revision but also to simplify it significantly. Its success is best judged on acquaintance with the dashboard’s centre stack. Where formerly were found two banks of fussy, 1990s mobile phone-like systems buttons, there is now mostly grey plastic and a much smaller and more discreet nest of audio controls.

Underneath, there are likewise smaller and more modern-looking heating and ventilation controls, while above is the star of Ford’s interior makeover: the 8.0in Sync 3 touchscreen multimedia set-up fitted as standard to all Zetec Edition-trimmed models and beyond, while its a £600 option on the Style Econetic Focus. The system is a massive improvement over what was included before. It's not the most responsive system on sale, nor the best laid-out, but it's big, bold and comes with sat nav as standard.

The touchscreen system is a massive improvement over what was included in previous versions

As for equipment levels, the Style Econentic models get 16in steel wheels, hill start assist, air conditioning, cruise control and Ford's Sync infotainment system complete with DAB radio, USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Upgrade to Zetec Edition, and the Focus gains 16in alloy wheels, heated wing mirrors, front foglights, sports seats, rear parking sensors, heated front windscreen and Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system complete with an 8.0in touchscreen display. The mid-range ST-Line models, include numerous sporty touches such as firmer suspension, sports seats, ST-style bodykit, side skirts and rear spoilers and 17in alloy wheels. There is also LED day-running lights, keyless entry, rear LED lights and softer touch dashboard.

Titanium models receive automatic wipers and lights, dual-zone climate control, keyless start and entry and emergency city braking, while the range-topping Titanium X trim comes loaded with plenty of kit, including a rear-view camera, cruise control, heated front seats, part-leather upholstery, ambient interior lighting and bi-xenon headlights.

Opt for the ST models and expect to find an aggressive bodykit, bigger alloys, sportier suspension, rear spoiler and Recaro seats, all of which can be had in estate form. The ST-2 gets 18in alloy wheels and an aggressive makeober, while paying a bit more for the ST-3 will see you receive luxuries such as bi-xenons, leather-clad Recaro seats, rear parking sensors, power folding mirrors, red brake calipers and electrically adjustable front seats.

The fascia looks neater, cleaner and more contemporary as a result of the decluttering but not unquestionably classier. The tactile quality of the dashboard plastics isn’t outstanding, so populating less of their surface area with switchgear, without upgrading the canvas behind, doesn’t do a great deal for cabin ambience. It still feels more tactile and nicer place to be than the Vauxhall Astra but not the desirability of the Seat Leon's and Volkswagen Golf's innards.

The four-spoke steering wheel has been replaced by a smaller three-spoke item with more attractive switchgear and the option of shift paddles if you go for a six-speed Powershift dual-clutch automatic gearbox. The new wheel looks smart, but somehow the old one struck us as a better fit for the car’s sporty character.

Credit to Ford is due for freeing up extra cabin storage midway through a full model generation. Immediately ahead of the gearlever there’s a cubby sized to accept a smartphone or iPod, while further aft on the centre console the cupholders have been made larger and the centre-cubby deeper.

Boot space with seats up decreases from 316 litres to 277 litres which, compared with key rivals such as the Volkswagen Golf's and Kia Cee'd's 380 litres, is lagging behind. An estate version of the Focus is also offered, with boot space being a respectable 476 litres with the seats up and 1502 litres with the seats folded flat. The area is wider than the estate versions of the Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra, but not as long.

Overall, though, you’d say the Focus’s cockpit has taken two steps forward, only to take one step back. Progress has been made here, but this remains a roomy, functional driving environment rather than a particularly pleasant or inviting one.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

Ford Focus on the road

The most notable revision with this facelifted Focus is in the powertrains. The 1.6-litre turbo, in both petrol and diesel flavours, has become a 1.5-litre turbo, with 148bhp and 180bhp in Ecoboost petrol forms, and 94bhp and 119bhp in diesel guise. The 1.0-litre Ecoboost with 123bhp remains the same.

In the latter form, the Focus has 3bhp more and torque of 148lb ft, the same as the Volkswagen Golf's 1.4 TSI 120bhp petrol motor. Much of the Ford's initial driving pleasure comes from the three-cylinder note. It oozes enthusiasm and encourages you to work it hard. However, this engine in the Focus can occasionally feel like it's the big turbo pulling you along in a bigger, heavier car. 

Ford's 1.0-litre Ecoboost three cylinder note oozes enthusiasm and encourages you to work it hard

The Focus’s ‘new’ 1.5-litre turbocharged diesel engine doesn’t strike you as the most state-of-the-art downsized motor – and it isn’t. Rather, this is a revised version of the old 1.6 with slightly less swept volume, some updated internal components and new induction and exhaust systems.

This isn’t an inherently quiet unit, but Ford has gone to pains to put refinement into the car by other means, with thicker carpets and side glass and more insulation between the engine bay and the cabin. The car is competitive with most, if not all, of the hatchback class’s smoothest operators on cruising manners, keeping vibration out of the cabin at all but very low crank speeds, but it gets a little coarse at high revs.

While good, it isn’t quite a match for the very best small diesels on flexibility or fuel economy. The 58.5mpg real-world average return recorded by our True MPG testers is a good 10 percent poorer than we achieved from the Honda Civic 1.6 i-DTEC, and only just pips Seat’s 57mpg Seat Leon 1.6 TDI. It’s entirely acceptable from a car that doesn’t feel in any way compromised for the sake of economy, but it shouldn’t be a relative selling point.

