Ford's Focus has been revitalised and now gets a much improved 1.5-litre diesel beneath the bonnet. Jonathan Crouch reports
Ten Second Review
The Ford Focus has evolved, this improved MK3 version offering slicker looks, higher interior quality and extra technology. There's also greater efficiency beneath the bonnet thanks to the addition of a hi-tech range of 1.5-litre petrol and diesel engines. It's the TDCi diesel we'll be looking at here. In this form, this car still remains as rewarding to drive as it's always been. The Focus might have grown up but it certainly hasn't lost its spark.
The problem with success is that it creates an expectation. Whether it's an author looking to repeat the storming sales of a bestselling debut novel or a rock group recording that tricky second album, prolonging success is just as hard as winning it in the first place. Just ask Ford. This improved third generation Focus model could serve as a case study in clinging onto hard-won gains. Competition in its segment has been tough in recent years. Hence the need for the far-reaching package of late-2014 updates that has brought us the much improved third generation version of this Ford that we're going to look at here. It's cheaper to run, safer to drive and smarter both to look at and to sit in. It does, in short, promise the kind of significant step forward that'll be absolutely necessary if Ford is to retain its sales leadership in this segment. Time to put this car to the test with the much improved 1.5-litre TDCi diesel engine Ford now offers.
So, what's it like? More responsive than any other family hatchback you'll have driven is the answer. As with Ford's larger Mondeo, this is one of those cars you get into and drive that feels just right, even in the first 100 yards. The driving position, the feedback through the wheel from the surprisingly responsive re-tuned electric power steering and in particular, the way the car responds as you throw it into a corner: all these things continue to represent a benchmark in the family hatchback segment. At the launch of this improved MK3 model, there was a choice between old and new technology, the old 95 and 115PS 1.6-litre TDCi engines sold alongside cleaner, more frugal 95 and 120PS 1.5-litre TDCi units. Make sure you choose the newer-tech 1.5-litre diesel option is my advice: there is, after all, no really significant price premium for doing so. The lower-powered versions get to 62mph in about 12s en route to 112mph, while if you go for a pokier 1.5 or 1.6-litre TDCi variant, you'll improve the sprint time to about 10.5s and top out at 120mph.
Design and Build
It's only when you put this improved Focus next to the original third generation version that you realise just how much more expensive this model looks. Ford's objective was to take this car closer to its arch-rival Volkswagen's Golf in terms of visual sophistication and make switching into a Focus a little easier for those afflicted with any degree of badge snobbery. The most obvious change is the addition of this Aston Martin-style trapezoidal front grille, there to give the front end a more distinctive look also emphasised by subtle chrome detailing, slimmer, smarter front headlights and re-styled foglamps. Luggage space has always been a bit of an issue for this car, whether in hatch or estate guise and not much has changed here. Lift the wide-opening tailgate on the hatch model and up to the cargo shelf, there's 316-litres on offer - and you only get that if (rather unwisely) you choose to do without the optional full-sized spare wheel. Will that be an issue for potential Focus customers? Well, it didn't seem to be with the original version of this car. Plus of course you can push the 60/40 split folding rear bench forward, though you do have to flip the seat bases up first, which is a bit fiddly. Rear seat space is closer to the class standard. Time to move up-front. With the original first generation version of this car, Ford made great play about having created a design that could be comfortably driven by anyone between four foot nine and six foot nine and ever since, the Focus has remained a great choice for any size or shape of potential owner. Most versions also get Ford's excellent 'SYNC2' infotainment system with its connectivity and voice-activation options.
Market and Model
It's actually quite hard to know where to start when trying to explain the Focus model range to an unfamiliar buyer. It is, after all, so vast. The simplest aspect is the availability of just two bodystyles, the five-door hatch or, for a model-for-model premium of around £1,100, a smartly-styled estate option. Prices for the 1.5 TDCi models start from around £18,000. Ford's approach with new generation engine technology is to gradually introduce it, keeping older-tech powerplants in the range as price-leading models there to generate showroom footfall. So, even though this improved third generation model was launched to showcase the freshly-developed 1.5-litre diesel engines we've been looking at here, the old-tech 1.6-litre diesel units from the previous line-up were still very much a part of this updated Focus range at its launch in late 2014.
Cost of Ownership
It's obviously crucial for Ford to get its cost of ownership sums right, hence the changes made to this updated third generation Focus that see improvements of up to 15% in fuel efficiency and a significant reduction in CO2 emissions across the range. As a result of these improvements, the Euro 6-compatible 1.5-litre TDCi engines this improved third generation range showcases are about 10% more frugal than the continuing 1.6-litre TDCi units they effectively replace. To be specific, in both 95 and 120PS guises, a 1.5-litre TDCi Focus will return 74.3mpg on the combined cycle and 98g/km of CO2. All of which means that compared to a 1.6-litre TDCi model, a Focus with this 1.5-litre engine will take you about 7 miles further on every gallon and can reduce emissions by as much as 22g/km. Quite a saving. What else? Residual values? These are expected to improve slightly in line with this improved model's improvements in quality and technology but inevitably, depreciation figures remain no match for the rock-solid returns you'd get from a Golf. Having said that, you'd be paying significantly less for one of these up-front, so if you're calculating whole-life costs, this Ford can still look a very attractive high-volume model prospect.
At this point, we should be talking about the efficiency gains, the high-tech safety gear, the clever SYNC infotainment system, the soft-touch dash and the updated styling, but let's cut to the chase. Other manufacturers can do that stuff. They can't though, make their family hatchback contenders drive like a Focus. This car's still out ahead in that regard. Not by as much as it once was, but it's still right there as the default pick if you like your driving. But not everyone does. Many family hatchback folk are buying a car of this kind simply because it ticks the right boxes for safety and running costs and I've a suspicion that it's these people who'll have their perceptions most changed by this improved MK3 model. They'll like the responsively frugal new-generation 1.5-litre TDCi engines. They'll appreciate the higher safety standards. And they'll click with the improved quality. Smarter and more sensible, it is, more than ever, number one for a reason.