The all-new Ford Focus offers one of the best drives in its class

It has all the bases covered
by TopGear.com | Jun 30, 2018
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What is it?

The Focus matters here at Planet Top Gear, because over the years it has been a consistently good drive, as well as throwing up some of our fave hot hatches, under the ST and RS badges.

But the outgoing car wasn't one of the greatest-hit Focuses—a result of it being designed for a global audience that included the US.

Cause for optimism: It's an all-new car engineered to be stiffer for dynamics, safer than ever in a crash, and yet lighter than the old—a reasonable 1,325kg for the three-cylinder manual.

Its profile is sleeker than before, thanks to a longer hood with more rear-set screen pillars, and also to a longer wheelbase. And we think the sheetmetal is rather pretty.

Inside, displays take the form of a tablet for most of the infotainment heavy-lifting, but conventional dials ahead of the driver, and none the worse for that. Also, a flip-up head-up display shows speed, navigation arrows and info on the driver-assist systems.

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Given that folk are getting wary of diesel, the 1.0-liter Ecoboost will sweep up most sales. It's the heavily revised version from the Fiesta, and comes in 100hp and 125hp. Oh yes there's an 85bhp version in the base-trim, but don't punish yourself eh?

The bigger gasoline engine, a 1.5-liter, is now also a triple-cylinder, almost the same as the new Fiesta ST. It has 150hp or 182hp. For economy in light use, the three-cylinder engines can close down one of their cylinders.

The 1.5 diesel is all-new and itself full of clever fuel-saving engineering. Power is up to 120hp, and then there’s a revised 2.0-liter diesel making 150hp.

The auto versions are a conventional eight-speeder, not the old twin-clutch job. They operate via a Jag-style rotary controller to save console space.

There seem to be nearly as many suspensions as there are engines. At the front it's similar principles as before but all-new parts, with a wider track. Three completely different rear suspensions now turn up according to model.

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The hatches with the lowest power now have a torsion-beam setup. Sounds like a retrograde step given it's the first time we've had one of those on a midsize Ford since the Escort. But a hopeful sign: It's related to the setup in the new Fiesta ST. It uses banana-shaped springs that push the outer rear wheel outwards as the car rolls in a corner, keeping the trailing arm pointing straight and the wheel better aligned.

Meanwhile, more powerful hatches get a short-and-long arm setup (as the original Focus pioneered). Its advantages are ride quietness and steering precision. Finally, wagons get a layout of SLA system with the dampers laid near-horizontally, to improve boot space. Top models get the option of adaptive dampers too, for the first time in a mainstream Focus.

Right now a semi-crossover, in the form of a jacked-up Active version is ready for sale. It's quite possible that some time after launch there will be 4WD versions.

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What is it like on the road?

The 125bhp three-cylinder is a game little engine, not too laggy even below 2,500rpm, and happy-sounding as it revs to 6,500. So you've got a lot of flexibility, even though its best work is in the 3,500-5,500 range. It's smooth and quiet too.

That's bolted to a six-speed manual transmission that has a bit of stickiness in its shift, and a rather big gap between second and third. But the clutch and throttle are smooth to use, so it doesn't get on your nerves.

Cornering is also an entirely sanitary affair. The steering has well-mapped answers to the movement of your hands, and the car steers through any bend with superb reassurance. It simply follows the front wheels, all the way up to the limit.

But it's a little on the dull side. It doesn't really leap ahead of the best rivals. This frankly is not what we want from a Ford.

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Well there's an answer. The 1.0 gasoline and 1.6 diesel engines get this torsion beam suspension. The 1.5 gasoline and 2.0 diesel have the short and long arm suspension. Get into one with that system and you'll know the difference the first time you turn the wheel a quarter-turn.

The steering's weight and gearing and progression haven't changed. But there's now an immediacy and precision, a sense of connection that wasn't there in the torsion setup. Push this Focus, especially the one we tested with the lowered ST-line suspension, and you can sense its efforts and feel the road. The chief engineer told us much of the improvement is due to the ST-Line suspension tuning, not just the SLA suspension.

The ST-Line's extra firmness doesn't harm the ride. Both suspensions ride tautly, but are brilliant at easing away any sharp edges. The damping too, is terrific, allowing the wheels to breathe over small bumps but keeping the body in check over big crests and dips. We can't see why you'd need to splash out on adaptive damping. There's more chassis noise from the torsion-beam setup.

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The 1.5, by the way, is a really sweet engine. We tried the 182hp version, which has slightly less power than when it's in the Fiesta ST and is quieter with it, but still has the same engaging and sparky nature. Because it's also just three cylinders, it doesn’t make the car feel nose-heavy.

The 1.5 diesel—we tried the 120hp—is a decent enough example of a modern diesel engine, delivering the goods over a comparatively broad spectrum of revs. It makes a drumming rather than a rattling sound, but the noise never really goes away, and there's an annoying resonance at about 2,800rpm.

Sink onto a highway and the Focus relaxes, the strongly self-centering steering keeping you in line. Might as well turn on the lane assist too, and it’ll smoothly nudge you away from any white-line whoopsies. The standard emergency auto-braking system is coupled with 'evasive steering assist' as well.

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At the top of the Focus's assistance tree, the lane-assist system will actually aim to hold the center of the lane and the radar cruise system that operates from stop-go traffic up to highway speed. It’s as effective as the system on Volvos and Mercedes.

Active masking for the LED headlights is also available, which don’t only blank the area around oncoming traffic so's not to dazzle, but also use navigation info to aim around upcoming bends and roundabouts.

Layout, finish and space

The dash itself, made in a broadly smiling sweep, has been moved forward, to make things feel roomier. Not so far that you can't reach the touchscreen, mind, which is mounted high up. The significant pieces of its architecture are molded from soft-touch plastic. The door bins are carpet-lined too, to quench rattles, but the actual door-shutting grab handles are a bit hard and scratchy.

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Because there are now so many electronic systems, Ford has shifted toward touchscreen-and-menu interfaces. But good old switches haven't been consigned entirely to history. It’s all sensibly laid out and executed with an eye for quality.

The Ford Sync operating system's graphics are clean enough, but its main advantage is that its menus just feel more intuitive than ones before. The screen goes up to eight inches.

The front seats are a little flat in the cushion, and don't have lumbar adjust, but in other ways the driving position is fine.

The longer wheelbase means more room in the back. It's close to class-leading here. Plus, the new shape of the side glass gives the outer-rear passengers a better view out. And a new center-console shape and flatter rear floor both give the person sat between them more foot space.

Final thoughts and pick of the range

This Focus, if you get the better rear suspension, is the sweetest drive in the mainstream hatch class. The driving appeal comes from a balance of sweet engines, fine steering, great cornering and well-tuned ride.

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But success in a hatch isn't just about the drive. The Focus has the rest of the bases well-covered too.

NOTE: This article first appeared on TopGear.com. Minor edits have been made.

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