► First UK drive of the Ford Focus in ST Line form
► Can the Focus Focus Mk4 beat the class-leading VW Golf?
► Our in-depth first drive has the answer
Despite the inexorable march of SUVs onto family driveways, the Ford Focus remains just as popular and important a car as it ever did. Now in its fourth generation after more than two decades of growth, the current model aims to right the wrongs of its predecessor.
Yes, the 2011-2018 Focus was a good all-rounder, and still not far off class leadership when it shuffled off this mortal coil, but compared with the brilliant original from 1998 it was a rather tame effort.
New Ford Focus ST review
Ford says that the Focus Mk4 has been designed to evoke memories of the original – and that the company claims it's the best Focus – the best car – it's ever launched. Given the company's successful back catalogue, that some claim. 'The fourth generation of Ford's middle-sized hatchback, is nothing less than 'the best car we have ever designed, developed and manufactured.' So says Steven Armstrong, CEO of Ford of Europe, Middle East and Africa.
Why does Ford think the new Focus in the best car it has ever launched? As well as being designed to recreate driving dynamics of the first-generation car, this is an entirely new proposition ('apart from a couple of nuts and bolts') which is lighter, more efficient, and packed with so much safety kit that Ford says nothing in its market sector comes close.
A lighter and stiffer structure helps massively in achieving these goals. Ford says that the Focus Mk4 has 20% better torsional rigidity than before, which helps play a significant part in its improved NVH and tightened-up ride and handling. We'll get to how much better it actually is…
In addition, a longer wheelbase means that it's roomier inside, even though it occupies a similar footprint than than before. And just for good measure, the sleeker, lower body pays off with excellent aerodynamics (Cd 0.27 for the skinny-tyred base model) and a more arresting look – again, we'll get to that later. Finally, and most importantly, Ford claims that it's the best-driving Focus yet, with the sharpest, most communicative steering. This is where the original Focus scored so highly (step forward, Richard Parry-Jones), and where we have very high hopes and expectations.
Ford Focus Mk4: inoffensively styled
In terms of where the Focus Mk4 fits into the Ford scheme of things, it's a real franchise reboot. Question is whether it's a sucessful one – and based on the styling, you'd have to say 'no', given the number of similarities it has with the previous Mazda 3.
The Focus has a strong visual identity, and pretty much all of its strongest design cues are missing from the MK4. In reality, it's more big Fiesta crossed with generic hamily hatch – and a disappointing effort considering it's being compared by its maker with the radical, brilliant original.
That car redefined the family car sector, whereas this one typifies this. As such, it's designed to appeal to as many buyers as possible while offending as few as possible. A bit like the 1990 Escort was, then…
Don't get us wrong – it's good looking, and we like the muscular haunches, the reverse-slope rear edge to the side windows and the indentations along the flanks, but we're just not wowed by it.
What's under the skin of the Focus Mk4?
Can a disppointing set of clothes be offset by brilliant mechanicals? After all, the original Focus introduced chassis sophistication yet-to-be seen in its market sector. The good news is that the all-new C2 platform packs in plenty of new new tech.
You also get the new 1.5-litre, three-cylinder EcoBoost petrol engines in 148 and 180bhp guises, which are efficient enough to allow Ford to enjoy the industry's ride away from diesel without too much pain. If you're wedded to the black pump (and Ford say 30% of Focus sales will be diesels), a new 2.0-litre EcoBlue turbodiesel packs Volkswagen TDI-rivalling punch and economy.
Lower-power Focuses, broadly those with 1.0-litre petrol or 1.5-litre diesel engines, now have a torsion-beam rear axle, while grander versions have a development of the 'control blade' multilink rear suspension that has long been central to a Focus's dynamic prowess. A Ford man said (off the record) that most buyers won't tell the difference, but we'll see.
A clean-up inside – following the Fiesta's lead
Ford is proud of the sheer amount of safety kit available for the Focus Mk4, and although head-up display, intelligent adapative cruise and Stop & Go for slow traffic are no great shakes in this market sector, it's a leap forward over the old Focus. The adaptive cruise's ability to use speed-limit signs and sat-nav information and Lane Centring Technology are welcome additions.
The automatic headlights are able to follow road markings round bends and aim accordingly, and can also identify junctions and roundabouts and broaden their beams to light them. The self-parking is cleverer, too, provided you have the new eight-speed double-clutch gearbox option. And Evasive Steering Assist applies helpful efforts to the steering wheel as you attempt to avoid something that's suddenly blocking your way.
