The renowned handling dynamism of the Focus may have been in relative decline since the car's remarkable first generation, but until now it has always been possible to sum up its unique and enduring selling point quite simply: this is the best-handling hatchback on the road.

At least it was. Unfortunately, today, this assertion can no longer be made. 

Nic Cackett

Road tester
The Focus remains a responsive car, but a Mazda 3 is more engaging from behind the wheel

Not absolutely, at any rate. The Focus remains a responsive, grippy and agile car to drive, as you’d expect it to be – and further experience of it in richer trim, and with different wheel and tyre sizes, will persuade you that its legacy isn’t in danger.

However, if our test car is representative of the Focus in its biggest-selling specification, we’d argue that most owners will find a like-for-like Mazda 3 a more engaging car from behind the wheel, and a Seat Leon at least equally so.

Its fall from grace can be explained chiefly by the new power steering and suspension damping systems Ford has fitted to the car. These both fail to improve on what they replace and, in attempting to pull the car in opposing directions at the same time, spread its sporting character a little too thinly.

The Focus’s electro-mechanical power steering is weighted more lightly than before, particularly at low speeds. It provides some feedback from the front tyres’ contact patches, but it filters that communication through some apparent friction at the straight-ahead and a slightly pendulous and unhelpful gathering of assistance off-centre. In so doing, it makes your primary interface with the car feel just a little woolly on some occasions, and elastic at other times.

Its body control is good for the most part, but gone is its ability to absorb bumps small and large with equal fluency and poise. The car rides quietly and with good wheel control, but its vertical body control is more digital and less progressive than it was.

The Focus fusses slightly over small, sharp intrusions, as firmly suspended cars tend to do, but then allows some unchecked initial body movement before addressing it quite staunchly, often causing the car to pitch or rebound more than it would if the dampers responded more quickly and with mounting resistance.

Top 5 Family hatchbacks

  • Seventh generation Volkswagen Golf
    More than 29 million Golfs have been sold since 1974

    Volkswagen Golf

    1
  • The popular Ford Focus in 1.5 TDCi Zetec form
    The standout component of the Ford Focus has always been its handling

    Ford Focus

    2
  • Seat Leon
    Seat offers five engines for the Leon, ranging from a 104bhp 1.2 petrol to a 181bhp 2.0 diesel

    Seat Leon

    3
  • Seventh generation Vauxhall Astra
    The seventh-generation Vauxhall Astra seems to be a collection of General Motors' latest and greatest technology

    Vauxhall Astra

    4
  • Mazda 3
    The SkyActiv platform used in the 3 features more high and ultra-high-strength steel, offering greater strength and less weight

    Mazda 3

    5

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Audi Q2 1.4 TFSI 150 S tronic
    First Drive
    29 May 2016
    We head to Havana to find out how the new Audi Q2 is shaping up ahead of its November launch
  • Seat Leon 1.4 EcoTSI FR Titanium
    First Drive
    27 May 2016
    High-spec new Titanium FR trim is temptingly good value, particularly on the semi-enthusiastic 1.4 EcoTSI petrol
  • Kia Niro
    First Drive
    27 May 2016
    The Kia Niro will be one of the greenest cars in the compact crossover class when it goes on sale later this year. We drive it to see what else it has to offer
  • Car review
    27 May 2016
    Can the turbocharged successor to the 458 raise the bar again?
  • Car review
    27 May 2016
    The big-in-every-way Bentley SUV lands. We assess the impact