GRR

First Drive: 2018 Ford Focus

28th June 2018
Andrew English

Supercars may come and go, but the replacement of Britain's favourite family car is big news indeed. In the 20 years since it was first launched as the revolutionary Escort replacement, Focus has sold more than 16 million round the world, two million of them in Britain where it has never been out of the top-five best sellers list; even the Pope has owned a Focus. And its importance spreads further than the sizeable pool of motorists who have driven an example over the years, since as it sells in such numbers, Focus is, well, the scenery for most of us.

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It's hard to overstate the revolution that the original Focus represented, not just in the way it drove and attention to detail in its engineering, but for the change it marked at Ford. Fed up with years of being under the thumb of the accountants and marketers and forced to make under-performing cars like the woeful Mark V Escort, the blue oval's engineers cried: "never again".

Lead by Richard Parry-Jones a mercurial product development chief and backed by Ford CEO Jac Nasser, Focus was developed under a new hot-house approach to design and engineering. And this extraordinary hatchback bought steering precision, progressive body control and supple ride quality to a public who had previous been thought indifferent to such qualities. "Surprise and delight features," Ford called them and while Focus made lower profits initially, two decades on, it's more than paid Ford back.

So now we get the fourth version, although no one at Ford seems sure whether it's actually the fourth, fifth or maybe the sixth version. Unusually it's an all-new car with 'just a handful of bolts and screws carried over," according to Simon Palmer, chief powertrain engineer. It's about the same size (18mm longer, with a 53mm longer wheelbase) and more handsome than the outgoing car, but a bit derivative and sadly for those who will gaze upon it in their drives, bland. It's also 50kg lighter, 10 per cent more economical and cheaper. Prices run from £17,930 to £29,240, it's on sale now and the first deliveries are in September.

It comes as a five-door hatchback and an estate, with trim levels that include Vignale luxury, Active crossover and ST-Line road burner, as well as the more traditional Style, Zetec and Titanium levels. Ford says it has cut the number of derivatives by 92 per cent, but there are still bewildering numbers of models available with even more body styles and a full ST version in the pipeline.

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Up to now Focus has pioneered the use of an all-independent 'control-blade' rear suspension coupled with MacPherson-strut front. For this new car, it has copied rivals (including Volkswagen), and split the range as far as rear suspension is concerned, with lower-powered models getting a technically inferior twist-beam system derived from the Fiesta ST, which costs less and saves space and about 10kg. From the 1.5-litre petrol and 2.0-litre diesel models upward, plus all Active, Vignale and estate models, an independent rear set up is used and there's also an optional variable damper system.

The engines (1.0- and 1.5-litre, three-cylinder petrol, 1.5- and 2.0-litre diesel) are updated for emissions and fuel consumption, and there's automatic stop start and cylinder deactivation so the petrol three-cylinder runs as a two cylinder on part loads, which saves about five per cent in fuel economy. There's also a 48-volt mild hybrid to come and the platform will also accept full hybridisation including a plug-in system.

The longer wheelbase has freed up more cabin space and there's head and leg room to spare, with enough space for three adults across the rear bench. The driving position is accommodating of virtually every extreme of driver size, the seats are comfortable and the steering adjustment is generous. The boot is a reasonable if not class leading 375 litres and the rear seats fold flat. The estate version has a huge 1,653 litre load space with the rear seats folded, the tonneau cover cleverly stores under the floor, with the seats folding almost flat - they've put some thought in here.

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There's much improved connectivity (this is the first Ford with a built-in modem) and there's even an optional head-up display and optional adaptive cruise control, with an excellent lane keeping/centring system, together with autonomous braking and crash evasion steering to help avoid head-on smashes, which are one of the major causes of road fatalities. The facia is much improved, with a simpler and classier look, though it still follows industry practice in having what looks like a crash-landed iPad in the middle of the dashboard. It seems well made and the materials are nice to look and touch, but that quality falls off as your hands travel downwards. Ford has removed half the buttons of the old model, but key features still have a button so you aren't distracted scrolling through the centre touch screen to alter the air conditioning for example.

I drove the Titanium-spec, 1.0-litre, 118bhp turbo petrol on a twist-beam rear suspension first and it seemed a bit disappointing. At 1.32 tonnes it's a lot of weight for this type of suspension and the steering while accurate feels over assisted and numb, with a rubbery feel as you turn into the corners. The high-speed wind noise is muted and it feels highly refined, but the suspension is noisy and feeds road noise into the cabin. It doesn't ride too badly and the side to side movement is well damped, but it doesn't breathe over bumps in the manner of the outgoing car. This Focus simply doesn't feel as fluent and agile as the old car. And while you can drive it fast and it inspires confidence through corners, it's a bit of blunt-edged tool. 

The one-litre engine is a pleasant thing, though; like the mouse that roared it revs manfully, the turbo picks up the pace beyond 2,000rpm and it doesn't warble (or chirp) too alarmingly. In fact for most of the time you'd not notice that it's only got three cylinders, although it lacks low-down pulling power and the gearbox, which has a slightly heavy if precise change, doesn't help spin the car along, particularly with the long gap between second and third gears.

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Within 50 metres in the 150bhp turbo petrol ST-Line car, with independent rear (and another 47kg) it was clear this was a different and much more enjoyable machine to drive. The suspension soaks up the bumps but breathes better, feeling less flustered and providing an impression of all-round agility and fluency which moves the Focus into new areas of competence and most definitely to the top of its class. And the engine is remarkable, with gutsy performance, although the fuel consumption suffers if you use it; we only achieved 25.2mpg. The full 179bhp-spec unit from the Fiesta ST is even more fun and while the gear change quality still feels slightly too heavy, the ratio spread is better. A note, too about the brakes, all round discs, which are an object lesson in progression and power.

The 1.5-litre turbo diesel is much more economical, but you pay the price in noise and vibration which is afflicting all oil burners as they are tuned to meet new and more stringent emissions regulations. We achieved an average 42mpg, but it wasn't much fun to drive. As for the Vignale luxury trim, while the seats are nice, there are other parts of it (fake plastic stitching on the doors), which scream 'never do this again'; Ford's accountants are never too far away... 

It's unfair to pick out Ford for de-speccing its family hatchback when so many others have gone down that route, but Focus offered its buyers intangible qualities of ride and handling that they came to appreciate. Perhaps the market is too competitive not to monetarise stuff they previously gave away free, though it's interesting that the most popular model is likely to be ST-Line with its titivated handling, which replaces the high-spec Titanium which previously attracted most orders. Perhaps we do appreciate the qualities that Focus taught us to like, even if we've got to pay for them nowadays. As it is, the twist beam car is near the front of the middle of the pack, competent but unexceptional; the independently-sprung car is back at the top as the most fun, rewarding family hatch you could own. Make of that what your wallet allows you to.

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