An appliance among automobiles in recent years, the Ford Focus becomes a car you actually enjoy driving, as opposed to merely use, in its 2012 incarnation coming this spring.
A new engine more powerful than any other in the compact class, yet more fuel-efficient than its predecessor, is largely responsible for the new-found personality. A host of new technological features play a part as well.
Mind you, the cars we drove in a preview for invited journalists were the most expensive models, fitted with optional handling packages. Some of the most exhilarating canyon roads in the Los Angeles hinterlands that are as smooth as they are twisting showcased the best qualities of the so-equipped Focuses. Results may differ over Ontario's potholes and frost heaves.
But even the least expensive models of the new Focus benefit from innovative standard equipment.
Active grille shutters, for instance, close to improve the car's aerodynamic efficiency at speed - reducing fuel consumption by slipping through the air more easily. The shutters open again when air flow through the engine bay is required to reduce coolant temperature.
Not a conversation maker, this venetian blind application. Not a winning opener at a bar. Ditto for the standard torque vectoring that sharpens cornering.
Ford engineers have gone to such lengths to assure the new Focus can compete against such worthy recent arrivals as the Hyundai Elantra and Chevrolet Cruze, not to mention the Honda Civic and contenders for its best-selling-in-Canada title, the Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla.
A new premium model, the Titanium, starts at $24,499 in sedan form or $25,099 as a hatchback. And bigger spenders can add a luxury package on offer for $1,500, a self-parking system for $600, navigation for $700, and on and on.
At the bottom end of the price scale, the 2012 S sedan starts at $15,999, up from $13,999 for the corresponding 2011 appliance that's still on offer.
Although the S sedan is well-equipped with standard air, power front windows and mirrors, as well as the grille shutters and torque vectoring, it's essentially a dealership window sticker special that Ford anticipates will account for only a tiny percentage of total sales.
The next step up in the range, the SE - $18,999 for the sedan and $19,899 for the hatch - is a more realistic starting point. Add an automatic transmission and the destination/delivery fee and the total approaches $22,000-23,000 before tax, typical for current compacts.
We drove two Titaniums, blue hatch and silver sedan. An automatic transmission is standard at this level, but $1,250 in other Focuses ($1,450 for an automatic with manual shifting capability) that otherwise come with a five-speed manual.
I began the drive in the rear seat. It has become a thing with me on new-car previews, discovering what being a passenger feels like, hoping above hope the colleague at the wheel doesn't try stirring up motion sickness.
Head-room good, knee-room tight, foot-room under the front seats exceptionally good - it's great not having your feet pinched or jammed in this class of car. One of Ford's boasts is that the new Focus has more rear hip room than an Audi A4 or Toyota Camry, and all I can comment on that is if I hadn't been wearing a seat belt, I would have been tossed like a salad in that expanse as my co-driver took to Topanga Canyon Boulevard - carving through the Santa Monica Mountains - like Paul Tracy at the Toronto Indy.
Much better moving into the driver's seat for the Mulholland Highway. Under way, the first impression was of a kind of liveliness that's the polar opposite of the current Focus's stolid plodding down the road. Any driver, not just those with a taste for speed, would feel better after a spell driving this car.
Zesty driving brings out impressive adaptability in Ford's so-called PowerShift automatic that alters its shifting to downshift more quickly or hold gears when appropriate.
Torque vectoring functions during hard cornering. Undetectable pulses of the front wheel brakes inhibit the power going to the wheel that's closest to slipping. Acura and Audi were leaders in introducing torque vectoring utilizing clutches, but Ford's is a simpler, less-costly approach.
Options aplenty can boost the content and price of the SE sedan or hatch. Sync, the voice-activation system prominent in Focus advertising, adds $850 to the SE. The SE comes with drum brakes on the rear wheels, a shortcoming compared to the latest Hyundai Elantra with its four-wheel discs. A $900 Super Fuel Economy Package upgrades the brakes, presumably because discs are lighter than drums and lighter weight reduces fuel consumption, or four-wheel discs also are part of a Sport Package.
Whatever the bottom line on a purchase agreement, the bottom line here is that the 2012 Focus is far more solid and satisfying than its predecessor.
2012 Ford Focus
Type: Compact four-door sedan or hatchback
Price range: $15,999 to $24,599 for sedans; $19,899 to $25,099 for hatchbacks
Engine: 2.0-litre, four-cylinder with direct fuel injection and variable camshaft timing
Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/146 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual or six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Not available; regular gas
Alternatives: Chevrolet Cruze, Hyundai Elantra, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Mazda3, Volkswagen Jetta, Nissan Sentra
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