The people at Ford knew going in that a 2001 Ford Focus was one of the worst cars I ever owned.
I bought it from my father-in-law as a daily driver with just 19,000 kilometres on it. After just 20,000 more km and about a dozen technical service bulletins (recalls), I dumped it for $4,500 as part of a trade in on a 2006 Japanese car.
It wasn’t the worst car I ever owned. That dubious honour goes to a 1968 Pontiac Firebird HO, the HO standing for High Output which summed up the endless repair bills.
But the 2001 Focus always stumped me because, on paper, it was so good.
A European Car of the Year and North American Car of Year in 2000, I never really could figure out what went wrong.
I think it took Ford by surprise too, because they poured buckets of money and engineering to turn things around.
As a result, the second generation Focus was much improved with production moved to the U.S. with a very serious eye on quality control.
Nonetheless there was a very real difference between the one built on this side of the pond and the one sold in Europe which was based on the Mazda3.
That fragmentation is over now. As part of the “new” Ford strategy of “One World” cars, we will get the same 2012 Focus available around the globe.
The compact car segment where the Focus competes is the largest in Canada, but there has been a fundamental change in what buyers want.
What they want is style.
Sure good mileage and reliability are strong motivators, but the days of “bland is best” are gone and that’s where Moray Callum comes in.
He’s longtime acquaintance who keeps coming up with fresh new designs. As head of Ford styling for the Americas, Callum has introduced what he calls “kinetic design” on the new Focus.
He describes it as starting with a striking front end with a very pronounced beltline running from just behind the front wheel well to the rear making it look taut and fun to drive.
But there is more to it than that.
The new Ford design language is also highly aerodynamic. For instance the drag coefficient on the 2012 Focus is 0.297 compared to 0.320 for the current model.
There are many contributing factors to this such as a steeply raked windshield, but a key is the grille. Using new active grille shutters, they close when airflow to the radiator is not required. This has the added bonus of improving aerodynamic efficiently at higher speeds and, at the same time, reducing under hood temperatures at low speed that, in turn, increases thermal efficiency.
It’s what you call a win-win.
The 2012 Focus is powered by a gasoline direct injection inline, four-cylinder engine producing 160 hp and 146 lb/ft of torque.
This engine is a great advance over what has gone before. For instance the 2.0-litre four-cylinder used in my 2001 Focus made 135 hp and 130 lb/ft of torque. More to the point the 2.0-litre used in the 1993-1997 Ford Probe mustered only 118 hp.
Fuel consumption ratings are still being calculated by Natural Resources Canada but the current four-speed automatic Focus without the new engine or six-speed transmission gets 5/8L/100 km or about 49 mpg so the new car should better that.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard with a six-speed automatic optional at $1,250 and $1,450 with Select Shift. The automatic with Select Shift is standard on the Titanium models.
Select Shift is a dual dry-clutch design that reduces fuel consumption by up to nine per cent compared to a traditional four-speed automatic. It also allows the driver to shift in a manual mode.
Ford has positioned the Focus to cover the price gamut of most of the compact car segment. Starting prices by model are: S four-door Sedan, $15,999; SE four-door Sedan, $18,999; SE five-door Hatch, $19,899; SEL four- door Sedan, $21,499; SEL five-door door Hatch, $22,399; Titanium four-door Sedan, $24,499; Titanium, five-door Hatch, $25,099, Destination and Delivery, $1,450.
I drove several variants at the press launch in Los Angeles with most of my time in a SEL hatchback.
Ford says this is a compact car. When I noted it was about the same size of the first generation Fusion, Ford responded by saying it sits at “the upper end” of the compact segment.
No matter how you look at it, the 2012 Ford Focus is clearly aimed to accommodating five North American sized adults and they certainly have succeed at that and the same also goes for cargo space.
In the sedan, there is 13.2 cu ft in the trunk. With the hatchback that grows to 23.8 cu ft behind the second row seats and 44.8 cu ft with the second row folded.
Of course we were all wondering if the 2.0-litre would have the grunt to cut it in California where the locals give no quarter to dawdlers.
Ford picked a route that was a series of twisting canyon roads in the Malibu area running from the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) up to the torturous Mulholland Highway, back down another canyon road to the PCH and down again about seven times.
There is no doubt this is one of the best handling Ford family cars in a long time. The suspension had no trouble dealing with efforts of my younger co-driver trying to see how fast he could go. I did not try the sports suspension, but those who did raved about it.
A major reason why the Focus felt as good as it did is due to what Ford calls its front drive torque vectoring.
In a nutshell, when you come out of a corner hard, there is a measured amount of braking to the inside front wheel that slows it down slightly and reduces the amount of understeer (the tendency to go straight) which adds to stability plus less steering effort on the part of the driver.
Finally, I did get on the highway where the Focus felt really solid and well planted. The 2.0-litre coped well with the frequent demands for power made all the better by the six-speed automatic.
I came away with the sense that Ford will never, ever, let itself sell cars like my 2001 model again.
In fact, get ready, I might even consider buying one when that 2006 Japanese car I own reaches “the certain age”.
At a glance
Compact four-door sedan, five-door hatchback.
DRIVE METHOD: front-engine, front-wheel drive.
ENGINE: 2.0-litre, inline four cylinder (160 hp, 146 lb/ft).
FUEL ECONOMY: NA
TOW RATING: NA
PRICE: S four-door Sedan, $15,999; SE four-door Sedan, $18,999; SE five-door Hatch, $19,899; SEL four- door Sedan, $21,499; SEL five-door door Hatch, $22,399; Titanium four-door Sedan, $24,499; Titanium, five-door Hatch, $25,099, Destination and Delivery, $1,450.