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car review

Ford Focus

Are small cars safe? My sisters think they're not the safest vehicles on the road; they feel more secure in a bigger sedan or SUV than a small car. But I beg to differ. Small cars have come a long way.

In fact, the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety awarded several small cars Top Safety Pick awards for 2012. It's the highest designation a vehicle can get in high-speed front, side and rollover crash tests as well as evaluations of seat/head restraints for protection against neck injuries in rear impacts.

Top honours went to a long list of small cars including the Chevrolet Cruze, Honda CR-Z, Kia Soul, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla, VW Golf, and the Ford Focus, just to name a few.

So if you're shopping for a small car, the decision is tougher than a decade ago – when the options were slim. You'll have to look at other factors besides safety – like design. After all, small cars don't have to be dull, boring, and ugly modes of transportation anymore. The Ford Focus, for example, is a looker in sedan or hatchback trims.

The Focus is Ford's most important global nameplate. More than 10 million units have been sold since its launch in 1998. Developed in Europe, it's on sale in more than 120 markets worldwide. You'll recognize the European touches in the current model – it's more stylish and sporty compared to the old North American Focus. It has a striking front end with a new active grille shutter system that automatically opens and closes to reduce wind resistance. It has a steeply raked windshield, sleek profile and athletic stance. Cool colours like candy red, yellow blaze, or sonic blue are a breath of fresh air compared to the usual black or silver.

The inside is modern and functional – it doesn't have a cheap, made-in-China feel. But the console is littered with buttons for the CD player, radio, phone, door locks along with numerous other buttons on the steering wheel for the cruise control, radio, and telephone.

While it's busy, it's easier to use than the upgraded Ford Sync with MyFord Touch infotainment system, which replaces many of the traditional buttons, knobs and gauges with LCD screens. You have to be pretty tech savvy to appreciate it.

There are other cool technology features available, including an active park assist system, which helps you parallel park. Using ultrasonic sensors, the system helps you find a large enough parking spot and then takes over, helping you steer into the space. But – really – if you need help parking a small car like the Focus, you shouldn't be driving.

The Focus is compact enough to fit into any tight parking spot, without any stress or back-and-forth manoeuvring. You can also get a rear-view camera and an intelligent access system with push-button start so you can start the car without the key. Just keep the key fob in your pocket or bag and you can unlock the doors and start the car easily.

The Focus seats five, but four will be more comfortable. The front leather bucket seats are comfortable and supportive. A luxury group package on my tester adds a six-way power driver's seat and power moon roof for $1,500. The rear seats aren't as supportive; they're also tight for three people. On long drives, rear seat passengers will get antsy to get out and stretch their legs.

However, cargo space isn't a problem in my tester's hatchback. With 374 litres of room, you can fit golf clubs or suitcases in the back without any issues.

Powering the Focus is a completely new 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine that delivers more power than the 2.0-litre Duratec unit in previous model: 160 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque. It cruises easily at highway speeds with little noise in the cabin from the wind or engine.

But the electric power steering feels a little loose. I'm not too crazy about the automatic transmission, either – at times, it feels like the car is going to stall when shifting from reverse to drive. I prefer the five-speed manual. The low seating position is nice; it feels sporty.

The fuel economy is another bonus. The official numbers are 7.3 litres/100 km in the city and 5.2 highway. I averaged 8.1 litres/100 km.

The Focus also comes with several standard safety features including front-seat side airbags, a safety canopy system with two-row side-curtain airbags, ABS with electronic brake force distribution and emergency brake assist, and a tire-pressure monitoring system.

Prices range from $15,999 for the S sedan to $25,099 for the top Titanium hatch, which is a bit too pricey for a small car. My tester is an SEL hatchback, which costs $22,399 and includes heated front seats, ambient interior lights, a leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise and audio controls, and dual zone temperature control. But add a few options such as a $1,450 six-speed automatic transmission and $350 17-inch alloy wheels and my tester comes in at $27,779.

So be careful with the options – they can quickly add up and cost way more than cheaper alternatives from the Japanese and Korean auto makers.

2012 Ford Focus SEL

Type: Five-passenger compact hatchback

Base Price: $22,399; as tested, $27,779

Engine: 2.0-litre, DOHC, inline-four

Horsepower/torque: 160 hp/146 lb-ft

Transmission: Six-speed automatic

Drive: Front-wheel

Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 7.3 city5.2 highway; regular gas

Alternatives: Volkswagen Golf, Chevrolet Cruze, Honda Civic, Mazda3, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Toyota Corolla, Subaru Impreza, Mitsubishi Lancer, Nissan Sentra