SEATTLE, Washington - Even though the 2008 Focus demonstrates considerable improvement over its 2001-07 predecessors, you'd hardly know it by listening to the Ford folks. Instead of aggressively promoting the 2008 model for its automotive merits, the company is pushing hard on its newly-established connection with Microsoft.
Sync is the name for the new communication/entertainment system, developed by Microsoft, that becomes available first in the Focus and, by year's end, in 11 additional Ford models. Ardent cell-phoners who can't resist making calls while driving might be hooked by Sync. So might music lovers who want their numerous favorites organized neatly in the car, just as they may be at home. For those drivers who resist the urge to cell-phone constantly, however, and could even prefer silence to sounds in the car, Sync might not be as much of a selling point as Ford's promoters believe.
Concentrating first on the car itself, the compact Focus benefits from fresh styling but is not dramatically different from the previous model. Chief designer Peter Horbury observes that the front end "has taken on the family look," but with a two-bar grille rather than the three bars used on larger Ford models. Horbury believes the previous Focus looked tall and narrow, but that this one has a "much better look from behind." One styling feature qualifies as curious if not tacky-looking: a stylized "F" on the front fender, just ahead of the door.
Two body styles are available: a four-door sedan and, for the first time, a two-door coupe with a trunk. Previous two-door coupes were hatchbacks.
Inside are a new instrument panel and central controls. The new ambient lighting option "doesn't distract the driver," Horbury advised.
On the technical side, brakes have been revised and the Focus has lost some 40 pounds. Equipped with a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine, the Focus gets an EPA gas-mileage estimate of up to 24 mpg in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway - impressive figures in view of the EPA's new evaluation procedure for 2008 models. Two engines were offered in 2007 Focus models; the primary four-cylinder yielded 136 horsepower.
Six airbags now are standard, including curtain-type units and seat-mounted side-impact airbags. Three trim levels are offered: S, SE, and SES, starting as low as $14,695 (including destination charge).
Ford had three goals for the 2008 Focus, according to Paul Mascarenas, vice-president of product development.
1. Design. 2. Making the car "great to sit in." 3. Making it "great to drive, fun to drive, [and] exhilarating."
Ford claims the latest Focus is 10 percent quieter, with a retuned suspension that improves driving dynamics. "We worked a great deal to create a quieter car," said vehicle line director Kim Pittel, including 1,000 hours of wind-tunnel testing. Wind noise ranks "amongst the leaders in the C-segment," Pittel advised.
Residual values have been a problem for the Focus and other Ford products. Intended mainly as guidelines for the leasing business, residual values also help predict what a car will be worth later, secondhand. According to Ford Division general manager Barry Engel, the 2008 Focus's residual value, as estimated by Automotive Lease Guide (ALG), is "very comparable to Toyota."
Test-driven in SES trim with an automatic transmission, the 2008 Focus qualifies as a significant improvement over the 2001-07 model. Although the Focus is easy and pleasant to drive, and handles capably on the road, it fails to reach stellar status in the compact class. In our current digital-conscious age, perhaps Ford is prudent in promoting the innovative new Sync system more than the car itself.
Acceleration is easily acceptable and about right for this class, if nothing to get excited about. Automatic-transmission operation also scores around average: generally smooth, but a "dead spot" accompanied by a light drone may be observed while cruising.
From the beginning, Fords has focused on the Focus's European-style handling. In that respect, the 2008 Focus comes on considerably stronger, providing good steering feel and maneuvering with reasonable confidence. Although the Focus is quiet overall, some road/tire noise is noticeable.
Visibility is good in all directions, though rear pillars (incorporating tiny quarter panes) are rather wide and could impede some views. Seats are quite comfortable, with adequate support for a compact model. Distinctive but unconventional in design, the tachometer and speedometer are not the easiest to read. Fuel and temperature gauges are better, though not fully calibrated.
Focus was "originally launched as a global car," said Mascarenas. At the Frankfurt Motor Show in Germany, Ford of Europe announced a freshened European Focus. Mascarenas also advised that a smaller B-segment car is now under development for global sale.
"For us, small is big," said Ford Division general manager Barry Engel, referring to sales opportunities for the Focus. Small cars now account for 17 percent of the total industry, Engel added (20 percent if fleet sales are excluded). In contrast, though, half of Canadians buy small cars.
Some 35 percent of first-time buyers get a small car (44 percent of under-30s). Smaller automobiles are not just an "entry point" now, Engel noted, but a "destination."
Ford and Microsoft announced their connection with respect to the Sync at Detroit's North American International Auto Show, in January 2007. To make phoning easier, Sync operates with "simple voice commands," according to Sync marketing director John Emmert. You can ask it to find a person, or a phone number. When you're ready for music, you can ask for a specific title or artist. In short, Emmert noted, "Sync allows you to talk to your iPod."
Focus is the first Ford model to get Sync, but by year's end it will be standard in Lincolns and some other models. Otherwise, it costs $395 extra. Some Sync functionalities are disabled while driving, said product development vice-president Mascarenas. Mainly, steps have been taken to limit the number of times eyes must be taken off road. Admitting that distraction is an issue even with voice-controlled system, Mascarenas tossed out the "perfect solution: don't do anything while driving."