Santa Monica, California – It’s hard to believe that just a couple of years ago all of us were crazy about 40 mpg. Now that gasoline prices have drifted downward so dramatically, the media frenzy about the 2012 Ford Focus reaching 40 mpg on the EPA highway test seems like it happened back when flip phones were cool.
For style, think small
The 2015 Ford Focus was looking pretty good as we walked out to it on Ocean Avenue atop the big bluff in Santa Monica that overlooks the Pacific. The Focus always has looked great, and the addition of the corporate Ford grille to this car has made it look even longer, lower, and wider, even if it comes at the price of a slightly higher hood line. Optional LED lights also are part of the program. Whether in sedan or five-door hatchback form, we think the crisply drawn Focus sets the standard for style in its class.
The irony is nearly every car in the compact class has far more style than you’ll find further up the automotive evolutionary scale. In comparison, midsize sedans look like orthopedic shoes. The 2015 Focus makes the kind of statement that can give an identity not only to the car but also to its driver. It’s even more impressive that such style still manages to provide 90.7 cubic feet of passenger volume.
Road rage, only the quiet kind
Of course, our sense of well-being lasted only as long as it took us to get motoring on Pacific Coast Highway, where we were immediately engulfed in the usual Los Angeles traffic jam. Generally this is something to be avoided in a small car, yet we were able to achieve a kind of emotional equilibrium, as if we had recently spent some time in a Malibu spa.
First of all, the 2015 Focus is newly quiet. A strategic use of a little acoustic insulation in the wheelwells and elsewhere makes a big difference, as does the simple expedient of adding thicker glass for the front windows. Now the 160-hp, 2.0-liter DOHC inline-four sounds almost turbinelike even when you zip the revs up to the redline.
And thanks to the quieter interior environment, you can extract maximum goodness from all the entertainment options incorporated into the 2015 Focus’ newly revised center console. It incorporates all the electronics to get the most from Ford Sync’s voice-activated audio entertainment and Bluetooth telephone, only now there are more buttons to simplify the process. (Ford Sync is standard, and MyFord Touch is optional.) Moreover, there’s a 4.2-inch video information screen with a rearview back-up camera as standard equipment. Just like all of us, Ford has learned that tiny electronic switches might look cute, but they act dumb when you have to use them a lot.
Maybe the most important mental health upgrade to the 2015 Focus is the recalibrated six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The mechanical efficiency of this Getrag-built automatic has been a key contributor to the ability of the Focus to reach 40 mpg, but its unpredictable clutch engagement and frequent cycling of gear ratios could make you crazy. New clutch material and some electronic reprogramming have made this transmission now behave more like a conventional automatic in stop-and-go traffic, and its more refined action makes the 2015 Focus much nicer to drive.
It’s European, you know
We could spend some time telling you about the way the Focus behaves on the interstate, but let’s agree that it’s pretty darn nice thanks to its long 104.3-inch wheelbase. Plus the experience gets dramatically better if you content yourself with the 55-series tires of the 16-inch wheels or the 50-series tires of the 17-inch wheels. But because the Focus has been bred for European driving, we just took a Focus Titanium hatchback with its wide 40-series tires on 18-inch wheels up to the hills above Malibu. And on Stunt Road just off Mulholland Highway, we simply had fun.
The Focus is dead easy to drive quickly because everything important happens through the front tires. You just concentrate on where you’re going and simply let the back of the car catch up. Some electronic reprogramming adds welcome on-center feel to the electric-assist steering, and additional structural reinforcement in the rack-and-pinion steering itself and the front strut-type suspension deliver crisper response. The result is steering action that feels cleaner and more predictable. A newly permissive stability-control system also enhances this car’s Euro-style personality.
This 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine manages to put on a pretty good show, and it makes 160 hp at 6,500 rpm. This might not seem like a particularly impressive amount of power, but the engine’s 146 lb-ft of torque seems sufficient for this 2,948-pound car thanks to variable valve timing on both cams for a broader powerband and fairly quick ratios swaps by the transmission. And, really, we just like this engine. Its power peak arrives high enough in the rpm range to let you have some fun getting there. In comparison, an engine that signs off at a power peak of 4,500 rpm is no fun, we think.
That whole 40-mpg thing
As before, there’s some trickery at work when you go looking for a 40-mpg Focus. For example, this 2015 Ford Focus Titanium with its 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and six-speed automatic is rated at 26 mpg city/38 mpg highway. If you’re looking for a 40-mpg Focus, you’ll be choosing a Focus with the turbocharged, 1.0-liter three-cylinder EcoBoost engine and its six-speed manual transmission, which is rated at 29/40 mpg city/highway in the Focus SE and 30/42 mpg city/highway in the Focus SFE. Then again, if you live in a state with PZEV regulations, you can get a Focus Flex Fuel model with a 2.0-liter engine and six-speed automatic that is rated at 40 mpg. (Whew.)
Besides 40 mpg, the turbocharged three-cylinder engine gives you 123 hp at 6,350 rpm and 148 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. We love this engine’s eager yet smooth ability to seek its power peak. Of course, you’ll have to use a six-speed manual transmission to do it because Ford still can’t find a way to package this engine with the six-speed dual-clutch automatic. This is fine for you and us, but the kid up the street who can’t use a manual transmission won’t be happy, nor will he be pleased to hear that the turbo-three costs more money, not less. Perhaps this is part of the reason why the EcoBoost 1.0 accounts for less than 5 percent of the Ford Fiesta’s current model mix in the U.S.
During the coming year, Ford is trying to do something about this, as its nationwide tour of driving events for potential customers will include training exercises to teach people to drive with a manual transmission. If Ford succeeds, driving enthusiasts will win because there will be more people who believe there’s a place in the future for the manual transmission.
The same thing, only better
For reasons that kind of escape us, the Ford Focus is a lot more popular with people who drive cars than with people who just talk about cars. It might be that the Focus specifications just aren’t that impressive, notably the horsepower ratings, rear drum brakes on some models, and the whole 40-mpg complication. Probably the temper tantrums from some consumers that accompanied the introduction of MyFord Touch didn’t help, either.
But for us, the Ford Focus is still the right kind of small car for nearly everybody. The 2015 Focus looks great, drives with improved refinement, offers a new array of active safety features (including blind-spot warning, lane-keeping assistance, and rear cross-traffic alert), and delivers a nicer cabin experience complete with more cupholders. A new optional feature will even parallel park the Focus for you.
When Ford and CEO Alan Mulally bet everything on the reinvention of the company as a small-car specialist, we all wondered how it would turn out. The sensible improvements for the 2015 Ford Focus suggest to us that things have turned out pretty well for everybody.
2015 Ford Focus Titanium Hatchback Specifications
|Price base/as tested:
|2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4; 160 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 146 lb-ft @ 4,450 rpm
|6-speed dual-clutch automatic
|4-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, FWD hatchback
|26/38 mpg (city/highway)
|L x W x H:
|171.6 x 71.8 x 57.7 in