2014 Ford Focus Driving Impressions

We took a long test drive in the Focus SE hatchback, which uses the standard 2.0-liter engine with direct injection and twin variable valve timing. It makes 160 horsepower and 146 pound-feet of torque. It's plenty powerful, but mostly, it's extremely smooth. Chevrolet Cruze's 1.4-liter turbocharged Ecotec engine zooms more quickly to high speeds.

If only the automatic transmission were programmed to be as smooth as the engine. Its shift points, whether in Drive or Select, were unexpected and frequent. Sometimes it shifts itself for engine braking going downhill, when you don't need it to, while other times it doesn't when you want it to. There was so much override in the Select mode, it didn't really seem to matter much which mode we were in; the car made the shifting decisions regardless. The manual gearbox is ropey, reminding us of Volkswagen manuals, but the shifting is effortless and precise.

Ride quality is good. The Focus rides on the soft side, good for commuting while sipping cappuccino. Handling is less precise, however. When we ran a modest rise in the road full throttle at about 60 mph, the car floated and the tires chirped when it came down; typically we might have expected that only at higher speeds. The suspension uses MacPherson struts in front, multi-link in rear.

The rack-mounted power steering system on the Focus was less precise than we'd like, matching the suspension. In our Focus SE with the standard suspension, we struggled to steer the car precisely in the curves, in contrast to the Chevrolet Cruze, which handled like a dream when pushed fast through turns.

Active Park Assist, which will parallel park the Focus for you, while you just sit there. It's an improvement on the Toyota Prius system, which can only park if the space is 7 feet 9 inches larger than the car; using ultrasound, the Focus needs only a margin of 3 feet. However, it will require the driver's help with the accelerator in a space that small, because jockeying forward and back is required.

Interior noise is kept to a minimum. A lot of productive effort went into making the Focus cabin silent, including the door structure and sealing, thick window glass, an acoustic layer in the windshield, sound-deadening body panels, foam in body cavities, thick carpet insulation and a sound-absorbing headliner.

The Focus ST gets raves from all quarters. In Road & Track magazine's comparison test with a MazdaSpeed 3 and Volkswagen GTI, it won every category except fuel mileage. Who cares, the mileage at an EPA-estimated 26 mpg Combined city and highway is still good for the speed you get. When you're behind the wheel, the fun just keeps coming at you. It's got character. Engine, gearbox, cornering and ride: all the right driving stuff.

We drove the Focus ST for one week, and before that for 30 minutes on the same day we drove a Mini Cooper, Nissan Juke, and Fiat 500 Abarth, also 30 minutes each. No contest. Focus ST came out the winner of all these.

The 2.0-liter twin-turbo makes 252 horsepower, thanks to a complete makeover of the base 160-hp engine. It will do 0-60 in 5.9 seconds and the quarter-mile in 14.6. But it's the 270 foot-pounds of torque at 2500 rpm that propel and define the car. There is an electronic program to reduce torque steer, but ha, it can't handle the twist put out by this engine. In the Focus ST, torque steer is fun. The exhaust is tuned to howl, and it does so distinctively, pleasing the driver and spectators on the sidewalk. It howls even when it has nothing to howl about, softly, under gentle acceleration, at an easy 3000 rpm, just to remind you it's there.

The 6-speed manual gearbox is tight and precise, a stick of joy, but, sadly, heel-and-toe downshifting is difficult. Drivers with different feet and ankles might not find this so. We climbed from the Focus ST into a Nissan 370Z, and the heel-and-toe execution was spot-on in the Z.

The Focus ST suspension is tuned toward oversteer, so at the limit in a corner it doesn't plow; instead the rear end comes around, just a controllable touch. Unheard of. Grins. The cornering is amazingly quick and grippy for a front-wheel-drive car. Credit to the tires, Goodyear Eagle F1 Asymmetrics, 235/40 on 18-inch alloy rims. Do not go out in ice or snow with these tires, and be careful in rain, but in the dry they are fantastic. The steering ratio is 13.7:1, compared to the Mazdaspeed 3 at 16.2:1 and VW GTI at 16.4:1. Not only that, it's variable ratio, and quickens to an astonishing 10.1:1 at speed. Think track days. Run with the Vipers. The ride is firm, reminding you that your car is hot. But you can drive all day no problem.

Over patchy pavement under acceleration, it twitches a lot. It's exciting, and, as with the torque steer, there's security to the twitch; it doesn't threaten to make you lose control. Maybe it's that electronic Torque Steer Compensation program.

We observed fuel economy in the mid-20s when we were driving the gasoline-powered Focus SE. Official EPA estimates are 26/36 mpg City/Highway with the 5-speed manual gearbox and 27/37 with the 6-speed automatic. The new Focus ST hatchback with the 2.0-liter EcoBoost engine is rated at 23/32 mpg City/Highway.

The Focus Electric doesn't need gas. It gets its power from a battery that owners charge up at home. On the road, we found the power from the 107-kilowatt electric motor perfectly adequate. It makes the equivalent of 141 horsepower. Like all cars that use electric motors, there's plenty of thrust off the line. The single-speed, direct-drive transmission is smooth and unobtrusive.

The Focus Electric gets an EPA energy efficiency equivalent rating (MPGe) of 110/99 MPGe City/Highway (105 MPGe Combined), which is slightly better than the Nissan Leaf. Ford claims the Focus Electric can go up to 76 miles on one charge, which is less than the Nissan Leaf's estimated range of 100 miles. But the Focus has a huge advantage when it comes to charging time, at least on paper. Ford says the Focus can fully charge in four hours using a 240-volt home charger, while the Leaf requires twice as long. Owners of the Focus Electric will be able to control and check up on their cars using MyFord Mobile, a smartphone integration app that allows owners to monitor charging progress, locate charging stations and remotely set climate control functions.

We found the Focus Electric particularly smooth and quiet. We expected ride quality to be sacrificed with the comparatively huge 17-inch aluminum wheels, but we didn't detect any significance differences while on the road.

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