MIS­SION: RE-FO­CUS

Ford’s all-new small car is good enough to win hearts, but can it over­come the bat­tle for minds?

Wheels (Australia) - - Contents -

Ford’s all-new small car is a bel­ter, but will it sell?

‘DY­NAMIC SIG­NA­TURE’ is one of those terms that made me vi­su­alise Dwayne John­son sign­ing his name for a fan while do­ing one-armed push-ups. But no, it turns out to be some­thing pretty much ev­ery car has. It’s just that some dy­namic sig­na­tures are more dis­tinc­tive and de­sir­able than oth­ers. Think of a 911 do­ing its rear-bi­ased squat when gassed hard at the apex, or per­haps a JCW Mini’s darty, ul­tra-ea­ger front end. A dy­namic sig­na­ture be­comes wo­ven into a model-line’s DNA, and even as one it­er­a­tion su­per­sedes an­other, there’s an onus on the devel­op­ment team to re­tain or re­fine it.

Ford’s Fo­cus has al­ways had an iden­ti­fi­able dy­namic sig­na­ture; one that blended slick, pre­cise and su­per­lin­ear steer­ing with calm, sup­ple damp­ing. So the first ques­tion to an­swer is this: does the all-new fourth-gen Fo­cus − the first car to use Ford’s new C2 plat­form, and now pow­ered by a turbo triple − re­tain the road man­ners and driver con­nec­tion the Fo­cus has al­ways em­bod­ied?

There’s a caveat at­tached to that, which we’ll get to, but the broader an­swer ap­pears to be: ab­so­lutely.

But be­fore you even con­sider a test drive of a new Fo­cus when it ar­rives in Novem­ber, you’ll need to have been won over by its exterior design. It’s the work of an Aussie, Jordan Demkiw, who de­signed the exterior of the FG-X Fal­con be­fore ac­cept­ing a se­nior role in Ford’s Ger­man design stu­dio. The new car’s front-end treat­ment riffs heav­ily on the trape­zoidal theme laid down by Mon­deo, while the rear-end, at the risk of be­ing un­char­i­ta­ble, comes off as a bit generic. Strip the badges off the back and it could be any­thing. Much bet­ter are the over­all stance and pro­por­tions.

The 53mm stretch of the wheel­base and more set­back A-pil­lars both con­trib­ute plenty, as do the re­duced over­hangs at each end. It’s also sig­nif­i­cantly roomier in­side (es­pe­cially in the back) with­out any real bloat­ing of the ex­ist­ing car’s exterior di­men­sions. Cru­cially, around 88kg has been cut from the tubby third-gen car’s waist­line, thanks in part to 30 per­cent greater use of boron steel for the con­struc­tion of the pas­sen­ger cell. It also con­trib­utes to the claim that the new car is 20 per­cent tor­sion­ally stiffer.

But it’s un­der the bum where there’s a whiff of some­thing cu­ri­ous go­ing on. While Ford’s new C2 plat­form is en­gi­neered to ac­com­mo­date an in­de­pen­dent rear end, Aus­tralia’s three-strong model line-up (Trend, St-line and Ti­ta­nium) will come with the more ba­sic tor­sion-beam set-up. Wait … that’s with the ex­cep­tion of what will likely be the small­est-sell­ing vari­ant, the St-line wagon (the only model grade of­fered as a wagon) which is fit­ted with its own vari­a­tion of the in­de­pen­dent rear end that pushes the rear strut tow­ers fur­ther out­board to widen the cargo aper­ture and im­prove the load-car­ry­ing ca­pa­bil­ity. We grabbed a short squirt in one of the few IRS cars avail­able at the launch (a not-foroz four-pot diesel) but it’s dif­fi­cult to give a con­clu­sive assess­ment of how Aussie-spec St-line wag­ons, with the lighter turbo-triple up front, will ac­tu­ally drive. What we can say is that there didn’t seem to be a re­ally marked dif­fer­ence be­tween the two rear-sus­pen­sion lay­outs, at least not on mostly smooth, fast French roads.

What won’t change is the steer­ing, which is a mas­ter­ful blend of nu­anced tac­til­ity, with per­fect weight­ing over­lay­ing a slick, ul­tra-con­sis­tent ac­tion. “We ap­proached the [devel­op­ment of the] steer­ing set-up with an al­most ob­ses­sive at­ten­tion to feel and driver con­nec­tion,” says driv­ing dy­nam­ics leader Guy Mathot. It shows. It’s quick at 2.6 turns, but the off-cen­tre re­sponse is mil­lime­tre per­fect, never ner­vous, and the weight­ing in­creases to­tally nat­u­rally as lock is wound on and the lat­eral load builds. So a con­tin­u­a­tion of the class-best steer­ing of the old car? Al­most cer­tainly. I can’t think of an­other hatch in this seg­ment that can top it.

