DEARBORN — Just tell the rest of the family it’s a mere commutermobile.
Because if they ever figure out how much fun a 2012 Ford Focus SEL is to drive, you may never get the wheel back.
The Ford Focus has been a reliable, cheap car for more than a decade. But with its latest redesign, Ford has brought America a taut, premium small car that shows every bit of its German engineering heritage. Base models can still be had cheap — starting at under $17,000 — but well-equipped SELs like the one I drove and the top-of-the-line Titanium models can top $25,000.
So why should you pay that much for what’s essentially a four-passenger car (the middle seat in the back is only for short trips) with a smallish trunk?
Well, I wish you could have been with me a week ago Saturday on East Long Lake Road just southwest of Traverse City. It’s a lovely stretch of highway that winds around a big, beautiful lake. The speed limit is 55, but there are hairpin and S curves with caution signs as low as 30 mph. Yeah, I took those at 55, and the tires didn’t even squeal. This thing handles like it’s on rails. It’s simply a blast to throw down a twisty road.
And a supremely peppy little four-banger gets you from zero to 60 in somewhere around 7 seconds, and kicks you from 45 mph to passing speed in what seems like an instant. My only complaint was some occasional weird shifting choices from the six-speed automatic. You can override that in manual shift mode with buttons on the shifter (it would be more fun if it shifted with the paddles on either side of the steering wheel, but those paddles are instead used for resuming cruise control speed on the left and issuing voice commands to the excellent Sync telematics system on the right).
Altogether, this car’s road manners are significantly more sophisticated and tight-handling than the already pretty decent 2010 Focus that is my daily commuter car. It really does stack up against sophisticated German cars that offer far fewer interior amenities for the same price. The second biggest difference between the 2012 version of this car and my 2010: It’s so much more quiet. I don’t know how they did it, but they made this car virtually, almost spookily, silent at 60 mph. Makes my 2010 sound like a tin box by comparison, and I like my 2010.
Now let’s talk about those interior amenities. The interior of the new Focus is no longer standard econobox, it’s now jet fighter cockpit. You’re encased, surrounded nearly up to waist level by the center console. I wasn’t sure I liked that at first, I couldn’t spread out my legs like I like to on a long trip, but I got used to it. (There was plenty of legroom in the front seat lengthwise, anyway, even for a six-footer with the seat not fully back.) In front of you are standard rounded dials for speed and RPM, separated by a four-inch video screen with useful information like distance to empty and MPG. (I averaged 32.8 MPG on this trip with some fairly aggressive driving.)
On the center stack is where the real action is; my car was equipped with the $1,100 navigation option, which adds an eight-inch MyFordTouch-Sync video screen. The screen is split into quadrants — upper left for cell phone controls, lower left for the entertainment system, upper right for navigation, lower right for climate controls. Touch any corner and that function takes over the entire screen. In the interest of safety, some functions are disabled while the car is moving — you can’t type a street address into the navigation system, for instance. But you can speak one in on Sync. It’s a really good system — I almost always got the address I wanted as a destination on my first spoken try. And that made getting around on the Tech Tour a whole lot easier. Some reviewers have complained that this touch screen is needlessly complicated or unresponsive. I disagree. Even a 56-year-old fart like me adapted to it within a day. Coolest feature: Realtime weather radar maps superimposed over the navigation map, so you know when you are driving into bad weather. Second coolest feature: Automatic alerts to route you around accidents or other trouble ahead.
The nifty little padded steering wheel is made busy by a bunch of buttons — trip info on the left spoke, audio controls on the right, and under that spoke, cruise control on the left, and the Sync voice activated command system on the right. It seemed a little complicated at first but I got used to it, although I will admit the cruise control on my 2010 is easier to operate.
As for the sound system, let’s just say the Sony sound system that comes with this option was simply fantastic. A subwoofer took up a bit of trunk space already at a premium in this car, but man, it was fun to crank up.
There are basic controls for both the entertainment system and the climate control system on the center stack below this big video screen. A storage compartment under the center arm rest offers two USB plug-ins for thumb drives of music. That’s also where the SD card containing the navigation info goes, and there are video in-out jacks there as well. One interior quirk — there’s only one switch for unlocking and locking the doors, and it’s in the middle of the center console, not on either front door as it has been on recent Fords.
My only complaint with this dashboard setup? No storage bins or cubbyholes. Everything is taken up by the very cool Tokyo-by-night displays. There’s an overhead storage compartment for sunglasses (or maybe reading glasses for the TV screen) and bins on the doors, and the glove box, and that’s it.
The trunk on the Focus hatchback I drove was a bit tight, although obviously, it’s a hatchback, so you can fold down the back seats and get cavernous room.
Overall? If it’s only one of you, or two of you, or you have small children, you could be very happy having the new Ford Focus as the only car you drive. Even if you have with more people to move around, this is a quantum leap for the American second car.
One final note about the car’s exterior design: They’ve made it look much more racy with huge black radiator intakes on the front. Which are, by the way, completely fake. I’m not a big fan of the big black panels on the front of the car. But my test car was black, which rendered the point moot — this car was black everywhere.