Payne: Ford gets Focused
The Ford Focus must feel like Luke, the third Hemsworth brother,at a New York night club. Attractive, but not as visible as his taller, sexier, mega-celebrity brothers, Chris ("Thor") and Liam ("Hunger Games").
The compact Focus, you may have heard, is having trouble landing dates.
A small sedan in a sport ute world, it has seen sales slump leading to 700 layoffs at its Wayne Assembly plant. Meanwhile big brothers Escape and Fusion are to die for. Escape is the best compact SUV in autodom's hottest segment, with torrid box office sales that even have the blockbuster Honda CR-V looking over its shoulder. The Fusion, meanwhile, is the sultriest midsize sedan on the planet. With its pouty mouth, muscular torso, and fastback it is the family hauler Aston Martin might have built.
But size doesn't always matter. If your taste is for a smaller, cuter, more maneuverable companion, let me introduce you to the new, refreshed 2015 Focus. You'll know it by the facelift.
Already possessing signature "boomerang" taillights and an athletic stance, the base Focus gets the family's "Aston" grille, making it as good looking coming as it is going. I emphasize "base" because Focus's performance hatch, the ST, possessed a fearsome maw that made this pint-sized predator look like a Mako shark feeding on a school of tuna.
Indeed, considering the relentless advance of functional/affordable/attractive utes, I've been of the opinion that hot hatches are the best reason to buy compacts these days. Utes are that good. Small crossovers have the C-segment sedan cornered. Interior room? Check. Cargo flexibility? Check. All-wheel drive? Checkmate.
Only on performance could vehicles like the ST and VW's Golf GTI survive. The ST misses out on my 2015 Car-of-the-Year GTI for one reason: Ferocious torque steer that wants to rip the steering wheel out of your hands on hard acceleration.
Keep a firm grip, however, and the ST's 252 horsepower – 32 more than the GTI – is a trip. Despite the V-dub's more refined FWD engineering, Ford's Tasmanian Devil out-dueled the German Schnauzer at Car & Driver's famed Lightning Lap of VIR raceway.
But with the refreshed, 2015 Focus, the ST is no longer the most interesting Foci variant.
The lineup now possesses some serious engineering that rivals the VW – and should make buyers reconsider the C-sedan segment. Take the extraordinary, turbocharged, 1-liter engine now available in the Focus. King Kong in a can.
I first wrote about this overachieving three-banger in the Ford Fiesta – a briefcase-sized power plant with the fuel economy of a Geo Metro and the kick of Ronaldo. But how would it work in the bigger Focus? Surprisingly well.
The three-holer barely squeaks off the line (the poor thing has less than 1/6th the piston heft of the 6.4-liter dodge Challenger I just reviewed!), but as soon as the turbo kicks in near 3,000 RPM this mouse wants to roar. Freeway merging? No problem. Cruising at 90? Easy. Pick on BMWs out of a stoplight? Whoa, fella, don't get your hopes up.
As in the Fiesta, Ford treats the turbo 1L like an intern ("bring sales, maybe we'll keep ya'") that gets the desk by the coffee machine. It only gets a manual tranny, not the more-coveted 6-speed auto. But with its class-leading 35 mpg (I got 33 mpg around town driving it like a madman), this worker bee should get noticed.
But, Payne, isn't a three-banger as buzzy as a cloud of Lake Michigan mosquitos?
More engineering braggadocio: The Focus is whisper quiet with all three engines. So quiet, in fact, that I wished the snarly ST had its own audio app to pump in more exhaust sound when I really got into the throttle.
The premium, tech-savvy Titanium model that I drove for $26,710 could be mistaken for a luxury car. Its silent interior makes blue-toothed phone conversation a cinch on Ford's SYNC system. Its crisp console gauges are Audi-like, its steering wheel heated, its interior loaded with detail (note the ATM card-slot next to the leather-stitched shifter).
Mrs. Payne marveled at the Titanium's auto high-beam feature which dims when it senses oncoming traffic. Got that on your $45k luxe sedan? Heck, Focus will even park itself.
Handling, fuel economy, cargo utility, build quality. The Focus is in the Golf's league while looking sexier than its more conservative Euro competitor. But is it enough to attract attention from bigger brothers that also boast the family's good looks and high-tech? The Foci small backseat, for example, just can't compete with the taller Escape.
It's tough being a short Hemsworth sibling. But he'll turn a few heads in a Tangerine Scream-painted Focus ST.
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at email@example.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.
Vehicle type: Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact sedan
Price: $17,995 base (As tested: $21,035 1.0L Ecobbost SE; $26,710 2.0L Titanium; $29,475 2.0L Ecoboost ST)
Power plant: 2.0-liter, inline 4-cylinder; 1.0-liter, turbocharged 3-cylinder; 2.0-liter, turbocharged, inline 4-cylinder
Power: 160 horsepower, 146 pound-feet of torque (2.0L 4-cyl); 123 horsepower, 148 pound-feet of torque (1.0L turbo 3-cyl); 252 horsepower, 270 pound-feet of torque (2.0L turbo 4-cyl)
Transmission: Five-speed manual with optional six-speed automatic (2.0L 4-cyl): Six-speed manual (1.0L turbo 3-cyl and 2.0L turbo 4-cyl)
Performance: 0-60 and top speed numbers not yet available
Weight: 2,907 pounds (1.0L turbo 3-cyl); 2,920 pounds (2.0L 4-cyl); 3,223 pounds (ST)
Fuel economy: EPA 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway/35 mpg combined (est. 1.0L turbo 3-cyl)
Highs: Best-in-class styling; Turbo-riffic
Lows: Tight rear quarters; ST torque-steer