Ford Focus Vignale: The next generation of a driving institution
Twenty years after the first Focus was launched, Ford's mid-sized hatch might not be the sales chart-topper it once was, but there's no underestimating how important it still is to the brand.
As you'd expect, Ford isn't messing around. This fourth-generation car is entirely new, filled with more technology than before and promises a better drive thanks to a stiffer chassis and clever suspension bits and pieces.
There's also an array of new or heavily improved engines available, including new 1.5-litre petrols with fuel-sipping cylinder deactivation tech.
Also new is the eight-speed automatic gearbox, complete with a rotary dial for selecting park, reverse and drive. Replacing the previous PowerShift dual-clutch set-ups, this is a proper automatic - and good at that.
What's under the bonnet?
The Focus gets four engines - two petrols, two diesels - in various states of tune. A 1.0-litre EcoBoost borrowed from the old car is the cheapest, although we'd advise against the entry-level 83bhp version in a car of this size. Next up is a new 1.5-litre petrol with either 148bhp or 179bhp, the latter only with a manual gearbox. Finally, for diesel, there's either a new 1.5 - either with 94bhp or 123bhp - or a new 2.0-litre with 148bhp.
We drove the 148bhp 1.5 petrol and it felt just right: torquey all the way through the rev range, with enough power to have some fun. It's refined too - virtually silent most of the time, only generating that typical three-cylinder thrum with heavy throttle.
Information about gradient, cornering speed and driving style is fed to the gearbox's computer, which does a good job of working out when to shift down or up on its own, meaning you're rarely left waiting for the right gear.
What's it like to drive?
Aside from its bold design, it was driving dynamics where the original 1998 Focus stood out. Does the fourth generation carry on the tradition? In a word, yes. It's great fun to drive, and arguably more enjoyable behind the wheel than the car it replaces.
Even in comparatively unsporty Vignale trim, it steers with an accuracy and fluidity that many of its rivals still haven't quite matched, and has a ride that manages to soak up road imperfections while still remaining composed around the twisty stuff.
ST-Line models get a firmer, 10mm-lower suspension that helps the Focus handle even more neatly. Whether that pay-off is worth it back in pothole-addled Northern Ireland as opposed to the super-smooth roads of Nice that we tested it on remains to be seen.
Additionally, 1.0-litre models don't get the Focus's trademark fully independent rear suspension set-up, but we don't anticipate too many complaints. There's now the option of adaptive dampers too, although we're not convinced they're worth the extra cash at this point. A drive on some questionable UK road surfaces might change our minds, however.
How does it look?
ST-Line trim is the best-looking model to our eyes, although the chunky Active spec cars - not yet released - also give the Focus a nice crossover look that's sure to be a hit.
What's it like inside?
The driving position is spot on, dials are all clear and easy to read, and most trim levels come with plenty of seat adjustability (for the driver at least).
Front and rear visibility is on a par with rivals, and the Focus is easy enough to park without the use of any electronic aids. That said, parking sensors are included on Titanium trim and above, while Ford's improved Active Park Assist system is even easier to use than before: provided your Focus has the eight-speed automatic, it'll now accelerate and brake as well as steer itself into a space.
Its wheelbase has been increased to allow for extra rear legroom, and the dashboard is now less deep and sculpted in such a way that the interior feels airier and more spacious. Rear passengers get plenty of legroom even in hatchback models, although taller passengers could feel the squeeze on headroom - particularly when the panoramic sunroof option is fitted.
What's the spec like?
If comfort is your top priority, pick the Vignale trim level. Its soft leather seats are adjustable every which way, while double-glazed windows and active noise cancellation mean road (and particularly engine) noise is eerily absent most of the time. If practicality is a priority, the estate version has you covered. With the rear seats in place it'll take loads 43mm higher and 25mm longer than before, while folding them at the pull of a switch gives a load capacity of 1,650 litres.
The new Focus is - from the driver's seat at least - probably the best car in its segment once again. There are rivals with posher interiors, cheaper price tags or longer warranties, but the Focus is still the one to beat.
Facts at a glance
Model as tested: Ford Focus 1.5l 150ps Vignale Automatic
Engine: 1.5 EcoBoost
Power (bhp): 148
Torque (Nm): 240
Max speed (mph): 129
0-60mph (seconds): 8.9
MPG: 46.3 (combined, on 18-inch wheels)
Emissions (g/km): 138 (on 18-inch wheels)