New Focus: the estate of the nation

The Ford Focus was always dead sensible, of course. It’s just that it didn’t look it, with styling as fresh and edgy (literally) as anything to hit the family hatch sector in decades. At first some weren’t sure, then everyone liked it – one of the reasons it was Britain’s best-selling car. The exciting look was perfectly in harmony with the stimulating drive on offer. Not only was the Focus arguably the best-looking hatch in the world, it was unquestionably the best to drive.

Somewhere along the line, though, a Werther’s Original has been slipped into the Focus gene pool. The first effects were plain to see. Although part of the Focus family, the C-Max looks as sober as a judge on a camomile tea drip.

Now the second-generation Focus is here (or will be in January) and childish things have been put away, seemingly once and for all. That includes the New Edge design theme that made the old Focus so distinctive, swiftly jettisoned when the new intake of ‘design professionals’ arrived at Ford from places like Volkswagen and Audi. 

They didn’t go a bundle on New Edge, and re-interpreted the Focus in a more traditional ‘organic’ idiom with carefully balanced proportions (not quite carefully enough to our eyes), lots of soft forms, a mass of finely-crafted details and a scaled-down Mondeo-style nose. On the hatch, the only ideas really carried over from the old model are the profile – even more steeply raked at the rear – and the high-rise tail lamps. They’re just enough to keep a flicker of recognition alive.

But this is the new Focus Estate and any visual links with the old model have been well and truly severed. That’s no bad thing, as New Edge never really worked with the wagon’s boxier shape, reflected in the less than sparkling sales. This is where the more conservative approach is most convincing. New Focus translates into a good-looking estate car: classy, well-proportioned and handsome. Radical it isn’t, but there you are.

In fact, you can make an argument for the Estate being the looker of the range; it seems to have a lower, broader stance than the hatch and your eye isn’t drawn into making slightly unflattering comparisons with the old car.

The new Focus Estate is longer (by 19mm) and wider (by 138mm) than the old car, but although rear-seat passengers will notice the extra space, the Labrador will find a little less tail-wagging space in the back. The 475-litre boot is 45 litres down on the old car, though it’s five litres up on the new Astra Estate. 

Drop the seats and its 1525 litres loses out to both old Focus (1580 litres) and Astra (1550 litres).

One of the foundation stones of the old Focus’s appeal was its excellent packaging and Ford’s attention to detail is just as impressive this time round. The Estate’s headlining kicks up at the rear, liberating 21mm of headroom for passengers in the back. Rear suspension is the same compact multi-link arrangement used on the hatch, with tweaked spring and damper rates.

The cabin shows an equal preference for maturity over modishness with a considerably more conventional dash design that, were it to come from VW, wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, though the oval face-level vents take Ford branding to subliminal levels of subtlety. What’s undeniable is that cabin quality and build are an order of magnitude better than before. Some of the plastics are still a bit iffy and the Ghia wood trim looks as naff now as it always has. But there’s a new sense of toughness and solidity – and of airiness.

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The Focus was never short of legroom but there’s even more now, as well as 40mm more shoulder room. The driving position (adjusted by electric seat motors on our Ghia-spec test car – there’s even the option of power-adjustable pedals) is excellent, with all the major controls well aligned and the seats both supportive and comfortable.

All right, so the Focus has become something of an aesthetically flair-free zone. It’s almost forgiveable given the compensations in other areas. Much harder to accept would be any dulling of the Focus’s formidable dynamic talents. First impressions are positive – the clutch is light and smooth, the gearchange notchy but wieldy and precise.

Which is just as well, since it sees a fair bit of action teamed with the 107bhp 1.6-litre version of Ford’s TDCi turbodiesel. Although quieter and sweeter than the 2.0-litre TDCi, the 1.6 doesn’t have anything like as much torque (177 plays 236lb ft). It feels brawny enough in the lower gears and sprints to 62mph in a handy 10.9sec, but by fifth the snap has all gone. A rangey top cog helps economy, though: the 1.6 returns 58.9mpg on the combined cycle.

As we noted at the launch of the Focus, if the new electro-hydraulic power steering isn’t quite as engaging as the pure hydraulic set-up of the previous model (and the 1.4/1.6 petrol variants of this one), the shortfall is small. And besides, the new Focus still steers with more alertness and feel than most rivals.

Much, but not all, of the verve and agility of the old model is retained but new Focus does feel heavier and more relaxed. That said, it also has more grip and a better ride. The Estate feels a little firmer than the hatch and can’t match the pliancy of a VW Golf, but the suspension is more absorbent than before, quieter and less disturbed. In its own slightly more laid-back way, it delivers the brilliantly-judged compromise between involvement and comfort that was the hallmark of the old car.

But perhaps the best thing about the new Focus Estate isn’t just that it looks a heap better than the old one, but better than the hatch, too.

David Vivian

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