Like­wise the over­all bal­ance and com­pli­ance of the chas­sis. And grip. What this car man­ages to ex­tract from its 215/50R17 Con­ti­nen­tal Sport­con­tac­t5s on the St-line set-up (rid­ing 10mm lower than Trend and

Ti­ta­nium) is prop­erly im­pres­sive, prov­ing that ge­om­e­try and chas­sis tun­ing is ev­ery bit as im­por­tant as the size of the foot­print. You’ll only un­cover mild un­der­steer if you re­ally over­drive it; re­spect the clearly tele­graphed lim­its and en­joy the sub­tle in­ter­play of the throt­tle and the Fo­cus de­liv­ers a lovely, sat­is­fy­ing en­gage­ment from the rear end.

Mathot tells us there’s no pas­sive rear-steer ac­tion go­ing on with ei­ther sus­pen­sion lay­out, but the set-up is so good it al­most sug­gests oth­er­wise. We talk about a fluid qual­ity to a car’s han­dling; the Fo­cus, on ad­mit­tedly flat­ter­ing roads, feels borderline hy­gro­scopic.

The pow­er­train, mean­while, keeps up its end of the deal. I’ll hap­pily ad­mit to having open af­fec­tion for a good triple, and Ford’s new 1.5 turbo in high-out­put guise (134kw/240nm) is right up there with the VW unit (of­fered in Golf in other mar­kets) for smooth­ness and over­all re­fine­ment, and may pip it for parp­ing, ea­ger char­ac­ter. It’s never what you’d call su­per fruity in terms of sound­track − in the St-line, es­pe­cially, it could ben­e­fit from a switch­able ex­haust for more cheeky bur­ble and pop, and sure, if con­di­tions al­low you to re­ally rag it you may wish for a bit more grunt − but what is there is to­tally tractable and ex­ploitable. There’s hardly any lag, a nicely plump mid-range, and a top-end that, es­pe­cially when teamed with the six-speed man­ual, doesn’t tail off as abruptly as many turbo fours.

The eight-speed auto, mean­while, cements a spot as the best trans­mis­sion in this class, and will hope­fully defuse any lin­ger­ing nega­tiv­ity in the wake of the dual-clutch Pow­ershift de­ba­cle and the sting­ing A$10m slap-down Ford copped from the ACCC ear­lier this year. The eight­speeder’s cal­i­bra­tion, in ei­ther nor­mal or sport mode, is nicely in tune with those re­spec­tive driv­ing styles, and the tall eighth con­trib­utes to the fru­gal con­sump­tion, which ran at around mid-8s on our drive. Even the base Trend comes with pad­dles if you pre­fer to take man­ual con­trol, but will auto up-shift at the 6500rpm red­line if you choose not to. Only the oc­ca­sional mild jolt on rapid down­shifts mars an oth­er­wise but­tery smooth­ness.

I’m not that keen on the ro­tary gear se­lec­tor in Ti­ta­nium spec − it comes off as a bit of a pseu­do­premium af­fec­ta­tion − but oth­er­wise the in­te­rior has ben­e­fited from a ma­jor but­ton declutter, and over­all er­gonomics and gen­eral user-friend­li­ness are hard to fault. Like­wise the equip­ment lev­els: all mod­els get im­proved AEB which can de­tect pedes­tri­ans and cy­clists at night, along with lane-de­par­ture warn­ing and lane­keep as­sist. The tech and safety hits its peak, nat­u­rally, in Ti­ta­nium spec with the ad­di­tion of blind-spot warn­ing, cross-traf­fic alert and adap­tive cruise that can take care of speeds from 0-200km/h. The ad­di­tion of a 650-watt B&O Play au­dio sys­tem, in­clud­ing sub­woofer, shows how se­ri­ous Ford is at match­ing the in­te­rior level of top-spec Mazda 3 and Golf.

Yet the Fo­cus doesn’t quite reach those highs. There are still too many hard sur­faces, fake plas­tic ‘stitch­ing’ on door trims and missed op­por­tu­ni­ties in­side to se­ri­ously com­pare the Ford’s in­te­rior with that of the VW bench­mark. The dash, es­pe­cially, stands to look very Fisher Price when the next Golf up­date ush­ers in a full TFT dis­play.

But that’s a mild dis­ap­point­ment in the broader con­text of the dy­namic good­ness on of­fer. We want to drive a tor­sion-beam car on Aussie roads be­fore we fully clutch the Fo­cus to our hearts, but right now, gut feel says this car has what it needs to atone for the short­falls of its trou­ble­some fore­bear.

LEFT: FOLD THE REARS DOWN AND THERE’S 1.7M OF LENGTH AND 1650 LITRES OF CARGO SPACE. FAR RIGHT: TURBO TRIPLE IS SMOOTH AND EA­GER; DE­LIV­ERS EX­TRA CHARM WHEN MATED TO THE SLICK-SHIFT­ING SIX-SPEED MAN­UAL

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