The Ford Focus has always had an interesting history in South Africa – Ford aficionados were always impressed by its interesting looks and good engines. The VW and Toyota faithful – not so much. There was just not enough to make these buyers sit up and notice.
But Ford had a long hard look at what the Germans and Japanese were doing in this space, and decided to change their current lineup with somewhat better options and the new SYNC systems.
The new Focus does away with the strange rear lights that ran down the sides of the rear window of the old model, and replaces them with new lights which are arguably just as strange. The sides of the car sport very hunkered down curves and you do get the feeling that all the models are made to almost remind you of the ST.
The model I drove was very striking in Candy Red. The Focus becomes a real looker once you fit the Option Pack – it gets nice ST-esque 17 inch mags, a much better styling kit, and chrome trim on the foglamps and grille. You might get a few GTI drivers challenging you at a red light though because they think you are driving an ST.
The Focus interior continues Ford’s new button and gadget heavy interior. Whereas other brands these days are trying to minimize the number of buttons on the dash, Ford is clearly heading the other way. The sound system and steering wheel is very button heavy.
The steering wheel might be confusing to some – there are two control pads on each side, left controls the left display in the car, the right controls the right instrument cluster display.
The Option Pack also improves the interior with great looking black leather seats with gray stitching, a leather steering wheel and gear knob. It is clearly meant for people who do not only want a car that drives well, but want some decent toys as well. You get automatic headlamps, windscreen wipers and auto-dipping rear view mirror.
Even though the button heavy interior might initimidate some, I could not find fault with either fit or finish. Ford has clearly payed attention to what brands like VW has been doing with their interior, and decided it would be the area they would focus on. The plastics are first rate, and there was not a single rattle or creak. I especially liked the steering wheel – it felt incredibly solid, with a very good looking silver finish which did not feel cheap as is often the case.
On a critical point – I did find some of the cubby placement odd. Not a lack of space, just the layout. For a car that focusses so much on decent in-car tech, I found it strange that I could not find a place to position my smartphone flat down.
Ford’s signature blue lighting looks great in this car, and the displays and controls were all perfectly legible, even in direct sunlight.
First off – voice control for in car sound systems is nothing new, but it has traditionally been fitted to cars that are far more expensive than the Focus. In most cases voice recognition is typically found as part of high-end optional navigation systems. The Focus comes standard with SYNC technology, which was developed in partnership with Microsoft. The Focus is one of the first Ford models to be fitted with SYNC in South Africa. The system does not come with navigation, but you do get the idea that Ford is wizening up to the fact that most people these days use navigation software on their smartphones, and the system simply routes navigation commands through the speakers.
The big news with Sync is voice control. You can connect your phone via Bluetooth or USB – with Bluetooth you have the advantage of leaving your phone in your pocket, and music and phone calls get sent through the sound system. But you want to connect to USB if you want to see the real magic of SYNC. You simply pull the voice command paddle on the steering wheel, and then the system can recognize more than 150 commands. There is also constant audio feedback, which can get a little irritating – but you can set it so that she is not too chatty.
This voice control system works independently from your phone, so it needs to sync your contacts and music, and index them as such. I was super impressed by the voice recognition – it did not get a single song, artist or album wrong, and the phone dialing was equally amazing. It understood Afrikaans and Xhosa names without any issue, which I found incredible, especially if you have dealt with other voice control systems like Siri.
I tested the system with a Nokia Lumia 820 and Apple iPhone 5. Both worked very well, but the iPhone 5 did not want to send text messages to the SYNC system. I suspect that issue lies with Apple though… One other thing I did not like was the placement of the USB port, which is found in the glovebox. While its great for keeping your iPod out of vision, charging your phone means dangling the cable from the glovebox, which is not very elegant.
While I got the Focus purely to try out the Sync, what is the car like to drive? Pretty great. I got hold of the low end 1.6 model which has 92kw and 159Nm on tap. While it might not sound like much, there is something about the steering and gear changing that really tempts you to take this car and drive it hard. The handling is well suited to this car, but I did get some understeer on some windier roads. Ford ships all local Focus models with Torque Vectoring Control which keeps excessive understeer at bay, and luckily the Michelins on those 17 inch wheels do provide great grip.
The engine is very silent and refined with everyday driving, but in typical Ford fashion it does rumble a little when you rev it hard. Even though the eco monitor might tell you to change gears early, the power band sits above 4000 rpm. But drive the car hard and the gear change indicator disappears.
After driving this model it became clear to me that the Focus is able to handle a lot more power – sure, it might need a limited slip differential for handling the power through the front wheels, but it is a great car to drive. It’s as if the Focus was developed with the vision of becoming the ST, and now I am more eager than ever to try one out.
The Focus 1.6 Trend was a great car to drive and I believe Ford SA is on the right track by fitting SYNC to most of the new models, including upcoming Fiestas. The SYNC system works very well – and even though it might sport a big screen or navigation, the voice recognition is amongst the best I have used.
Even in this 1.6 guise, the car retains its Ford “power” ambitions – its engine is peaky and excellent to drive. I could not find fault in the handling either. The interior is where Ford has clearly improved a lot, and the plastics and finish was amongst the best of any car I have seen in this segment.
I believe the Focus is an excellent competitor in this segment. At R236 000, the model I drove is pretty good value for money, but that Option Pack is a must have.