2018 Ford Focus.
2018 Ford Focus.

New Ford Focus review: Small brings Euro flair to Australia

FORD'S Focus has been on sale in Australia for 20 years. It's one of the better hatchbacks to drive, courtesy of its engineering DNA from Ford of Europe - but it has never sold in sufficient numbers to trouble class leaders such as the Toyota Corolla, Mazda3 and Hyundai i30.

Australian hatchback buyers tend to favour the Japanese and Korean approach to small cars, which prioritises price, durability and reliability via conventional, proven technology, over European contenders.

The Ford Focus is engineered by the brand’s European outfit.
The Ford Focus is engineered by the brand’s European outfit.

Among these are the Focus, VW Golf and Holden Astra, with pointy end engineering - such as small capacity turbo engines and automated manual transmissions - and a stronger emphasis on performance, fuel efficiency, handling and safety.

Focus sales also suffered from the lingering stench of Ford Australia's attempt in 2015-16 to blame customer driving habits for serious problems with its Powershift dual-clutch automatic transmission. That earned it a $10 million fine from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and spooked buyers away from Focus to the extent that it now languishes in 10th place on the class sales ladder.

So there's really nowhere else to go but up for the new fourth generation Focus.

It arrives from Germany as a four model range, kicking off with the Trend hatch, priced at $25,990. That's big money for a base model in this class but Ford hasn't skimped on drivetrain hardware, safety tech or standard equipment. Each is comparable with rival mid-spec versions at the $25-$30K pricepoint.

The Focus has always been one of the better driving small hatches on the market.
The Focus has always been one of the better driving small hatches on the market.

The standard engine across the range is a new 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo, matched with an eight-speed automatic - a conventional torque converter job, not the troublesome dual-clutch design. There's no manual option.

Ford's infotainment is as good as it gets in this class, with an eight-inch touchscreen, navigation with traffic monitoring, Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, digital radio, stand-alone voice control for all functions - and talks to you in a 'Strayan accent - wi-fi hotspot compatibility and automatic emergency services dialling, via your paired phone, if you have a prang.

The Trend's driver assistance runs to six airbags, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane keep assist/departure warning, adjustable speed limiter, 180-degree view reversing camera and automatic post impact braking.

Ford has packed the Focus with gear to justify its higher entry price point.
Ford has packed the Focus with gear to justify its higher entry price point.

Ford's MyKey allows you to program functions such as disabling incoming calls, restricting top speed and audio volume - and disabling the audio altogether if occupants haven't used the seat belts - into a specific key, which you can then give to the young, inexperienced driver in your family.

The ST Line, at $28,990 for the hatch and $30,990 for the wagon, is a sports-flavoured variant with body kit, rear spoiler and honeycomb grille, along with stiffer suspension, 10mm lower ride height, tyre pressure monitoring and 17-inch alloy wheels.

Inside, it adds wireless phone charging, dual-zone aircon, keyless entry and start, metal insert pedals and a flat-bottom steering wheel.

Top-spec and available as a hatch only, the Titanium costs $34,490. As you'd expect at this price, the full suite of safety tech includes blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert, adaptive cruise, speed sign recognition, automatic lane centring and evasive steering assist. Also standard are automatic parking, head-up display, adaptive LED headlights, 18 inch alloys, heated/powered front seats, premium audio and leather upholstery.

Ford gives parents peace of mind with its MyKey feature.
Ford gives parents peace of mind with its MyKey feature.

The 2019 Focus rides on Ford's all new architecture, known as C2. It's a larger hatchback than the previous model, particularly in its wheelbase, so rear legroom is more generous than the Corolla, Golf, i30 and Mazda 3 and boot volume increases.

The lighter, stronger body has slippery aerodynamics (0.27cd) in the pursuit of fuel efficiency and quietness.

From the Trend driver's seat, the view is surprisingly dated and down-market, with monotone grey plastic trim, an ancient-looking analog instrument panel and precious little design flair. The touchscreen looks out of place, like a hi-tech aftermarket accessory in an otherwise impoverished, low-tech cabin.