On outright pulling power, the Ford feels fairly strong and performs quite well against the clock. There’s enough urge here to execute B-road overtakes with some confidence, and throttle pedal response is respectable. That said, a slightly sticky-feeling accelerator in our 1.5-litre diesel 119bhp test car made it hard to apportion power exactly as intended and hampered smooth motorway progress.

The ratios of the six-speed gearbox are well chosen, and its action is solid and well defined – quite weighty and mechanical-feeling. However, rushing a change through the gate when cold can sometimes lead to a refusal to engage, unless you’re steady and deliberate with the lever.

Even on standard 16in wheels the Focus’s braking performance is good, with a well-tuned pedal that is both easily modulated and reassuring in an emergency.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Focus side profile

The renowned handling dynamism of the Focus may have been in relative decline since the car's remarkable first generation, but until now it has always been possible to sum up its unique and enduring selling point quite simply: this is the best-handling hatchback on the road.

At least it was. Unfortunately, today, this assertion can no longer be made. 

The Focus remains a responsive car, but a Mazda 3 is more engaging from behind the wheel

Not absolutely, at any rate. The Focus remains a responsive, grippy and agile car to drive, as you’d expect it to be – and further experience of it in richer trim, and with different wheel and tyre sizes, will persuade you that its legacy isn’t in danger.

However, if our test car is representative of the Focus in its biggest-selling specification, we’d argue that most owners will find a like-for-like Mazda 3 a more engaging car from behind the wheel, and a Seat Leon at least equally so.

Its fall from grace can be explained chiefly by the new power steering and suspension damping systems Ford has fitted to the car. These both fail to improve on what they replace and, in attempting to pull the car in opposing directions at the same time, spread its sporting character a little too thinly.

The Focus’s electro-mechanical power steering is weighted more lightly than before, particularly at low speeds. It provides some feedback from the front tyres’ contact patches, but it filters that communication through some apparent friction at the straight-ahead and a slightly pendulous and unhelpful gathering of assistance off-centre. In so doing, it makes your primary interface with the car feel just a little woolly on some occasions, and elastic at other times.

Its body control is good for the most part, but gone is its ability to absorb bumps small and large with equal fluency and poise. The car rides quietly and with good wheel control, but its vertical body control is more digital and less progressive than it was.

The Focus fusses slightly over small, sharp intrusions, as firmly suspended cars tend to do, but then allows some unchecked initial body movement before addressing it quite staunchly, often causing the car to pitch or rebound more than it would if the dampers responded more quickly and with mounting resistance.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Focus

It’s hard to fault the Focus on value for money. The trim level below our Zetec test car provides a cheap entry point for private buyers on a budget.

The entry-level, £19,695 Studio Econetic version is offered only with an 103bhp 1.5-litre diesel engine and which is trimmed with Ford's basic infotainment system, manual air conditioning, low rolling resistance tyres and steel wheels. They are likely to be a rare sight.

Residual values will be mid-class, but few other mainstream rivals can match the Focus in this area

Upgrading from Zetec Edition to ST-Line gets you sports suspension and 17in alloy wheels, which would be worth it on both counts, we reckon, and as an added bonus all models above Zetec Edition benefits from Ford's Sync 3 infotainment system with its 8.0in touchscreen screen, DAB radio, sat nav and, USB and Bluetooth connectivity.

Predicted residuals may be second to the premium brands and anything built by the Volkswagen Group, but they are a cut above the Mazda 3, Nissan Pulsar, Toyota Auris and Vauxhall Astra.

Lease rates look competitive, too, while Ford’s success in getting fleet companies to accept that cars with sat-nav will be worth more at resale adds further value. Carbon dioxide emissions are competitive for both the 1.5 TDCi and the more powerful 2.0 TDCi – and for manual and Powershift automatic cars. The 95bhp, 103bhp and 118bhp 1.5-litre TDCi variants sneak under the 100g/km CO2 barrier - at 88 and 99g/km respectively, which will be popular choices with company car drivers. It is also worth noting the 1.0-litre Ecoboost engine producing 98bhp and 99g/km of CO2.

Ford claims a combined fuel economy figure of 74.3mpg for our 1.5-litre TDCi 118bhp test car. However, our True MPG testers recorded a real-world average return of 58.5mpg, which still just pips the Seat Leon 1.6 TDI's 57mpg.  

 

VERDICT

Ford Focus rear quarter

Sales success has come to the Focus for more than one reason. Enthusiasts will think of sharp steering and deft body control, but a decent range of engines, fine practicality, striking looks and a distinguishing price are more likely to have endeared the car to the majority.

Those latter facets – combined with a smarter cabin, more economical engines and new  gadgets – will stand this new version in better stead than ever for most.

The facelifted Focus is improved in all ways bar one. It's appealing, but no longer excels dynamically

However, the slow decline of the Focus’s handling dynamism has brought it back to the melee of mid-class contention when it used to be head and shoulders clear. The Focus handles very tidily, and better than most of its peers, but not with the uncanny polish and verve that set its forebears apart.

The refreshed Focus is improved in all ways bar one. It's still a very appealing, complete car. However, an undistinguished drive means it no longer excels dynamically, which means its lagging behind the evergreen Volkswagen Golf overall and less compelling to drive than the Seat Leon.

Sportier flavours of the car are far superior with the ST and RS models offering the poise and feedback that keen drivers would be able to relate with. But, we must acknowledge that the Focus is still appealing as ever, even if the driving allure has been eroded from the first gen Focus.

 

Ford Focus 2014-2018 First drives