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Focus retains its position as the best-in-class to drive – spec dependent – while adding extra space, functionality and connectivity

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The market introduction of the fourth-generation Ford Focus has been a slightly piecemeal and incremental process, but it’s nonetheless now nearing the point where the Blue Oval might tentatively call it complete.

Having introduced the five-door hatchback in the summer of last year and added a couple of extra engine choices, an estate bodystyle and top-level Vignale trim in the autumn, the firm has now revealed the next Ford Focus ST. We’ve also just driven the big addition to the Focus model ranks: the crossover-flavoured Ford Focus Active. Gradually, then, the pieces are coming together.

Ford hasn’t always translated the standard car’s fluidity into the hotter ST model with huge success. Let’s hope they manage it this time, because the result could be brilliant

Launching the car in stages doesn’t seem to have made the Ford Focus much less popular. Even in a major model replacement year, the car retained its top-five overall sales status in the UK market in 2018 (only narrowly missing out on the top three) and looks on course to take up a top-10 berth among Europe’s most popular new cars in 2019.

Ford should be cautiously happy, then, about the health of its big-selling family hatchback. But what about its soul? Although we’ve had to wait longer than anticipated to do it, this week we’ve got an example of the car in its most promisingly dynamic mechanical specification (until that new ST arrives, of course) with which to assess exactly how sporty and involving the segment’s most driver-focused hatchback can be in its latest form.

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In this case, under the bonnet is Ford’s line-topping 180bhp 1.5-litre turbocharged petrol three-pot engine; at the rear axle you’ll find the Focus’s more sophisticated suspension option, the acclaimed ‘control blade’ independent set-up; and above that there are the 18in alloy wheels that come as standard with ST-Line X cars and optional ‘continuously controlled’ adaptive dampers.

This, therefore, ought to mark a dynamic step-change for the Focus MkIV model line. So exactly how good is it to drive?

Ford Focus engine line-up and trim levels

Putting the load-lugging Estate and crossover-influenced Active to one side, the mainstream Focus line-up currently consists of five petrol variants and three diesels. Entry-level Style models can be outfitted with a 1.0-litre, 83bhp three-cylinder petrol, with step-up Zetec versions starting with a more potent 98bhp 1.0-litre. That engine can also be had in 123bhp tune, while a 1.5-litre three-pot can be had in 148 and 180bhp outputs from ST-Line trim level and up. Those after a diesel can choose from a 1.5-litre in 93bhp and 118bhp states of tune, or 2.0-litre with 148bhp.

The more potent Focus ST can be had in either petrol or diesel guise, with the lower-powered 2.0-litre EcoBlue version also resigned to a six-speed manual gearbox. The petrol ST is the real star, using the 2.3-litre engine also found in the Ecoboost Mustang, tuned here to send 276bhp through the front wheels. Ford has said there is no currently no plans to produce a range-topping RS model of this generation - its new performance focus is the electric Ford Mustang Mach-E.

More on the Ford Focus

Ford Focus ST review

Nearly new buying guide: Ford Focus

Ford Focus vs Volkswagen Golf 

Major update for Ford brings infotainment overhaul

 

DESIGN & STYLING

Ford Focus ST-line X 2019 road test review - hero side

So much is new about this fourth-generation Ford Focus that the difference between it and its predecessor isn’t so much a gap but a veritable gulf.

The Focus is the first Blue Oval model to be based on the car giant’s new C2 platform. According to Ford , this has played a crucial role in ensuring the Focus lives up to its ‘fun to drive’ USP and enabled overall torsional rigidity of the fourth-generation model to be upped by 20%.

Ford hasn’t always translated the standard car’s fluidity into the hotter ST model with huge success. Let’s hope they manage it this time, because the result could be brilliant.

The rear structure, meanwhile, has been stiffened using the same process developed for the last Focus RS. A shaped foam insert is placed, wet, into a rear underbody cavity and allowed to expand during the paint-drying process, increasing local lateral rigidity by 10% with minimal weight gain. The individual suspension mounting points have also been stiffened.

