June 17, 2019

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I know, we say it just about every time we drive one, but the Ford Focus has to be one of the most underappreciated cars in Australia.

Despite the recent SUV and ute boom, small cars continue to sell strongly Down Under, with the segment dominated by the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3 and Hyundai i30 – generally in that order, too. The Focus, meanwhile, is almost outsold by the Toyota 10 to one. That’s right, nearly 10 to one, and we’re not entirely sure why.

Enter the all-new 2019 ‘SA’ Focus, which replaces the ageing ‘LZ’ generation complete with fresh looks, a comprehensive available technology suite, and an overhauled interior to match it with the likes of the Volkswagen Golf. It is built in Germany, after all.

On test we have the Focus ST-Line hatchback, which I drove over the Christmas break for around 720km, including a round trip from Melbourne to Mulwala on the New South Wales border – which you can read more about here.

The range kicks off at $25,990 plus on-roads for the entry-level Trend hatch, while the mid-spec ST-Line hatch we have here is priced from $28,990 before ORCs.

For that spend you get stuff like a honeycomb front grille, bodykit, 17-inch alloys, sports suspension with 10mm lower ride height, LED fog-lights with cornering function, LED tail-lights, privacy glass, chrome tailpipe finishers, auto-folding side mirrors with puddle lights, dual-zone climate control, keyless entry with push-button start, and a wireless smartphone charge pad.

Other features over the base model include a dark headliner, flat-bottomed steering wheel, metallic foot pedals, tyre-pressure monitoring, autonomous emergency braking (5–80km/h) with pedestrian and cyclist protection, along with lane-keep assist.

The only option fitted to our tester was the Shadow Black prestige paint, asking for an additional $650, bringing the as-tested ticket to $29,640 plus on-road costs.

Despite the healthy equipment list for under $30K, there are some notable items that are absent or relegated to the options list.

Features like adaptive cruise control with stop&go along with blind-spot monitoring form part of a $1250 Driver Assistance Pack (which we think should be standard from the ST-Line and up), while LED headlights with auto high-beam are included in the $1800 Design Pack that also brings 18-inch alloy wheels.

Safety equipment includes the aforementioned AEB and lane-keeping systems, along with six airbags and the usual suite of electronic aids like ABS and traction control. The Focus scored a five-star safety rating in Euro NCAP tests, which translated to a 2018-stamped five-star ANCAP score.

All in all in terms of value, the Focus is decently equipped, but it’s no value-for-money standout in the segment.

Those who place a high priority on aesthetics will either love or hate the new Focus’s rather generic exterior design, which doesn’t really do much to stand out from other Euro-made competitors like the Holden (Opel) Astra and Volkswagen Golf.

However, it’s clean and inoffensive, and employs a somewhat Germanic style that looks upmarket. It’s a shame full-LED lighting up front isn’t standard, though, as our tester’s halogen headlights aren’t particularly attractive.

On the inside, the Focus employs a new interior layout that first started with the smaller Fiesta overseas. Gone is the ageing and plasticky cabin of the outgoing model, which is swapped out for a less button-heavy and modern design that may be seen as a little generic if functional.

Like various brands, Ford has decided to make the infotainment system a floating tablet-style display, which measures 8.0 inches and is running the company’s excellent Sync 3 operating system featuring in-built navigation with traffic updates as standard, in addition to Apple CarPlay and Android Auto smartphone mirroring technology.

As with other models in the Blue Oval’s line-up, the Sync 3 system is fully featured (including DAB+ digital radio) and is pretty quick to respond to inputs and load menus. It’s a rather premium experience in a segment that still has vehicles that lack similar functionality.

Most of my time with the Focus was spent running Apple CarPlay from my iPhone, which worked seamlessly.

While the ST-Line misses out on the beefy B&O sound system found in the top-spec Titanium, the standard six-speaker stereo does the job nicely, offering clear sound so one can play their throwback pop playlist on a three-hour road trip without any fuss – speaking on behalf of a ‘friend’, obviously…

Up front, the cloth-trimmed sports seats are both comfortable and supportive, while the material used feels of a high quality. It’s also great on hot days, as opposed to cowhide that might burn your backside if it’s been left in the sun.

The general ambience is pretty good, too. Top and mid-level sections of the dashboard and doors are trimmed in yielding soft-touch materials.

Lower down in the cabin the plastics get harder, and the centre tunnel does shift a little bit if you try hard enough. But it’s a genuine step forward for the Focus, which apes its German compatriot, the Volkswagen Golf, in terms of offering a high-quality look and feel without doing anything particularly flashy.

However, unlike the Golf, the Focus lacks rear air vents, so friends or kids in the back may not fare as well on scorching hot days like we experienced over the Victorian summer. In saying that, the dual-zone climate control worked beautifully on several 40-degree-plus days, keeping the cabin nicely cool and insulated from the harsh world outside.

Back to the rear seat accommodation, there’s adequate legroom for adults, though not class leading, while there should be enough room to seat three across over shorter journeys. Kids will be fine.

