When the Ford Focus first emerged in 1998, it blew everything else away to become the best hatchback on the road. But, despite a facelift now and again, the car didn't change much for nearly 13 years. Time and rival cars were really catching up with the old girl.
This year marks the start of a fight-back, however. The latest Focus has been revamped, with a new chassis, trick suspension, updated looks and a slew of 21st century technology -- all of which, Ford hopes, will help it regain its position as the finest family car in the world.
Previously, we tested the Focus Titanium with a 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol engine. The car tested here is the five-door Focus Titanium with a 140PS (138bhp), 2-litre TDCi diesel engine and six-speed manual gearbox. It retails for £20,745.
Substance before style
Ford has stuck largely to the original car's roots, so, at a glance, it's instantly recognisable as a Focus. Look longer, though, and you'll detect plenty of new and noteworthy differences between this model and its predecessors.
The 2011 edition has new front and rear lights, new bumpers, and lashings of what Ford refers to as 'kinetic design'. Essentially, this means the smooth surfaces of the previous car have been carved up, with more edges and fussy details added, making for a very busy appearance that almost appears over-designed.
That said, our only real design real gripe is a practical one. The car's boot opens far too high, so anyone shorter than 5' 5" will need a ladder to reach up and close it again. If you spot any 2011 Ford Focuses driving around with the boot open, this is why.
Brake it down
The new Focus may not look too different to the previous car on the surface, but it couldn't be more different underneath. Ford's installed a host of active safety gadgets designed to keep the car's occupants safe and make the driver's life far easier. The most impressive of these technologies can be found in the optional £750 driver assistance pack.
The pack includes Ford's 'active city stop' technology, which can automatically apply the brakes to prevent low-speed accidents. A forward-facing Lidar scanner mounted just ahead of the rear-view mirror scans the road for obstacles. Should the driver fail to brake as the car approaches something stationary, perhaps because they're admiring a hot stranger at a bus stop, the system applies the brakes fully to bring the vehicle to a safe stop.
If travelling at less than 10mph, the active city stop feature will stop the car before you hit an object. If you're travelling any faster, you're likely to crash, but the system will still activate the brakes before impact to reduce the severity of the accident and the amount of damage caused to the vehicle and its occupants.
See no evil
Not only can the new Focus see static objects, it can also read road signs on your behalf. The driver assistance pack includes a traffic-sign recognition system that uses a camera adjacent to the Lidar sensor to monitor the road ahead for signs. If it spots a speed limit or 'no overtaking' sign, an appropriate icon is shown on an LCD display in the instrument binnacle, between the speedometer and rev counter. The system worked flawlessly in our tests, although we've yet to see how effective it is in the dark.
It's a feature that sounds completely unnecessary, particularly for those that are blessed with the gift of eyesight. But users should find it handy when driving on unfamiliar stretches of road and, since the system also tells you when you've left low-speed zones, it's a great reminder of when you're allowed to nail the throttle again.
Currently, the system only recognises the two aforementioned road signs, but Ford says it's working on adding more signs to its database.
The Focus' most impressive party piece is its ability to steer by itself. The same camera that keeps an eye on road signs also watches the road ahead for lane markings. If the car detects you're veering off course -- that is, if you're not indicating, not actively turning the steering wheel towards the direction you're driving in, and you're bouncing over lane markings -- it physically turns the steering wheel or applies the brakes on one side of the car to pull you back towards the centre of the lane.
Seeing and feeling the car steer itself away from potential danger is bizarre to say the least, but the system works incredibly well. When used in conjunction with the Focus' adaptive cruise control, which maintains a preset speed and distance from the vehicle in front, the car can effectively drive completely by itself.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the lane-keeping aid won't work unless you're doing more than 38mph and your hands are on the wheel. That's a decision Ford has taken to discourage people from kicking back and reading a newspaper while the Focus gets on with the driving.
