Ford's massive-selling Focus family hatch has been vastly improved in recent times and now key competitors like the Volkswagen Golf are firmly in its sights. Jonathan Crouch drives it.
Ten Second Review
The Ford Focus has evolved, this improved MK3 version offering slicker looks, higher interior quality and extra technology. There's also greater efficiency beneath the bonnet thanks to the addition of a hi-tech range of 1.5-litre petrol and diesel engines. The best part though, is that this car still remains as rewarding to drive as it's always been. The Focus might have grown up but it certainly hasn't lost its spark.
Every once in a while, a car is launched that instantly makes all of its rivals look stupid and old. Ford pulled that particular trick back in 1998, when it launched the Mk 1 Focus. The way it drove was a revelation. Volkswagen had launched its fourth generation Golf the year before and realised that compared to the lithe Focus, here was a car that rode and handled like a supermarket trolley with a caster on the fritz. Volkswagen promptly hired many of the staff who designed the Focus suspension and put a barely disguised copy under its fifth generation car in 2004.
Since then, Ford launched a second generation Focus in 2005 and a third generation car in 2011. Revenge must have felt sweet for Volkswagen when it launched the Golf Mk 7 in 2013, for here was a car that turned the tables on the Ford, offering sharper dynamics and a classier interior. Ford's response? You're looking at it here.
Ford has subtly tweaked the handling of this car, making changes to the suspension to improve the ride and slightly lightening the steering. As a result, it's a better long distance travelling companion, though some may feel tha the car now lacks a little of its earlier sharpness. It's still a much better drive than most of its competitors though.
The engine range has also been much revised. Let's start with petrol power. Though at the foot of the range, it's still possible to get the old-tech 1.6-litre Ti-VCT unit in 85, 105 and 125PS guises, the mainstream petrol line-up is these days primarily based around the brand's clever 1.0-litre three cylinder turbo EcoBoost unit, offered with either 100 or 125PS. Above that now sits a 1.5-litre EcoBoost unit, offered with either 150 or 182PS. EcoBoost technology is also used in the hot hatch models, with a 2.0-litre 250PS unit used in the Focus ST and a 2.3-litre 320PS powerplant used in the top Focus RS.
Those in search of a diesel have a choice between the old-tech 1.6-litre TDCi units, offering either 95 or 115PS. Or new-tech 1.5-litre TDCi engines offering either 95 or 120PS. Make sure you know what you're getting. Above these, there's an uprated 150PS 2.0-litre TDCi unit, also offered in 185PS guise to Focus ST buyers. Otherwise, the only other option is the intriguing Focus Electric model which uses a combination of a 107KW electric motor and a 23kWh lithium-ion battery to deliver a useful 142PS and 250Nm of torque. Many will baulk at the restricted 100 mile driving range though.
Design and Build
It's only when you put this improved Focus next to the original third generation version that you realise just how much more expensive this model looks. Ford's objective was to take this car closer to its arch-rival Volkswagen's Golf in terms of visual sophistication and make switching into a Focus a little easier for those afflicted with any degree of badge snobbery. The most obvious change is the addition of an Aston Martin-style trapezoidal front grille, there to give the front end a more distinctive look also emphasised by subtle chrome detailing and these slimmer, smarter front headlights and re-styled foglamps.
The interior has also been given a serious once-over. The fascia design is more intuitive, that button-strewn centre stack and steering wheel being tidied up considerably. The black satin trim and chrome detailing contribute to a cleaner aesthetic too. Many of the controls are now marshalled by the SYNC 2 high-resolution, 8-inch colour touch screen system. This includes voice control for 'easier' access to audio, navigation, climate control and compatible mobile phones. One thing that's undoubtedly an improvement is practicality. The centre storage console offers more space as well as a new sliding, integrated armrest, accommodating a variety of bottles and cups with the capacity to simultaneously hold a litre water bottle and a 400ml cup.
Market and Model
It's actually quite hard to know where to start when trying to explain the Focus model range to an unfamiliar buyer. It is, after all, so vast. Still, we'll do our best. The simplest aspect is the availability of just two bodystyles, a five-door hatch or, for a model-for-model premium of around £1,100, a smartly-styled estate option. Most of the mainstream petrol variants offer the option of automatic transmission too. It's the under-the-bonnet issues though, that require Focus buyers to really know the ropes when it comes to the selection process. Let me explain why.