Further back, the Focus’s luggage area measures a decent 375L (just short of the Golf’s 380L). If you want more space, the ST-Line wagon (from $30,990) offers a massive 608L, which is more than enough for a pram and groceries – should that be the kind of practicality you need. Under the boot floor, there’s a space-saver spare wheel.

Now that we’ve covered the boring stuff, let’s hit the road.

The Ford Focus has always been renowned as the driver’s choice in the small-car segment, and this latest generation continues to impress in that regard.

One of the first things you’ll notice is how beautifully direct the steering feels. Without being too light or too heavy, the Focus’s tiller inspires much confidence thanks to its abundance of feedback and darty feel.

The chassis is also beautifully balanced and sits really flat in corners – definitely helped by the ST-Line’s firmer sports suspension and 10mm lower ride height than the wider hatchback range.

Further enhancing the sporting feel is the engine, a new 1.5-litre turbocharged three-cylinder ‘Ecoboost’ unit pumping out 134kW at 4500rpm and 240Nm between 1750 and 5000rpm. Drive is sent to the front wheels exclusively via an eight-speed torque converter automatic, the latter unique to the segment.

The three-pot mill is a willing engine, pulling strongly from down low and not really running out of puff at the top end. While it’s not quite as punchy as, say, a Golf GTI or i30 N, the Focus certainly fits the bill of a ‘warm’ hatch by the seat of the pants.

Being a three-cylinder, the 1.5-litre engine makes a characterful thrummy note, which never sounds thrashy under load. In fact, it sounds quite meaty.

While Ford doesn’t quote an official 0–100km/h time, the Focus makes light work of hitting highway speeds and also overtaking on country roads – the latter something I had to engage in on several occasions on my trip back from Mulwala.

The eight-speed automatic is fantastic, too, offering slick, intuitive shifts when required, and then settling into a high ratio when cruising with the three-pot engine humming at below 2000rpm even at 110km/h.

In saying that, I wouldn’t recommend using the paddle shifters for more spirited stints, as it can feel like an eternity between when you pull on the paddle and the transmission actually shifts.

Overall refinement is very impressive, too. Even on the rougher sections of the Hume Highway, the Focus kept tyre roar to a minimum. There was, however, a little bit of wind whistle coming from the left-side mirror at 110km/h.

In terms of the ride, not all will enjoy the rather firm tune of the ST-Line’s sports suspension, though it does settle at higher speeds and it’s well damped enough to not crash over bumps in town. I’d go so far as to say the new Focus is a cut above the majority of the small-car class in terms of touring ability, in terms of comfort and refinement.

During our three-hour stint on the freeway, we got to trial the Focus’s lane-keep assist system, which is far less intrusive than the versions employed by other manufacturers. The Ford’s technology is better at trying to keep you central in the lane, while the gentle steering corrections won’t try to work against you if you’re tugging the wheel in a slightly different direction.

Because of this, you’re more likely to keep it on because it doesn’t feel like the vehicle will violently steer in the opposite direction if you approach the lines of your lane.

It’s a shame our tester wasn’t fitted with the optional Driver Assistance pack incorporating adaptive cruise control with stop&go, blind-spot monitoring and rear cross-traffic alert, as those features would have been really useful during the road trip.

Fuel consumption, meanwhile, was decent during our time with the car. We managed an indicated figure of 7.2L/100km over 721km of mixed driving – which did include a 570km round trip from Melbourne to Mulwala on the border of Victoria and New South Wales.

Despite the high ratio of open-road highway driving, it’s a little up on Ford’s official 6.4L/100km combined claim. It’s worth noting most of the Mulwala trip was completed in searing 40-degree heat, meaning the air-conditioning system had to work overtime – though it was very effective throughout the journey.

In terms of ownership, the Focus range is covered by the Blue Oval’s five-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty with satellite navigation updates and roadside assistance.

Scheduled maintenance is required every 12 months or 15,000km, whichever comes first. Ford’s online price calculator rates the first five visits at $299 each, equating to $1495 for the first five years or 75,000km of ownership.

Overall, the new Focus is a good thing. In fact, it’s a very good thing. If you want a small hatch that’s sporty to drive and feels luxurious, the Ford is right up there with the class leaders like the Golf as an overall package.

The punchy engine is right up there with the best-in-class in terms of response and performance, certainly by the seat of the pants, while the redesigned and higher-quality cabin addresses one of the biggest complaints of the previous-generation model.

However, we’d like to see Ford include the driver-assist package as standard on the ST-Line like it does on the Titanium, and the firm sports suspension won’t be to everyone’s tastes around town.

While Ford doesn’t offer a non-ST-Line equivalent hatch for the price if you don’t want sports suspension, the SUV-styled Active version arrives very soon starting at $29,990 with virtually identical specifications and option range.

It’s been said before and I’ll say it again, the Ford Focus is an under-appreciated model in Australia, and small-car buyers should definitely be having a look at one. Take it for a test drive – you won’t regret it.

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