Parallel parking universe
Another impressive weapon in the Focus' tech arsenal is its 'active park assist' technology, which basically lets you parallel park automatically. Hit the APA button on the centre console as you approach a parking space, and sensors measure the length and type of space you're trying to get into. Once the space is detected, the display on the dashboard instructs the driver to check their surroundings, engage reverse gear and operate the pedals as normal. The steering wheel, meanwhile, is operated automatically by the car's onboard computers.
We found the system slightly temperamental. It required several attempts to detect a space but, when it did, the accuracy with which it parked was hugely impressive. It's far more effective, we think, than the automatic parallel-parking system in the Toyota Prius.
Fright of the navigator
Sadly, Ford won't be fitting this car with the excellent Sync entertainment system, seen in the 2012 Focus ST, for another year. In the meantime, drivers of this Focus will have to control the car's guidance and entertainment systems using what seems like half a million buttons located on the steering wheel and centre console.
For an extra £1,000, the company will fit the car with a Sony-developed audio system, which includes a DAB radio, in-dash CD player, iPod dock, USB and aux connectivity and some decent, if not particularly mind-blowing, speakers.
This suite also includes a fairly decent sat-nav system that, for the most part, recognises full seven-digit postcodes. Sadly, it's not without its flaws. The 4-inch display is ridiculously small by today's standards, and entering destinations can be a pain.
We also found the sat-nav forced us to cycle through rarely used special characters before we got to the alphanumeric characters that are actually used in postcodes, which was hugely frustrating. Unless you're a massive fan of DAB radio, we'd suggest you avoid this option, save yourself £1,000 and buy a far superior TomTom Go Live 1000.
Ford has worked hard on the Focus' safety and entertainment features, but it's worked just as hard at ensuring the car is a blast to drive. This model has a new body structure which is 15 per cent stiffer than that of the previous car. It also packs an updated multi-link rear-suspension system, dubbed 'control blade', and an all-new electric power-assisted steering system designed to enable more precise steering.
Combined, these tweaks help to deliver a brilliant driving experience. The Focus' driving position is spot on, its seats are comfortable, it's refined and quiet at speed, and it's no slouch. The 140PS, 2-litre TDCi engine and six-speed manual gearbox in our test car helped it sprint from 0-62mph in a respectable 8.9 seconds. Ford claims it will reach a top speed of 129mph.
When cornering, this car grips like a terrified baby koala would its mother -- even at high speeds and even in the wet. Most cars of this ilk will understeer when cornering in damp conditions, skidding straight on instead of turning in, but not the Focus. It stays stuck to the tarmac like it's on rails, and changes direction with extraordinary poise.
Petrol or diesel?
With a 2-litre TDCi diesel engine and six-speed manual gearbox, our test car returns 56.5mpg on the combined cycle and emits 129g of CO2 per kilometre. Ford also offers a PowerShift automatic gearbox, but this adds around 10g of CO2 per kilometre, moving the car from road-tax bracket D to the more expensive E. It also reduces fuel economy by 3mpg, so steer clear of the auto box unless you really can't stand manually changing gears.
Those considering the Focus with the 150PS (148bhp), 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol engine should note that engine emits 10g/km more CO2 than this 140PS diesel model, placing it in road-tax bracket E, but the petrol car is arguably better for the environment due to the fact it spews significantly less NOx and SOx emissions.
In addition, the EcoBoost petrol engine delivers slightly more power and is £1,000 cheaper. Although its fuel-economy figure is just 47.1mpg -- 9.4mpg less than the diesel model -- petrol is currently cheaper than diesel, so you should save money with the EcoBoost engine if you drive a low or average number of miles per year.
The Ford Focus Titanium TDCi might not be particularly exotic, but it punches far above its weight, easily outclassing the majority of its rivals. It has excellent road manners, handles superbly, and offers a wealth of technology that entertains, informs and could save lives.
Edited by Charles Kloet