It all works fine, which is what really counts. The driving position is comfortable (apart from head restraints that intrude if you prefer the backrest upright), vision is clear around the car, there's enough open and covered storage close at hand for bits and pieces and there are a couple of USB sockets and a 12 volt plug as well.

The Focus comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
The Focus comes with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.

The relatively large glass area and low window sills give the cabin a pleasant, open, spacious feel that kids in particular will appreciate.

Early next year, the Focus Active arrives, priced at $29,990. It's basically a jacked-up hatch with 34mm extra ground clearance, faux SUV styling and interior decor, plus a couple of extra selectable modes for improved traction in slippery or off-road conditions.

On the road

The Focus's 1.5-litre turbo is one of the more energetic triples around, with a willingness to rev that often eludes three cylinder engines, though it doesn't spin up as quickly as a four and can vibrate intermittently in cruise mode, a characteristic of the genre.

Peak torque kicks in from 1600rpm, so it's also responsive and tractable in the lower half of the rev range, assisted by the eight-speed automatic, which has a rotary selector dial rather than a lever on the centre console.

The Focus is powered by a feisty three-cylinder turbo engine.
The Focus is powered by a feisty three-cylinder turbo engine.

Paddle-shifters are also standard, as is stop-start. Shifts are generally smooth and timely, though you can sometimes feel the transmission shuffling down through the gears as you come to a stop.

Driving modes are Eco, Normal and Sport, with little difference in performance between the latter two.

The Focus has always been one of the better handling hatchbacks and the new model is still an engaging, enjoyable drive, even with torsion beam suspension replacing the independent rear set-up of the previous generation.

In corners it feels light and agile, with super sharp, intuitive steering and reasonably confident roadholding. It lacks the composure and poise in bumpy bends of, say, a Corolla and there is a slight twitchiness, amplified by pretty stiff springs at the rear.

Continental Eco tyres on the Trend's 16-inch wheels aren't particularly adhesive, either; premium Michelin Pilot Sport rubber on ST-Line's 17 inches has much stronger grip.

The Focus stops well enough but the transition from light to heavy braking is too sudden, and disproportionate to pedal pressure.

Has the Focus done enough to keep up with its most polished rivals?
Has the Focus done enough to keep up with its most polished rivals?

The ride is almost hot-hatch firm, even on the Trend, and much less compliant and comfortable than the Corolla and Golf.

Verdict 3/5

This fourth-generation Focus has more space, infotainment and safety for your money but on the road it isn't the most convincing model to wear the badge. Rivals Golf and Corolla have set the bar high in this class and Focus doesn't quite get there.

What's new

Price: Starting money is $25,990 plus on-road costs for Trend grade, an increase of $1600 on the previous model. The VW Golf 110TSI Trendline is $27,490 and Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport is $24,370.

Tech: Standard safety spec includes AEB and lane keep assist. Blind spot monitoring, rear cross traffic alert and adaptive cruise are bundled into an optional Driver Assistance Pack, at $1250, on Trend and ST Line.

Performance: The 1.5-litre turbo triple produces similar numbers to its four-cylinder predecessor but the new eight-speed auto, replacing a six-speeder, gives it stronger acceleration and more refined cruising. Fuel consumption rises slightly and it requires premium.

Driving: Ford has taken the low-cost rear suspension option. A torsion beam replaces the previous model's independent set-up, bringing the Focus back to the pack in terms of handling. Stiff springs make the ride a bit too firm for an everyday drive.

Design: New ST-Line variant looks pukka sporty. This fourth-generation body is now one of the most spacious in the class. The dash looks like something out of a 10-year-old model.

Ford Focus vitals

Price: $25,990-$34,490 plus on-roads

Warranty/servicing: 5 yrs/unlimited km, $897 for three years

Engine: 1.5-litre 3-cyl turbo, 134kW/240Nm

Safety: 5 stars, 7 airbags, AEB, lane keep assist, speed limiter, My Key

Thirst: 6.4L/100km

Spare: Space-saver

Boot: 341L