Road test: Ford's 2016 Focus is a solid and fun all-rounder
You only get one chance to make a first impression, I think to myself as I start to choke and vomit uncontrollably with a small crowd looking on.
I'm in an exclusive restaurant under the Sydney Harbor bridge in Australia. Twenty seconds ago I was chatting with event hosts and product communications managers from Ford and enjoying a tapas-style dinner.
This is a new style of car launch for Ford, a luxury lifestyle event where the traditional auto media is left behind and a range of new media types come along. There's representatives from fitness and style magazines and up-and-coming digital content creators. There's the winners of the New Zealand Bachelor TV show. I'm typically underdressed even in the company of grizzled auto and motorcycle writers - but this takes things to a whole new level.
And now I'm coughing and puking in the entryway to the restaurant. Not outside the restaurant, discreetly in the grass. Right there in the entryway, because I was trying to push open a pull door and I ran out of time. There's an open kitchen, the restaurant staff are looking on in horror.
And that's how my luxury lifestyle weekend with the Ford Focus started – with an excruciating trip to Sydney Hospital to retrieve a piece of slow cooked lamb out of my stupid oesophagus. The omens were not great.
I know you don't care, dear reader, but I had to go through it, and the chefs had to watch it through horrified fingers, and the Ford team had to endure it, and so did everyone else at the restaurant, while eating dinner, no less. So now we're all on the same page.
The Focus is a handsome, understated five door hatch. To say it's been a successful model is a huge understatement – it was the most common car in Great Britain in 2014, and Ford sold one every 40 seconds globally in 2015, putting it in the top 5 best selling cars for that year.
It's a quality package at an attractive price, and with the 2016 facelift, which brought in a new front grille shape to match the rest of Ford's streetcars from the Mustang to the Fiesta, it has taken a leap forward in visual sophistication.
Our test car is the Titanium model, which packs in Ford's full suite of driver assist technology. The Focus is happy to take as much work away from the driver as possible, with a useful adaptive cruise control system that feels much smoother than the first generation we tested in the Kuga. There's also auto emergency braking, and park assist systems that now work in both parallel and perpendicular parking spots. Peter piper picked a peck of parallel and perpendicular parking places.
There's blind spot warnings, and a cross traffic alert system that warns you when you're backing blindly out of a driveway if something's coming. And this Focus is the first Ford I've driven with active lane keeping assist, which uses tiny cameras in the underside of your wing mirrors to track what the white lines on the road are doing, work out when you're drifting out of your lane, and gently steer you back on course.
It sounds like a distracting amount of gadgetry, but in truth none of these systems get in the way, and the interior and console design is cleaner and classier than it's ever been. In fact, there's one more thing I find myself wishing for as we chug our way out of town through Sydney traffic – a crawl assist version of the adaptive cruise system that would work the pedals for me in stop/start traffic.
As my road trip buddy Fintan McDonnell and I cruise down toward the Royal National Park, we muse on how each new piece of driver assist technology represents a nibble at the larger self driving car cookie - Ford has recently come out and said it's planning to launch an autonomous fleet vehicle in 2021. This stuff is going to turn the auto industry on its head, cars seem certain to morph from a must-have product and status symbol into ultra-efficient, anonymous electric robot taxi services – maybe even free ones that'll move you from A to B in return for subjecting you to a bunch of advertising … and that's just in the short term.
But there's time yet for those of us who drive for pleasure. After a brief stop to pose for photos with picnic tables, fishing paraphernalia, some cockatoos and a game of quoits, we head into the twisty roads leading south toward the coast.
The Focus RS and ST are the designated corner carvers of the lineup; the standard Focus isn't designed with sporty driving as the first priority. Having said that, it probably punches a bit above its weight when you throw it into a set of bends.
The Titanium model has wheels an inch wider and larger in diameter than the lower-spec Trend, and it wears a stickier sport-focused tire that offers impressive grip under cornering and braking forces.
The suspension and seats are set up for comfort over control, but as Fintan grabs the ol' Jesus bar and we pitch the thing into some proper corners, I'm pleasantly surprised how much fun it is to drive hard.
With sport shift engaged on the transmission, the four cylinder engine revs high with a muted roar that gives just a glimpse of the Focus's rally heritage. There's 132 kilowatts (177 hp) available from its 1.5-liter Ecoboost turbo, which is decent enough, and it's certainly best enjoyed at high RPM.
