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Vendredi, 23 Septembre 2011 12:00

A Sporty Compact Lost In Transmission

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The annals of marketing and design are filled with tales of products that gained widespread popularity for unintended uses. Bubble wrap was originally created as a textured plastic wallpaper, text messages were developed so wireless carriers could alert customers of service interruptions and virtually every caramel-colored carbonated drink that came out of the Deep South was advertised with some pseudo-scientific medical benefit.

Such is the case with the 2012 Ford Focus. Sure, it’s got a wheelbase, fuel economy and price that’ll appeal to Joe Commuter, but the chassis and powerplant are better suited to weekend jaunts on winding roads than workday slogs on the freeway. Just make sure to opt for a stick shift.

All new for 2012, the Focus features a sportier design, a strengthened chassis and a direct gasoline injected DOHC 2.0 liter four-cylinder engine. The redesigned car is also Ford’s first global Focus, ending the bizarre divergence that for years left North Americans with a reheated leftover of the European model.

Though the base Focus starts at $16,500, my tester — an SEL sedan with Ford’s PowerShift dual-clutch six-speed automatic transmission (I’ll get to that later) and Sync — was optioned out to a sticker price of $22,455. Higher-priced cars feature navigation, a power moonroof and even a self-park feature passed down from the Lincoln MKS. Where the previous generation US-spec Focus’ exterior seemed to be tailored to the tastes of GSA fleet managers, the redesigned car is downright European. The triptych of air dams in the front gives even the base model a sporty appearance, and my tester’s blacked-out wheels and “Blue Candy” cerulean paintjob had me looking for a coffee-can muffler and massive spoiler bolted onto the decklid.

Is it fast? Well, with 160 horsepower under the hood and a zero-to-60 time of around 8.3 seconds, no, it’s not. But the whole package is energetic enough that it doesn’t feel slow. And in this price range, tossable beats straight-line fast any day.

Behind the wheel, the Focus is point-and-shoot. The stiffened chassis was immediately apparent, as if the whole thing had been Saran-wrapped like a gas station sandwich. Even the electric power steering, a rack-drive unit from TRW, was surprisingly responsive and weighty, especially at higher speeds. The Focus also features a brake-based stability control system that Ford’s slapped the trendy “torque vectoring” label on, even though that’s somewhat of a misnomer as it can’t send more power to wheels when they need it. Essentially the evil twin of safety-minded electronic stability control (ESC), Ford’s system pulses the brakes on the inside wheel if necessary to keep the car going in the direction you intended. And while I didn’t break out the accelerometer, it sure felt grippy enough on back roads.

Is it fast? Well, with 160 horsepower under the hood and a zero-to-60 time of around 8.3 seconds, no, it’s not. But I will say that the whole package is energetic enough that it sure doesn’t feel slow. And in this price range, tossable beats straight-line fast any day.

Sounds just about as close to perfection as you can get for under $25K new, right? Well, like Fergie bursting onto the stage to ruin another Black Eyed Peas tune, the PowerShift transmission manages to be the weakest link in an otherwise outstanding powertrain. Sure, the whole setup has been geared for the best possible fuel economy, but that’s not the problem there. The dual-clutch six speed ain’t too proud to rev, especially in lower gears, but it sure can’t make up its mind. It’s less noticeable in the higher gears but in around-town driving, the tester I drove felt like the shift points were just plain wrong. Upshifts feel like a 10-year-old kid is rowing the gears while his dad works the third pedal, and the downshifts must have been programmed by a long haul trucker with a fondness for engine braking.

This is hardly an enthusiast’s quibble: Stop-and-go traffic is utterly nauseating as the car lurches while hunting for gears in the low range. That’s not ideal for a mainstream car aimed at commuters. And while Studebaker debuted a hill-holder clutch in 1939, the Focus somehow still rolls back a few inches at uphill stoplights just like Bill Cosby’s old Volkswagen. Unfortunately, the six-speed is the only option for the SEL and Titanium trim levels. I never thought I’d write these words, but even a CVT would be a more welcome option here.

Inside, Ford unfortunately gave the Focus a Fiesta-style dashboard makeover that replaced function with frivolity, ostensibly to make the car more appealing to young adults. I say this is a miscalculation, as the current economy has formerly well-heeled middle-aged folks looking at entry-level small cars, and young people searching for the least rusty ‘98 Corolla. Nearly identical buttons are at odd angles, and there are no fewer than three D-pads with an “OK” button in the middle, each of which agrees to prompts on separate screens. Trying to get my gas mileage (a respectable 33 mpg) to display on the gauge cluster, I felt like Tommy playing pinball. Steering wheel controls are tremendously touchy and maddeningly multi-purpose — I dare you to parallel park without accidentally changing the radio station or making a phone call. At least the HVAC controls remain straightforward.

Nostalgia for horizontal speedometers and twin-knob radios aside, the seats are supportive and plastics are of a high grade, although the cubby holes for storage seem better sized to fit a StarTAC than an iPhone. It’s a better interior than the Impreza or Elantra, but it can’t match the Cruze or even the Civic.

So, what was intended to be a mass-market small car does a decent job at its intended function when compared to the competition. But for those who want a compact that can be an absolute blast to drive, despite some funky styling and transmission programming, the Focus is an excellent choice. It’s not fast, but it’s as poised and confident as cars double the price. If the vehicle dynamics of the SEL are any indication of how the 247 horsepower, turbocharged ST model will handle when it debuts as a 2013 model, it should strike fear in the hearts of Subaru and Volkswagen sales teams.

Thankfully, it’ll only come with a six-speed manual.

WIRED Sporty, small car fun in an attractive package. “Torque vectoring” helps with corner control. Sync.

TIRED Clunky PowerShift should learn to drive a stick. Interior is a cluttered maze of buttons.

Photos courtesy Ford Motor Company


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