The new design shares a family look with Ford's other cars, distinguished by a two-bar version of the company's characteristic razor blade-like grille.
The new, 2008 Ford Focus comes in four-door sedan and two-door coupe body styles. (Wagon and hatchback body styles are not offered.)
The big news for 2008 is the introduction of Ford's new Sync entertainment and communications system. Developed with Microsoft, Sync provides a hands-free link to cell phones and MP3 players through a series of voice commands. It recognizes your cell phone's address book. It can even read text messages to occupants through the stereo system. It's an amazing system and Ford appears to be ahead of everyone else in this area.
The redesigned interior is aesthetically pleasing. It looks better than that of the outgoing model, with nicer graining on the plastics that continue to dominate the cockpit. The ambience is not luxurious but appropriate for the price. While interior noise is also down from the last model, there is still plenty of road and engine noise, which are typical of economy cars.
As in the past, the Focus handles well. We experienced lots of road feel with little body lean in corners while driving the top-line SES with its a sportier suspension. That road feel can make the ride a bit harder than some might prefer, but it isn't harsh and we appreciated the handling response.
With 140 horsepower, the Focus has decent power for most needs, but passing on a busy two-lane road will require a lot of space. Fuel economy is quite good, with up to 24 mpg in the city and 35 on the highway.
Ford Focus S coupe ($14,075); S sedan ($14,375); SE coupe ($15,075); SE sedan ($15,375); SES coupe ($16,075); SES sedan ($16,375)
The front end is dominated by a two-bar version of the three-bar, razor-like chrome grille that first appeared on the Fusion. The grille is flanked by headlights that wrap around to the sides and follow the curve of the hood toward the windshield. A too-large expanse of bumper is located under the grille and below that is a large air intake that houses fog lights at the corners on the topline SES model.
The sides feature a chromed triangular applique at the back of each front fender that simply seems like tacked on ornamentation. This piece, which looks like an F on the driver's side, is the starting point for a pair of character lines that flow back. The bottom line leads to the rear wheelwheel, while the top line rises from front to rear and teams with a high tail to give the Focus the appearance of at least some dynamic motion. The rear of the coupe's roofline stays almost as high as the sedan's, which makes it look a bit clunky. The car looks best from the rear, where the simple angular shapes seem to work.
The overall result is a look that seems like a poor attempt at a family design statement.
On top of the dash is a hooded cutout that displays trip computer, radio, and, when ordered, Sync information. The instrument panel has two large gauges, the speedometer and tachometer, and two small gauges, the fuel gauge and water temperature gauge. With markings every 20 mph that light up with a turquoise hue, it can be hard to judge your speed at a glance.
Thanks to Sync, the center stack has more controls that you'd expect to find in an economy car. Along the top are buttons for 10 radio station presets. When Sync and Sirius satellite radio are ordered, drivers can store up to 60 stations: 20 FM, 10 AM and 30 Sirius. That's impressive.
Below the stereo presets are a group of controls that include the volume and tuning knobs, as well as six buttons around a four-way central pad, all of which control the Sync system. Of course, none of these controls are necessary if you simply hit the steering wheel's voice control button and learn to use the voice commands. An easy-to-use set of climate controls is located below the stereo and Sync controls. None of these buttons are hard to identify or reach.
At the base of the center stack is a nice rubberized tray. This area is fairly important because it is where drivers will keep their phones and iPods when they use the Sync system. We found Sync to be genuinely useful and fairly easy to use. When an MP3 player is plugged in, Sync charges it and has access to the complete playlist. The driver can tell Sync to play a specific song, artist, or genre of music from his MP3 player. Sync will also stream MP3s wirelessly from a source like a phone/MP3 player enabled with Bluetooth technology. When a Bluetooth-enabled phone is in the car and paired to the system, Sync can access its phonebook. It can even play back incoming text messages through the speakers and allow the driver to respond with one of 15 predetermined messages, all while the driver keeps his hands on the wheel. There are a couple glitches, though. I couldn't get the system to recognize Kirk. Instead it heard my name as Curt, which is another number in my cell phone. And in general, the system is a bit tricky to learn at first.
The front seats are comfortable, with plenty of head and leg room. Thanks to large mirrors and small rear pillars, the driver's seat affords a good view to all corners. The rear seat has decent room with shorter people up front, but leg room disappears as the seats are moved back for taller front seat occupants. Head room is decent in the sedan, but a bit lacking in the coupe.
The trunk is fairly large at 13.8 cubic feet. That's as big as or bigger than some midsize cars. The second row seats fold mostly flat to allow loading long, flat packages. And in a touch expected of larger cars, the trunk has struts, not large sickle-shaped hinges that can crush packages.
We drove the 2008 Focus SES and found a lot of road feel is communicated through the steering wheel. There is little lean in turns; after an initial shift, it takes a nice set. The SES model benefits from the addition of a rear stabilizer bar for sharper handling. We have not driven the base model.
Good road feel means the ride quality is a bit harder than some might prefer. But the Focus isn't a penalty box. It's not harsh over bumps.
Antilock brakes do not come standard, and we strongly recommend opting for them; ABS is optional with traction control.
Ford has outfitted the Focus with its 140-hp, 2.0-liter Duratec four-cylinder for better fuel economy. With the manual transmission the Focus gets an EPA-rated 24/35 mpg City/Highway. With the automatic, it gets a healthy 24/33mpg.
The 2.0-liter is competitive with most engines in this class. It has decent power for most needs, but passing maneuvers will require plenty of space. The automatic transmission downshifts quickly to give you what power the engine has.
Cars in this class tend to be buzzy and allow a lot of ambient sound to enter the cockpit. While the engine does whine under heavy throttle, it is no louder than most competitors. Likewise, road noise and wind noise are noticeable, but not out of line for an economy car.
The redesigned 2008 Ford Focus offers decent handling and miserly fuel economy. The Ford Sync system offers the latest in entertainment and hands-free communications and technology.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Kirk Bell filed this report from Chicago.