Image: 2012 Ford Focus
Ford  /  Wieck
Ford’s Focus is the best small car ever sold in the U.S., outclassing Toyota’s Corolla.
By
msnbc.com contributor
updated 8/25/2011 11:31:41 AM ET 2011-08-25T15:31:41
REVIEW

“Why can’t they make a Corolla?”

That is the question President Obama is reported to have asked his economic advisors shortly after his election, when he wondered why the domestic carmakers couldn’t sell a popular small car with the success of Toyota’s long-running model.

Judging from the 2012 Focus, Ford could build a Corolla, but only if the Dearborn company decided to make a much worse car. That’s because the new Focus is the best small car ever sold in the U.S. Today’s Corolla, in contrast, is not only not a great small car, it isn’t even the best Corolla ever sold in the U.S., as corner-cutting has diminished a once-sound practical car.

Since the arrival of “downsized” cars in the 1970s we’ve been promised small cars that have the feel of larger models. The 2012 Focus is the first small car to deliver on that promise. Grab the chunky door handle and it fills your hand with a heft that speaks of substance. Tug it and the door emits a refined click as the latch releases, absent the cheap, tinny drumming that accompanies the opening of every other small car on the market save the Volkswagen Golf.

Slide into the driver’s seat and the door pulls closed with a reassuring Teutonic “whumf,” revealing the effort Ford put into the triple weather seals on each door. The thick, contoured leather steering wheel is nicely weighted and delivers precision and feedback on the road.

The zoomy dashboard styling may ultimately date the Focus as an artifact of 2012, but for now it looks fresh and contemporary. Two control stalks peek out from behind the steering wheel, ending Ford’s marriage to a single overloaded stalk that was a nuisance to use. Now the wiper control is on the right side with its own stalk, as it should be.

And on the issue of controls, check out the power window switches. They are one-touch up and down at all four positions! This is the stuff of luxury cars.

Unlike most of its peers, most of the visible surfaces in the Focus are soft to the touch, lending the car a luxurious feeling unmatched by any of its competitors. At night this impression is reinforced by the indirect accent lighting that is adjustable for color according to the driver’s preference.

Outside, the Focus’s dynamic sheetmetal achieves the oft-touted but seldom-reached feat of looking like it is moving while standing still. This is a particularly challenging task for a vehicle in the mundane five-door hatchback category, so kudos for Ford on this excellent accomplishment.

My favorite example of the effort that went into finishing the details of the Focus’s design is the gas door, which is a triangular panel at the intersection of the right rear fender with the rear taillight, where it disappears visually.

There is no rule that says a gas door must be a circular or square cookie cutter shape punched into the sheetmetal, but Ford is seemingly the first company to have realized this since the days when gas caps were hidden beneath spring-loaded rear license plates. An even better surprise awaits behind the gas door: Ford’s Easy Fuel capless fuel filler. Open the gas door and just stick the gas nozzle in -- there is no cap to remove or replace.

Finished in Race Red (“the brightest red ever,” according to my 16-year-old daughter) and optional polished aluminum 17-inch wheels, the Focus I tested really achieved the often-mocked effort by carmakers to dress up economy cars to look like something more. The Focus doesn’t just look like it belongs in another class, it really does belong there by every measure but size.

Other thoughtful details that are normally overlooked? The hood release latch that you can never find when you want to check the oil? It is bright yellow so it is easy to see in the dark under the front edge of the hood. The Focus has turn signals on the outside mirror housings, making your plans clear to drivers around you. Those same outside mirrors come with small convex mirrors that better show everything on that side of the car. Who needs lane-changing warning gadgets when a better mirror accomplishes the same thing?

The 160-hp four-cylinder engine features direct fuel injection, which boosts power and fuel economy, but which can contribute diesel-like engine clatter. Ford has expertly shielded the offending injector hardware with insulation so the Focus doesn’t sound like a diesel at idle.

The EPA says that with the six-speed automatically shifted transmission in the test car the Focus will return 27 mpg in the city and 37 mpg on the highway. I saw 28 mpg in mixed suburban driving. The rating for the more-fun five-speed manual transmission is a couple mpg lower.

Story: States mull taxing drivers by the mile

So all is perfect in Ford Focus land, right? Well, not quite. The Focus is the best small car ever sold in America, but to date that bar has usually been set pretty low. The Focus is a great car and is sound in both its fundamentals and most of its details. But there are a few glaring problems the company should address to easily make the car even better.

A couple small examples: add a lumbar adjuster to the front seats. Clean up the nasty, sharp-edged seat tracks that intrude into the cramped rear footwells. They interact poorly with bleary-eyed, bare-footed kids en route to morning swim practice. Where’s the interior release for the rear hatch? Why is there only one door unlock button in the middle of the dashboard, where no one looks for the door lock control?

These are the kind of things that make it look like no one is paying attention, when we see clear evidence to the contrary in most of the car’s other details.

But now we get to the two serious stumbling block and sources of Ford's recent J.D. Power quality survey woes. Instead of a conventional automatic transmission, Ford installs a computer-shifted manual transmission that does away with the clutch pedal. This doesn't deliver the same kind of seamlessly smooth driving experience as a traditional automatic transmission, especially with its tendency to roll backward when starting on hills. Ford should offer a real automatic transmission option in the Focus and reposition the current PowerShift as a manual transmission that shifts itself.

Ford engineers were also amuck with regard to the MyFordTouch dashboard controls for the sound system, navigation, and other accessories. People used to forward email jokes about "What if Microsoft made cars?" and now Ford thinks it is a good idea to put Windows in its cars? In the immortal words of John McEnroe, "You cannot be serious!" Seemingly every time I started the Focus the nav screen went blank, displaying the message "Performing scheduled system maintenance."

Thankfully, the solution in both cases is to save money and buy a cheaper model that isn't blighted with the automatic transmission and Windows computer system.

Despite these, ahem, opportunities for improvement, the Focus is a superb small car that is genuinely fun to drive. It has real presence, with the ride and comfort of a bigger car and doesn't embarrass its driver for only being able to afford a compact car. Good thing it isn't only as good as a Corolla.

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