2008 Ford Focus 1.6 Hatchback
– Excellent handling
– Comfortable ride
– Upscale cabin design
– Scrawny engine
– Average rear legroom
– Crappy cup-holders
As we walked up to the new-for-2008 Ford Focus, it seemed oddly familiar. That’s probably because the “new” model is just a facelift of the old one, which we drove in 2007. Of course, our new tester looked better, more because of the loaded Ghia trim level than for the new headlight design. Our upscale version came with alloy wheels and colour-coded exterior trim that infinitely improved its looks compared to the base model we tested before.
The more remarkable improvements are on the inside. Borrowing cabin design elements from the new Mondeo, the new interior looks amazingly classy for an economy car. High-quality plastics, fancy gauges, soft-touch dash and door-sills, fake wood and metallic-look trim all add to the unmatched ambience. Too bad the rear passengers don’t share the same view, as they get bathed in hard plastics. Even then, this European-built car still makes us wonder why people overpay for crap like the Audi A3.
Our Ghia version came with nicely-stitched leather seats and padded armrests, while space is great all-round for front passengers. Rear passengers have enough headroom, but legroom remains average, as long-legged people might feel a bit cramped. Luggage space out back is shorter than that of a sedan, but can hold much taller items and is easily accessible. A big orange pouch stuck onto the cargo floor contains a fire extinguisher, and can be easily removed. However, storage spaces inside the cabin aren’t nearly as useful as we’d like, limited to some tight door pockets, glove box, a central covered bin and uselessly-shallow cup-holders. There are also some shallow tubs at both edges of the rear seat bench, good only for coins and dog poop.
Our car also came with decent gadgetry, including a good-looking CD/MP3 stereo with reasonable sound quality, and a digital a/c that takes a good while to cool the cabin in the summer even with our dealer-installed tint. We never used the built-in seat heaters of course. Additional features include a CD changer, cruise control, front airbags, power windows, electric mirrors, sunroof and even some sort of Bluetooth phone that we didn’t try out. The secondary buttons for some features were spread all over the place though, with some on the steering wheel, some on a stalk, and some on a big tab behind the wheel.
Our tester came with the 1.6-litre 4-cylinder base engine, carried over from the previous Focus, so we were already expecting lethargic performance. It was rather painful driving around in a 1300 kg car with only 101 hp, egged on by 150 Nm of torque. Mated to a smooth 4-speed automatic with manual-shift capability, we managed an awful 0-to-100 kph time of 13.4 seconds. We got better on-road performance by manually changing gears, even with its slight shift delay. It didn’t help matters that we burned 11.5 litres of petrol per 100 km, or about the same as the turbocharged 140 hp Peugeot 308.
However, as hard as the engine is forced to rev in daily driving, Ford did a good job of muffling the buzz. Highway driving is easy, with good all-round visibility. Wind and road noise are contained a bit better than average, and the ride quality is rather comfortable, even if slightly firmer than the Civic and the Corolla.
The firmness comes from class-leading suspension tuning that offers the best balance between ride and handling in the compact category. Combined with the optional 16-inch alloys wrapped in 205/55 rubber, the Focus simply glues itself to the tarmac when it comes to corners. Its sports-car reflexes are aided by communicative steering and decent pedal feel, as has been a hallmark of the Focus since it first came out. The suspension allows only slight body roll in most cases, but there is always plenty of grip, and it is very hard to induce understeer. About the only front-wheel-drive economy cars that edge out the Focus in handling are the Peugeot 308 and the Mini, both of which suffer from a harsh ride. Too bad the brakes, like the engine, reveal this Ford’s economy-car roots, although stopping power from the front-rear disc-drum setup is no worse than the class average. There is no stability control but frankly, anyone stupid enough to lose control with such an agile car deserves to die.
So the “new” Focus is largely similar on the outside and nicely different on the inside, while retaining its solid handling and comfortable ride. The pesky 1.6-litre engine is also retained, but the newly-available 2.0-litre motor should make things more interesting. Even if not perfectly practical when compared to the Japanese, European cars continue to lead the way when it comes to low-budget entertainment.
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