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

  • More than 29 million Golfs have been sold since 1974

    Volkswagen Golf

    1
  • The standout component of the Ford Focus has always been its handling

    Ford Focus

    2
  • 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

  • First Drive
    1 September 2015
    Kia has developed a better-mannered, more sophisticated Sportage for 2016
  • First Drive
    31 August 2015
    Thought the 3 Series was losing its edge? Well it's back, with a facelifted version that offers improved performance and dynamics. Does it reclaim its top spot after our drive on UK roads?
  • First Drive
    27 August 2015
    BMW gives its flagship 7 Series an extensive overhaul in a bid to tempt buyers of luxury cars away from the Mercedes S-Class, Audi's A8 and the Jaguar XJ
  • First Drive
    26 August 2015
    New Qashqai rival majors on practicality and usability and benefits from a long warranty, but lower-specification versions are the better bet
  • First Drive
    26 August 2015
    Go-faster Bentley Continental feels effortlessly quick despite its considerable weight