On that note, the Focus’s suspension configuration differs depending on trim level and body shape specified. All cars come with a MacPherson strut-type arrangement up front, with lower-grade five-door hatches featuring a classic torsion beam at the rear. However, estate models and higher-powered hatchbacks such as our ST-Line X test car gain a multi-link layout for the rear axle.

As the sporty offering in the Focus line-up – before the ST model arrived, anyway – the ST-Line X also gets shortened, stiffened ‘sport’ springs, stabiliser bars and dampers as standard, which sees ride height lowered by 10mm. Ford’s Continuously Controlled Damping system is available as a £650 option (our car had it).

A 1.5-litre, three-cylinder Ecoboost turbo petrol motor is housed beneath the elongated bonnet. This range-topping turbocharged engine is the most powerful offering at present, developing 180bhp at 6000rpm and 177lb ft of torque from 1600rpm, all of which is deployed to the front wheels through a six-speed manual transmission. A 123bhp 1.0-litre petrol motor is also available, as are 1.5- and 2.0-litre diesel powerplants.

Customers can elect to have any of the engines, save the very top and bottom petrol options, paired with an eight-speed automatic gearbox instead of a manual should they choose. Ford claims a kerb weight of 1369kg for our test model. We weighed it at 1417kg, the mass distributed 59:41 front to rear.

INTERIOR

Ford Focus ST-line X 2019 road test review - cabin

Ford’s C2 platform wasn’t only designed to enhance the Focus’s driving dynamics: it has improved practicality too. The wheelbase is now 52mm longer than before (at 2700mm), contributing to a typical rear leg room figure of 700mm. For perspective, its predecessor made do with 660mm, while the Skoda Karoq Scout crossover we road tested earlier this year had 680mm.

Boot space is competitive by the standards of the class, too, if not exactly class-leading. There are typically 375 litres of luggage capacity available in the car to the top of the load cover (341 litres in the case of our test car, because its optional adaptive dampers deny the possibility of a split-level boot floor), which is accessed via a usefully wide aperture that measures 950mm at its narrowest point. By way of comparison, the Volkswagen Golf and Seat Leon – arguably the Focus’s closest competitors in this segment – both have 380-litre boots, while the latest Mazda 3 only manages 295 litres.

Infotainment, trip computer and cruise control systems can be controlled from the steering wheel, but you have to switch drive modes via the centre console.

The car’s driving position and ergonomics are beyond serious criticism. There’s more than enough adjustability in both the steering column and seat to ensure you don’t find yourself perched awkwardly over the pedals in order to be within reach of the wheel, while the gearlever, physical ventilation controls and central infotainment display are all within easy reach. That the seat base doesn’t allow you to sit quite as low down in the cabin as you might remains a minor bugbear.

The cabin’s abiding plainness and general shortage of sensory appeal is a more serious criticism, though. You can tell Ford has tried to make this ST-Line X model’s interior feel a bit more special than that of its range-mates, but the execution hasn’t been too successful. The car’s ventilation and heated seat controls are physical, and all the easier to use for it than they might have been as functions integrated into the touchscreen console, but they do look a little bit dated.

The faux carbonfibre trim on the car’s fascia, meanwhile, looks half-hearted and tokenistic, and the Focus’s general standard on perceived quality is not quite what it ought to be if Ford plans on continuing to resist the advance of various rivals with one of its key European products.

Entry-level Style models are the only grade of Focus that do without Ford’s 8.0in touchscreen infotainment suite. On lower-spec cars (Zetec, ST-Line), this does not include a factory satellite navigation function, but the inclusion of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto software means you won’t exactly miss it.

Our ST-Line X test car benefits from the full Sync3 suite right out of the box, incorporating DAB radio, sat-nav, Bluetooth, voice control and the aforementioned smartphone mirroring capability.

Generally it’s easy to use, but it lacks the visual sophistication of more premium rivals and perhaps isn’t always quite as intuitive as it could be. The row of shortcut buttons at the bottom of the screen makes it easy to switch between menus, but the absence of a dedicated home button here seems like an oversight.

