A Class of Two: Ford Focus (2005)
THE DAILY COMMUTE IS SOMETHING ALL OF US DREAD. The endless engine drone of cars around you, the heckling of street vendors—if you think stress at the office is bad, then life on the road is hazardous to your health. On the average, a typical worker commutes around an hour and a half going to and from the office; that equates to 3 hours a day or about 2 days for every month. With those kinds of figures, you’d see the logic as to why every inch of visible Manila skyline is filled with billboards and why car makers load everything into their vehicles to make commuting as comfortable as possible. Now, it’s common to see passenger cars loaded with powered this and electronic that. But, how can you be so sure that these audio-visual gizmos really contribute to a more relaxed driving experience?
Perhaps the most important, and usually the most neglected objective is the designing of a vehicle that’s easy to drive and comfortable from the ground up. A good car feels like a transparent extension of the human body—like a good tennis racket is to Andre Agassi. It’s this feeling that’s often lost in brochure mumbo-jumbo, but has become the center of attention in the new Ford Focus.
Currently, there are two variants available: a 1.8-liter sedan and a 2.0-liter hatchback—both of which are simply in a class of their own when it comes to driving dynamics. Both have similar suspension set-ups, down to the Goodyear NCT 5 205/55 R16V tires. As a result, they have satisfyingly quick and precise steering. The front MacPherson Strut and rear Control Blade Strut allows either Focus to obediently tread the path the driver intended. The new 2.0-liter hatchback is particularly rewarding on the twisty roads to Tagaytay; the speedometer read 120 km/h as the car tackles the the sharp curves—it’s something you’d dare not do in a lesser car.
Given the tightly-glued chassis and responsive steering, you’d think that comfort and smoothness would have taken a step for the worse. Not in the case of the Focus. The ride is extremely smooth and comfortable, with bump absorption better than some mid-sized luxury sedans. It filters all sorts of ruts well without the suspension bottoming out, as with the Honda Civic or even the Ford Lynx. The Euro-tuned suspension reduces the newly installed cat’s eyes along J. Vargas Avenue to a mere thump. Moreover, the steering doesn’t wriggle or kick back as with the case on the Mazda3 2.0, so it’s the better long-distance driving companion.
Comparisons to its chassis-mates, the Mazda3 and Volvo S40 are inevitable, so it’s just about right that the Focus takes on a unique behavior. Whereas the Mazda3 is like a quick, but nervous go-kart; and the Volvo S40 a comfy, but stodgy grand tourer, the Focus is somewhere in-between. The Focus excels in just about anything from blasting the STAR Tollway at illegally fast speeds or puttering to the supermarket or office building on a daily basis.
Speaking of fast speeds, both the 4- and 5-doors are powered by Ford’s European-series Duratec HE engines. Though they’re not aurally satisfying (or powerful) as Honda’s VTEC engines, it pushes the Focus well enough. The 1.8-liter version makes 125 horses, with acceleration that's adequate more than stunning. More importantly in real life though is that the sedan can make short work of the 40-80 km/h overtaking speeds thanks to its well-matched gearing. The 2.0-liter behaves similarly, but with much better off-the-line power, thanks to a 20-horsepower and 20-Nm surplus. The only transmission, a 4-speed automatic, is well tuned to either engine, but improvements could be made to the shift quality (there’s a little shift shock at low speeds) and the sequential shift override (too slow). In addition, though the taller gearing may result in better overtaking capability and high-speed performance, the sacrifices come out at the pump: a dismal 7.79 km/L (combined city/highway) on the sedan and 9.32 km/L (mostly highway) on the hatchback.
On a side note, potential owners should note that the Duratec HE engines take longer to get broken in. Off the assembly line, both engines feel lacking and restrained, but once the odometer hits around 2,000 km, they’ll open up quite nicely. This engine series is designed to be maintenance-free as well, with a self-adjusting timing chain, sealed radiator (with lifetime fluid) and a useful life of 240,000 kilometers.
Wrapped around the class-leading chassis and powertrain is a “pleasing to the eye” shell. At a passing glance, the Focus doesn’t call attention to itself—it’s decisively more conservative, more “Round Edge” than “New Edge”, and as such will tick off the ricer-boy set. The sedan is designed to be more luxurious, more conservative and a bit plain, even with all the chrome embellishments. On the other hand, the hatchback is slightly more edgy and sportier with deletion of the chrome, a sharply raked roofline and a built-in rear spoiler. The design details seem to indicate that the Focus was designed as a hatch from the get-go; the flowing body lines and muscular wheel arches fit the 2.0-liter model better than they do the 1.8-liter. In addition, the 5-door gets the aerodynamic kit as standard, which is a P 30,000 option on the sedan
After Ford nailed the crucial dynamics and comfort equations, they turned their attention to the Focus’s ergonomics and interior trim quality. It’s very Germanic, right down to the texture and smell. Like the exterior metal, the interior’s plain; but the left/right symmetrical design and easy to read layout provides a more mature feel. The sedan is the more welcoming of the duo with a beige/black interior with wood, leather and slivers of matte aluminum. The hatchback is more somber with a monotone black scheme, aluminum inserts replacing the wood and a fat, 3-spoke steering wheel. Both are nicely kitted: 6-disc audio unit with 6 speakers and an aux input in the glove box, a pair of lighted vanity mirrors, power adjustable driver’s seat, remote folding mirrors and a pair of air conditioning vents at the back. The 5-door version gets a power moon roof as well.
While the Focus does well as a driving tool, the biggest drawback has to be the driver's seat. It lacks lateral and bum support and as such, could be a pain even in just 2 hours of city traffic. The hatch has even stiffer seats. The story’s the same at the back, where the upright rake won’t win any favors from the passengers. Equally lacking is a powerful air conditioning system. Though equipped with a fancy dual-zone push-button computer-controlled set-up, things can get a bit sweaty during midday, even if the temperature setting’s already down to 16 degrees (the lowest setting).
As the Focus is one of the most talked about products for this year, we made it a point to survey potential buyers who are ready to switch from their current rides. Most, especially women, didn’t like the lack of a remote switch for the hood, gasoline cap and trunk. They feel as if stepping down to open the hood or fuel filler cap at a petrol station opens them to unnecessary risk of getting mugged (it probably doesn’t happen in Europe). Small kids and vertically challenged adults (to my surprise, my 1.7 m frame is included) found the hatch a challenge to operate given the high opening angle. In this sense, the sedan is more practical. In addition, the sharply raked roofline on the 5-door robs the rear people of some headroom compared to the more-than-ample 4-door—a complete opposite of the Mazda3 4- and 5-door, where the 5-door provided more headroom. Avid golfers also found a problem in the loading bay. Though deep, wide and protrusion-free, they swear the 526-liter trunk can’t even fit one full set of clubs. The hatch packs a lot less space at 385 liters.
At this point, it’s clear that the Ford Focus, whether in sedan or hatchback form, is far from being perfect. And perhaps its very European origins are to blame for this. Although it’s true that this car has single-handedly revolutionized driving dynamics and comfort, those migrating from their Corollas and Civics may find the European quirkiness a bit hard to swallow, especially given the price (P 919,000 for the sedan, P 988,000 for the hatchback). I certainly did. But after a while, you realize that though the Focus doesn’t have the best seats or a remote lever to open the hood, it does have one thing up its sleeve: engineering. For once, here’s a compact car that doesn’t rely on go faster aero parts, tacky wood, and heads-up displays to make you feel good on the road. It has gotten the basic ingredients right, and that makes one of the best in its class.
By Ulysses Ang | Photos By Ulysses Ang and Jason Ang