The Ford Focus has been the go to family hatch for keen drivers for over 20 years, but can the fourth generation uphold family honour?
We don’t envy the job of Ford’s engineers as being asked to improve on one of the UK’s best selling cars is a tough gig. However whilst the Focus has always been excellent to drive there have always been areas of weakness too. The biggest issue has historically been the interior where material quality has lagged behind customer expectation for too long and we suspect this was high on the list of things ‘to sort’.
The good news is that the new interior is much, much better. The basic layout will be familiar to anyone who has graced the latest Fiesta, it is a clean uncluttered look and whilst the floating tablet display screen is divisive we do like the fact that it puts the screen at eye height. Material quality has also taken a leap forward with all the bits that you touch regularly now pleasingly soft and robust feeling.
The downside of this new found maturity is that the days of wacky interior design, as exemplified by the MK1 Focus, are long gone. The Ford is now very corporate and it would be nice to mix some of the design freedom from the first Focus with the material quality of the latest.
The exterior is more successful particularly if you have stumped for an ST-Line X and you’re looking at the front. However things are less rosy by the time you get to the back where the new light treatment leads to a very generic look which could wear half a dozen manufacturers’ badges with ease.
Under the skin there have been a raft of changes with new petrol and diesel engines, best in class aerodynamics, and up to 88 kg weight saving. The wheelbase has been stretched by 53 mm despite the overall length of the car being just 18 mm longer, but luggage space remains a bit tight.
There are two new diesel engines, the 1.5-litre sampled here in 120 PS format (also available with 95 PS) and a 2-litre 150 PS unit. The 1.5 utilises twin lean NOx traps, whilst the bigger engine gets a more sophisticated SCR system.
One area that Ford is very keen to mention is the big step forward in electronic architecture. Ford has been slightly off the pace when it comes to driver modes, driver assistance systems, and infotainment systems, but it has thrown the kitchen sink at the new Focus.
This is where the Focus plays its ace card. Or so you would think. But on this occasion Ford has dropped the ball.
The problems start with the new engine which has old school levels of turbo lag which makes it difficult to make smooth progress in everyday driving and means that more often than not that gap you were about to nip into has gone by the time you get there.
Driven with gusto the turbo lag becomes less of an issue but then you notice that the steering isn’t as communicative as you were expecting and the Focus just isn’t as much fun as it should be. In truth it is still a match for the class average but that says more about the Ford’s fall from grace than the competition catching up.
We sampled the ST-Line X which adds 18-inch wheels which look good but we suspect have a big part to play in the so-so ride quality which reveals a fidgety nature on anything other than billiard table surfaces. We would quite happily accept this if it delivered in the fun stakes, but without that to fall back on the Focus needs to ride better.
When looking for culprits for the lacklustre dynamic performance we can’t help but feel that the new focus on driver assistance has a big part to play. The Lane Keeping System is particularly unsettling not least because when it is active it works above 43 mph and stops working below this speed. Of course this means that on your average A or B road there are times when the system will fight you and times when it won’t which is hugely distracting. You can turn the system off, but we found it wasn’t as intuitive as it should be to deactivate.
Given that every manufacturer has a fixed budget to develop a new car, it feels like Ford has chosen to raid the tin labelled ‘fun to drive and rides properly’ and allocated the cash to the electronic driver assistance team instead, and the Focus has suffered as a driver’s car as a result.
The official NEDC combined fuel economy for the 1.5-litre 120 PS unit is 76.7 mpg, with CO2 emissions of 99 g/km. On the more realistic WLTP cycle the same engine achieves 58.9 mpg. After a week with the Focus we averaged a respectable 51.8 mpg with a best figure of 54.9 mpg and a worst of 47.9 mpg. If you’re paying for your own diesel, the official WLTP fuel consumption figure is attainable.
The 5-door Focus range starts at £18,300 and tops out at £29,650. If you prefer you can also get an Estate or the mildly crossover Active. In addition to the diesel engines the line-up includes the excellent 1-litre three-cylinder petrol unit in either 100 or 125 PS, and the 1.5 litre petrol producing 150 or 182 PS.
The ST Line X sits towards the top of the range, costing £25,000, but our car had also been gorging at the options list buffet. Options included metallic paint (£795), driver assistance pack (£500), convenience pack (£500), heated steering wheel (£150), wireless charging pad (£100), LED headlights (£750), head-up display (£400), keyless entry (£250), BLIS (£400), B&O Play (£350), taking the total for options to a not insignificant £4,195.
The Focus remains a solid family hatch, but after 20 years of delivering genuine fun it is lamentable to report that the Ford is no longer going to nudge you to take the long and winding road at every opportunity.
We hope that as the fourth generation Focus matures the development teams can put some sparkle back, but at launch it feels like the chassis and steering are half baked. There’s a good car in there somewhere but the user experience is spoilt by the over-intrusive driver assistance systems. Based on our reviews of the previous-generation Focus, we’d suggest the new model will be much better to drive with the 125 PS 3-cylinder, 1-litre petrol engine.
The Ford Focus 1.5-litre Diesel ST-Line X 5 Door is awarded a Green Car Guide rating of 7 out of 10.