Provided you have a compatible smartphone, you’ll likely end up using the Focus’s mirroring software as a default operating system most of the time.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

At one point, a version of this range-topping 1.5-litre Ecoboost engine was destined for the Focus ST – or so we thought. The truth is that tuning its three cylinders to deliver the 250bhp-plus output expected of a modern hot hatch would have compromised reliability, and Ford will instead turn to the deep-breathing 2.3-litre block from the old Focus RS.

Our subject’s 180bhp is modest by comparison and, against a test weight of 1417kg (fuel tank brimmed, but no passengers or luggage), progress never felt any more than usefully brisk. On a damp, near-freezing surface, our best efforts yielded a 0-60mph time of 8.9sec.

Tight hairpins elicit understeer in all but the biggest-tyred front-drivers, but the Focus is more receptive to a mid-corner lift of the throttle, and keeps things tidy.

Even if kinder conditions had allowed the ST-Line X to match a manufacturer claim more than half a second quicker than that, it wouldn’t change the fact the quickest Focus to date is not quite as quick as it looks. In terms of in-gear performance, the Ford is narrowly but dependably bettered by the Honda Civic 1.5-litre i-VTEC, though it does do just enough to see off the less powerful Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI Evo.

But if the raw performance is nothing to get excited about, then the delivery and character of this engine certainly is, if only by the ordinary standards of the class. Peak torque of 177lb ft is comparable to similarly downsized engines, but it enters the fray with a linearity that remains undiminished even by the point peak power arrives – fully 6000rpm.

Furthermore, if three-cylinder engines typically go about their business with a jovial burble, this Ecoboost supplements that with a richer timbre and a genuine eagerness to get the crankshaft spinning. Along with a six-speed manual gearbox whose throw is satisfyingly precise – if a little light and synthetic – this is a driveline worth engaging with, and rarely, if ever, does it feel strained. It’s also worth noting that at a steady 70mph, the Focus’s cabin was two decibels quieter than that of the Golf.

In summary, this is a companionable powertrain that touts its own distinct, refined character, as we’ve come to expect from Ecoboost-badged wares. But performance that’s merely adequate means it isn’t one that defines the driving experience of the new Ford Focus, despite this model’s position as the current range-topper. That is something left to the chassis, as we’ll now discover.

RIDE & HANDLING

Ford Focus ST-line X 2019 road test review - cornering front

The worry for Ford ’s rivals is that, even when equipped with the more basic torsion-beam rear axle, a strong case could still be made for the Focus being the best-handling car in its class.

As it stands, with the ST-Line’s fully independent rear axle and our test car’s optional three-mode adaptive dampers, in dynamic terms this is as sophisticated as the fourth-generation model gets, and it feels that way.

In the fourth-generation Focus, Ford’s managed to improve the car’s functionality without compromising dynamic appeal. Indeed, it’s as good to drive as it’s ever been

The ride is taut but supple with it, and superbly well controlled when asked to moderate quick-fire inputs. Meaningful traces of suspension float or any acquaintance with the bump-stops require a level of commitment at odds with the only moderately sporting brief, and until that point the vertical movements are metered out in clinical fashion.

Anybody coming from the more laid-back confines of a Volkswagen Golf might find the suspension of this sports chassis a fraction immediate on A- and B-roads, but for Autocar readers a fine balance has been struck. After the relative disappointment of the previous iteration – fidget-prone suspension and abrupt damping being the guilty parties – this new Focus goes a long way to reaffirming the brilliance of the 1998 original, albeit without the same communicative steering.

Such a finely tuned set-up will be lost on many owners – though nobody could fail to notice how fluid this car’s motorway gait is with the dampers in their most relaxed setting – but there is genuine dynamic satisfaction in abundance for the rest of us.

