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
  • 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

    4
  • Peugeot 308
    The 308 marks the first time a carry-over name has been applied to an all-new Peugeot

    Peugeot 308

    5

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Citroën C4 Grand Picasso
    First Drive
    26 August 2016
    The Citroën Grand C4 Picasso gets tweaked styling, improved tech and new personalisation options to keep it ahead of rivals
  • Car review
    26 August 2016
    Wolfsburg celebrates the GTI’s 40th with its most extreme version yet
  • Kia Optima Sportwagon
    First Drive
    25 August 2016
    New Kia estate looks the part, has good space and handles tidily, but its engine's flexibility and refinement let it down
  •  Kia Optima PHEV
    First Drive
    25 August 2016
    Plug-in hybrid Optima is a practical, tax-efficient PHEV that undercuts rivals and fulfils its main remit well, but keen drivers need not apply
  • Lamborghini Huracán LP610-4 Spyder
    First Drive
    24 August 2016
    Awful driving position aside, drop-top Huracán handles UK roads well. It's more dynamically rounded than its rangemates, but lacks rivals' handling bite