Ford's approach with new generation engine technology is to gradually introduce it, keeping older-tech powerplants in the range as price-leading models there to generate showroom footfall. So, even though this improved third generation model was launched to showcase the freshly-developed 1.5-litre petrol and diesel engines that have slotted into the range above the sophisticated 1.0-litre EcoBoost petrol unit most choose, the old-tech 1.6-litre petrol and diesel powerplants from the previous line-up were still very much a part of this updated Focus range at its launch in late 2014.
That approach allows customers to get themselves into this car at list pricing which can begin from as low as around £14,000, provided they can be satisfied with a hatch bodystyle and the feeblest 85PS version of the old 1.6 Ti-VCT petrol engine. You get a choice of hatch or estate if you opt for this unit in pokier 105PS guise, but by that point, you'd be up towards the £17,000 list pricing point that really represents the proper starting point of the range. All the main modern era Focus engine choices sit in the £17,000 to £21,000 bracket where most family hatchback segment sales are made. To be honest, buying this car with anything less is a bit like buying an ultra-high def LED TV and then using it to watch VHS videos on.
Cost of Ownership
It's obviously crucial for Ford to get its cost of ownership sums right, hence the changes made to this updated third generation Focus that see improvements of up to 15% in fuel efficiency and a significant reduction in CO2 emissions across the range. This is down to various fuel-saving technologies. Take the Active Grille Shutter system. At a standstill and at start-off, this keeps the grille vent open to cool the engine but when you pick up speed, the vent automatically closes, improving aerodynamics and helping to save fuel. Then there's Smart Regenerative Charging, which only charges the battery when required, and, whenever possible, avoids doing so when you're pressing the accelerator. Plus as you'd expect, on nearly all models an Auto-Start-Stop system is included that cuts the engine when you don't need it, stuck in traffic or waiting at the lights.
As a result of these improvements, the Euro 6-compatible 1.5-litre TDCi engines this improved third generation range showcases are about 10% more frugal than the continuing 1.6-litre TDCi units they effectively replace. To be specific, in both 95 and 120PS guises, a 1.5-litre TDCi Focus will return 74.3mpg on the combined cycle and 98g/km of CO2. All of which means that compared to a 1.6-litre TDCi model, a Focus with this 1.5-litre engine will take you about 7 miles further on every gallon and can reduce emissions by as much as 22g/km. Quite a saving.The bigger 2.0-litre TDCi engine that's traditionally powered pokier diesel Focus models is now also much more efficient too, offering a 15% fuel economy improvement, despite an output increase from 140 to 150PS. That means 70.6mpg on the combined cycle and 105g/km of CO2.
On to petrol power. We'd recommend that you side-step the older 1.6-litre Ti-VCT engines and concentrate on the far more modern 1.0-litre EcoBoost powerplant. This can be tuned to put out as little as 99g/km of CO2 and in the standard model we tried, the combined cycle return was rated at 61.4mpg. The 1.5-litre EcoBoost variant delivers 51.4mpg on the combined cycle and 127g/km of CO2.
'Focus' is the world's best selling global nameplate - with good reason. Has any car had more of an impact on modern era motoring than the Ford Focus? With over 12 million global sales on the board, it's hard to argue the point. What I like most about it is that despite the drive towards better efficiency, improved safety, greater practicality and beefier build quality, it remains, underneath it all, the rewarding steer it's always been - an entertainer at heart.
True, this car is still far from perfect. There are cheaper rivals - and there are certainly more spacious ones. As an overall package though, it remains hard to beat, these days not only a fine thing to drive but, perhaps more importantly, also now a fine thing to ride in. And to own. And to avoid a crash in. In short, if you can afford the asking prices, you'll find that here's a family hatchback that has its priorities right, a car that's grown up, but one that still knows how to enjoy itself.
I wonder just how many owners will ever discover that? Perhaps it doesn't matter. This car after all, no longer depends solely on handling supremacy to justify its position at the top of the sales charts. Smarter and more sensible, it is, more than ever, number one for a reason.