This is no more evident than in the way the Ford Focus replicates the cornering stability of cars with longer wheelbases, covering ground in effortless fashion, but can then entertain like little else in this class. Turn in on a trailing brake and the chassis will pivot with surprising grace before any yaw is gathered up by the electrically assisted (overly so, we’d say) but quick and accurate steering.

Milder direction changes are otherwise a satisfyingly crisp affair, and the Focus is never anything less than an enjoyable steer.

In conditions far from ideal on Millbrook’s tortuously undulating Hill Route – patches of damp and temperatures only a mite above freezing – our Focus demonstrated the kind of composure you would expect from the best-handling car in its class. Body movements were marshalled well enough with the adaptive dampers in their default mid-way setting, though upping the rates in Sport mode introduced an additional veneer of composure.

The Michelin Pilot Sport 3 tyres developed appreciable grip, though there were few surprises when it ran out – without the benefit of a limited-slip differential, the Focus edged benignly into understeer most of the time. The ESP software can’t be fully disabled, however, which is perhaps because this chassis will oversteer with surprising enthusiasm should you provoke it.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

Ford Focus ST-line X 2019 road test review - hero front

It would seem that Ford has worked hard to ensure its new Ford Focus retains its appeal not only for how it drives but for value for money as well. The sticker price of our ST-Line X specification test car highlights as much.

For £25,650, not only do you receive an extensive list of standard equipment that includes heated seats, Ford’s Sync 3 infotainment suite, cruise control, 18in alloys and more, you’re also getting the range-topping 180bhp petrol motor under the bonnet. A similarly equipped Volkswagen Golf 1.5 TSI Evo R-Line may only be a shade more expensive at £25,875, but you’ll be buying a car with less performance and less kit, and one that’s not quite as incisive or engaging to drive.

Ford outperforms rivals from Seat and Volkswagen for retained value. Ageing Leon and Golf aren’t far behind, though

The Ford’s fuel consumption is a bit more contentious when you consider what this clever three-cylinder engine ought to be capable of, however. The Focus’s touring test fuel economy figure of 43.8mpg, combined with a fuel tank size of 52 litres, should see it capable of travelling up to 501 miles between fuel stops on a fairly economically driven long run.

Sounds entirely reasonable. But when we road tested the VW Golf 1.5 TSI Evo in 2017, its 51.7mpg touring test result equivalent and 50-litre tank translated to a touring range closer to 600 miles.

 

VERDICT

Ford Focus ST-line X 2019 road test review - on the road hero

The arrival of the new Ford Focus will have been observed closely by the Blue Oval’s key rivals. And given the weight of expectation placed on this stalwart of the family hatchback segment by customer and competitor alike, chances are such an occasion elicits a good deal of perturbation back at Ford, too.

So it’s a good thing, then, that this fourth-generation model is now more practical, more advanced and more attractive than it was before. What makes it an even more compelling prospect, though, is that it’s now better than ever at what has always been its raison d’être: the way it drives. The introduction of a new platform, new engine and new adaptive dampers are crucial contributors to this realisation.

Better to drive and look at than before, and impressively good value

Of course, the new Focus isn’t without its bugbears. It doesn’t command quite the same prestige as some of its more premium-badged rivals and its cabin does want for material and visual appeal. Ultimately, though, these are small niggles, and certainly not of enough consequence to rob the Focus of class honours here.

 

Richard Lane

Richard Lane
Title: Deputy road test editor

Richard joined Autocar in 2017, arriving from Evo magazine, and is typically found either behind a keyboard or steering wheel.

As deputy road test editor he delivers in-depth road tests, performance benchmarking and supercar lap-times, plus feature-length comparison stories between rival cars. He can also be found on Autocar's YouTube channel

Mostly interested in how cars feel on the road – the sensations and emotions they can evoke – Richard drives around 150 newly launched makes and models every year, and focuses mainly on the more driver-orientated products, as is tradition at Autocar. His job is then to put the reader firmly in the driver's seat. 

Away from work, but remaining on the subject of cars, Richard owns an eight-valve Integrale, loves watching sportscar racing, and holds a post-grad in transport engineering. 

Ford Focus First drives