The Focus is also the first Ford with a FordPass Connect 'embedded' modem, which lets you remotely start the engine and check fluid levels via a phone app as well as handling all the usual connectivity functions. None of this is earth shattering, but it brings the Focus to the head of the class without actually redfining it.
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Ford Focus Mk4: interior and cabin quality
Inside, it has more rear legroom (by 5cm; it feels more), a deeper boot and a cleaner, crisper dashboard with clearer displays and a bigger touchscreen in two sizes according to grandness. Crucially, the air-con controls are still real knobs and buttons and don't require digging through a screen menu, even if they are sited too low to speed read.
The centre console, now lower and less looming, has lost its manual handbrake, a move which will be welcomed by some and regretted by others.
There's a credible air of quality, with tight gaps and yielding surfaces, but the top of the dashboard feels disappointingly sticky unless you have the stitched-and-clad Vignale version. Top Focuses get a B&O Play stereo system (which sounds excellent), a wireless phone-charging pad and Ford's latest SYNC 3 multimedia interface (which you'll either love or hate).
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Ford Focus Mk4: how does it drive?
If we've come across as being a little nonplussed about the Focus Mk4 so far, the good news is that on the whole, it does all it needs to dynamically. Starting out with the 1.5-litre 148bhp four-cylinder engine in Zetec form, the Focus comes across as an unflappable driver that is a huge step forward from its predecessor, especially in terms of refinement.
Like all Focuses, the Zetec comes with several driving modes – Comfort, Normal, Sport, Eco etc – which alter steering weight, throttle response and, in an auto, gearshift points. There's also the option of fitting its with CCD (Continuously-Controlled Damping), which introduces adjustable damper stiffness. We'd say that CCD doesn't bring anything to the party.
On the beam axle-equipped model Zetec, it feels disappointingly jittery at motorway speeds, with far too much vertical movement over undulations at speed. It feels poised, composed and at home, but it never settles down enough for a car that's designed to spend most of its time in this environment.
Models with the control blade rear are blessed with a ride quality that you don't notice at first, so good is it at smothering disturbances and keeping the Focus's mass under control. Road roar is unusually well isolated, too, far better than the car it replaces.
Where the Focus scores really well is in its steering. It's precise, linear, well-weighted and allows the the driver to place the car on a pin head. With the control blade-suspended rear, cornering is infintely adjustable with the throttle without ever getting wayward in the tail.
It's a fluid set-up, shrugging off typical B-roads easily. There's a little less nuance with the beam axle car, which shares much of the premium model's low-roll agility, much with slightly less composure on less-than smooth roads.
It's sad to report, then, that the calm damping of the ST-Line is lost when CCD is specified. Whatever the setting, the body is forever gently heaving and abruptly chopping, only the frequency of heave altering with changed damper settings. It never quite settles. More work needed here…
Ford Focus Mk4: performance
Performance-wise, the engine line-up ranges from acceptable to excellent. The 1.5-litre diesel is on the ho-hum side here, delivering average refinement and disappointingly flat off-boost performance. It's more efficient and quicker than the outgoing diesel, but that's about it – but as Ford says this model will account for no more than 30% of sales, it's not the priority it once was.
The three-cylinder petrol engine is excellent, though. In its most muscular form so far (with 177lb ft) it's a delight to drive, with little in the way of throttle lag at low revs and a progressive build-up of acceleration thereafter. When revved, it sounds uncannily Porsche 911-like, an unexpected soundtrack to a Focus drive.
Does it feel like a Mk1 Ford Focus? It's not as light on its feet, and not as playful, but the transparency and fluidity are there. Oh, and it's not ahead of the very best of the opposition – a disappointment.
Had Ford not said that the Mk4 was a big a step forward as the 1998 Focus, we'd not have gone into this with such high expectations. But it has, and although it's now hunting at or very near the top of the class, it's not taken anything like decisive leadership of it, like the original car did. Only in the area of safety kit does it command a lead over the best of the opposition.
Under the disappointingly derivative looks is a very capable car dynamically, and it's up with the very best (CCD apart) in terms of steering feel and B-road agility. Just as a Focus should be. It's also impressively roomy and much more user friendly than before, and in terms of refinement and ergonomics, it's light years ahead of the car it replaces.
The Focus breed has long aspired to the kind of classless quality that a Volkswagen Golf has always done so well. With this new one, it's closer, but not enough. We suspect that without price adjustments, the Focus may well struggle to knock its German rival off the sector's top-selling spot in the UK – a worry considering that car's due for replaceent in 2019.
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