It's worth noting that the transmission has actually gone back a step. This year's Focus uses an old-school torque converter 6-speed automatic instead of the Powershift dual-clutch of the previous model. We didn't drive that car, but by many accounts the transmission wasn't ready for prime time, and it slipped and jerked and snatched in ways gearboxes shouldn't. There are no such problems with the 2016 model – the torque converter auto is smooth, reliable and predictable to the point that it almost disappears from mind. With no paddle shift on the steering wheel, I didn't find much advantage in going to thumb-activated manual shift; the car makes decent decisions for you both in Drive and Sport mode.
Steering is a good balance of refined and direct for this kind of car (when the lane keeping system isn't poking its head in to give a conservative opinion on the lines I'm taking) and despite a little suspension roll the Focus hangs on impressively in a long corner.
As it starts to reach the limits of cornering traction, an enhanced transitional stability system steps in to flatter my driving by adjusting engine torque output and braking individual inside wheels to tighten the cornering line. It comes in very smoothly; you've got to be looking for it to even notice it. But understeer is dealt with so capably that you can easily convince yourself you're a much better driver than you are. And that's the kind of driver assist gear I really like.
We proceed through an afternoon of extraordinary views, beach cricket, barbecues and yet more excellent driving roads to the gorgeous, bucolic grounds of Peppers Manor House in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. Here the Focus proves its ability to self-park between two small podiums with bottles of champagne on top of them ... with blacked-out windows to up the ante.
The next morning, it's time for a fuel economy challenge to see who can squeeze the most Eco out of that Ecoboost engine over about 80 km (50 miles) of country driving. And the drivers take it seriously; I honestly weep for all the poor locals we hold up on the road as we try to keep the revs under 1500 and crawl up hills at half the speed limit.
I'm feeling a little guilty about giving the Focus a gumboot full on day 1, and I have plenty of experience in the art of stretching a dwindling fuel supply from my days as a broke uni student, so I pull out all the stops.
I'm hardly touching the brakes, and just feathering the accelerator to add momentum when it's needed without letting it kick down a gear. Downhill twisties runs are hair-raising, holding onto every precious ounce of speed, and when we hit the highway I slot straight in behind a decent sized truck to make the most of the negative pressure zone in there.
Second place in the contest goes to Art, the New Zealand Bachelor guy, at 5.5 liters per 100 km (42 mpg). Others sit around 6 l/100 km (39 mpg). I manage to average 4.5 (52 mpg). The last time I saw that kind of figure, I was riding a freakin' BMW scooter. So yes, it can be very economical, and I hope I never have to do that again.
On the cruise back into Sydney to finish the road trip, Fintan and I spend plenty of time playing with the Sync 3 touchscreen system that's rolling out across the Ford range. It's much quicker and more responsive than the Sync 2 system I argued with during our Fiesta ST test in 2014, and allows multi-touch as well as an enhanced voice recognition system that works very well.
Importantly for most of us these days, it features Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, so you can run navigation and other apps straight off your phone if you prefer.
We actually ended up sticking with Sync's own nav system to deal with Sydney's persnickety traffic. It does a great job, rerouting surprisingly quickly when you go off course or live traffic conditions dictate a better way. And those Sync voice commands make it very easy to add stops and waypoints along the way. "Sync, I'm dying for a coffee." "Sync, we need fuel." It's a natural way to interact with the car.
The Focus Titanium will set you back AU$33,990 drive away in Australia (or US$24,600 in the United States) – that's the one with all the goodies, and there's cheaper Trend (Aus) and SE (USA) versions available that cut back on electronics, driver aids and trimmings for a humbler but still solid ride.
On the other side, performance drivers can check out the beefed-up Focus ST, which wicks up power and handling significantly, or the completely crazy Focus RS, which has more than double the power of the standard model, as well as electronic suspension control and the famous "drift mode" that has road safety advocates foaming at the mouth.
I've skipped over a ton of exceptional food, hotel, lifestyle and coffee stops in the writing of this piece, but you'd be right to assume Ford treated us all like complete rockstars on this trip. Hence why I started this story with a painful regurgitation; perhaps this swings the scales back toward some sort of objectivity.
But choking and vomiting aside, I enjoyed the car, and the event, tremendously. Both Fintan and the Focus proved excellent road trip companions, and I didn't find a lot that would dissuade me from recommending either of them.