The once-radical Focus has slowly drifted into irrelevance. Can Ford recapture the spirit of the original with the new Mk4? By James Dennison
IT'S BEEN 20 years since the launch of the original Ford Focus and we’re pretty much back to square one.
We need the Mk4 to be as outstanding now as the Mki was in 1998, when it proved that not only could family hatchbacks be more than the design equivalent of a cardboard box, but they could also be fun to drive when the road isn’t straight and the back seats are child-free.
Today we find ourselves yearning for a new Focus that will a) not have styling that will get lost in a supermarket car park and b) re-stake its claim to dynamic superiority over the VW Golf.
Because, by accident or design, Ford has spent much of the intervening 20 years making the Focus stand out less. Time for some of that bold thinking, a return to those driver-first priorities, but in the very different context of 2018.
The signs are good, with this Focus using an all-new C2 platform that makes the car lighter and more rigid than the previous version.
Two different types of rear suspension are available - a regular torsion beam set-up on smaller-engined models, and a more advanced multi-link affair on 1.5-litre EcoBoost petrols and 2.0-litre EcoBlue diesels.
Ford’s engineers say the original Focus was part of their thinking when they were creating the new model. While it would be a stretch to say the magic of the Mki has returned, new Focus is deeply impressive to drive - as in best-in-class impressive. We spent most of our time in a multi-link-equipped ST-Line with suspension that sits 10mm lower to the ground, and while it offered the sweetest ride/handling balance, other versions aren’t a million miles away.
The steering is accurate and quick (not Fiesta ST quick, but far sharper than a Golf) and gives the front end an eager, darty feel when you point it towards an apex. Turn in and you’ll be greeted by a modicum of roll, but the chassis quickly settles and keeps the weight balance neutral throughout the corner, allowing you to build a lovely rhythm on a zig-zaggy road.
Granted, feel through the wheel could be better (regardless of which steering weight you’ve chosen via the drive modes). And while enthusiasts waiting for the ST/RS versions may lament the lack of fleet-footed, tail-out hoonery, outright grip is formidable and means the Focus sticks to the road like cayenne pepper to the back of your throat. Entertaining? You bet.
But bringing back the pin-sharp drive of the original Focus is only part of the job for the Mk4 - it needs to be a jack of all trades; the automotive equivalent of a good nanny, if you will. There’s little point in them being great with the kids if they’re a raging kleptomaniac with an hourly rate that would make a Beverly Hills lawyer blush.
So we’re asking a lot. And the new Focus delivers. Good handling doesn’t come at the expense of the ride; the way the Focus handles bumps and ruts is nothing short of sublime. You barely notice as it calmly brushes aside bumps and undulations in the road. Then, when you hit an unseen pothole, you realise that the chassis’ composure and ability to isolate the cabin from the impact is deeply impressive. We found ourselves going faster and faster over speed bumps just to try to unsettle it - and never quite succeeding at legal speeds.
Ford has attempted to double down on the ride comfort by offering what it’s calling Continuously Controlled Damping (CCD) as an optional extra, but we’d steer clear. It adds little to the ride quality (except for making it harsh in Sport mode) yet manages to spoil the body control in fast corners.
The Focus offers five petrol and three diesel variants, and of the engine variants we drove the 1.5-litre three-cylinder EcoBoost pair felt most appropriate - not least because of the standard-fit multi-link suspension. There’s little difference between the i48bhp and i8obhp versions on the road, until you start to explore the limits and get busy with the delightfully slick and accurate six-speed manual gearbox.
Neither version of the three-cylinder motor can quite shake off a lingering feeling of smallengine- big-car lethargy, and as a result fails to deliver the fizz and responses you’d hope for, but the i8obhp unit feels that bit freer and keener to rev, with a touch more pull near the top end. An eight-speed automatic is also available, but often feels like it’s not working in tandem with the engine and lacks the polish of VW’s DSG equivalent.
The refinement gives very little to complain about. Although the three-cylinder engine rumble can feel pronounced at times, that’s primarily a product of just how hushed road- and wind noise are. Only if you maintain autobahn cruising speeds does wind noise start to intrude.
Trim levels go from basic Style to luxurious Vignale via Zetec and Titanium, but it’s the STLine variants that offer the most striking design thanks to bigger 17-inch wheels and wannabe RS body addenda. So far, opinion is split on the new look (it appears out of proportion to these eyes) but at least it’s soliciting strong opinions - unlike the last model.
The interior has also undergone a welcome overhaul, now feeling like an enlarged (and better quality) version of the new Fiesta’s. Materials and buttons have a satisfying feel to them, and while the removal of the manual handbrake - and even the gearlever (replaced by a rotary dial) on automatic models - may stir debate, it gives the centre console a far less cluttered look.
Central to the layout is a 4.2-, 6.5- or 8.0-inch (depending on spec) colour touchscreen running Ford’s Sync3 infotainment system, which still lags behind its V W equivalent.
Other tech includes a head-up display (a first for a Ford sold in Europe), adaptive cruise control (with Stop & Go), a new version of Ford’s Active Park Assist and adaptive front lighting that adjusts the beam to shine around corners.
Ford’s MyKey is another clever (if not original) addition, allowing owners to programme a key for younger drivers - restricting top speed and the maximum volume of the stereo.
Meanwhile, a longer wheelbase means that cabin space is up significantly on the old car. Those in the back will enjoy 50mm more legroom and 60mm more shoulder room than before, while boot space is now up there with the Golf - if not the gargantuan Skoda Octavia.
Regardless of how you measure it, this fourthgen Focus has taken a significant step forward. It’s not quite perfect when viewed as a whole; the existing engines aren’t class-leading, plus a hybrid/all-electric version is yet to come. But in just about every other area the Focus is back to the top of its game. Now roll on the RS...
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FORD FOCUS 1.5ST - LINEX
> Engine: 1497cc 12v turbo 3-cyl, 180bhp @ 6000rpm, 1771b ft @ 1600rpm
> Transmission: 6-speed manual, front-wheel drive
> Performance: 8.3sec 0-62mph, 138mph, 51.4mpg, 124g/km C02
> Weight: 1369kg
> On sale: August 2018
Engines lack sparkle, CCD suspension doesn't deliver
A sparkling and compelling return to form
★ ★ ★ ★