Poise and Grace of Ford Focus Sport

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The latest Ford Focus Sport, powered by a fuel-efficient three-cylinder engine. Photo: David Thomson

Truth be known, this is a road test that should not be appearing in Drivesouth: to cut a long story short, a few weeks back we were due to take delivery of the latest Ford Escape mid-sized SUV for appraisal. But, as sometimes happens, problems arose along the way, and the vehicle earmarked for testing was no longer able to come to Dunedin.
Most apologetic, Ford New Zealand proposed the current Focus Sport as an alternative. A test of the lower-midrange variant of a model that has, a mid-life update aside, been on sale here for six years, is hardly the stuff of high excitement. On the other hand, the current Focus was, in its pre-update guise, 2012 New Zealand Car of the Year. So, revisiting it a few years on is not a bad way to gauge progress, or lack of it, in the new-car world.
Back in early 2012, Drivesouth tested the then current Focus, hot on the heels of it winning Car of the Year honours. A Sport version, like that tested today, that car carried a $44,490 price tag, and was  powered by a 125kW/202Nm 2.0-litre petrol engine. It earned a four-plus test rating, with a verdict that pronounced it the best all-round Focus to date. And so to late 2017, when the now current Focus Sport lists for $38,340, and is powered by a 132kW/240Nm turbocharged 1.5-litre turbo-petrol engine. This new engine made its appearance across the Focus range as part of a comprehensive 2016 update that included interior and exterior styling tweaks, and a second major upgrade of the current infotainment system. The exterior changes comprise little more than a nip and tuck, with the most obvious change being a more aggressive trapezoidal front grille. This new, blunter nose does all that is required to keep the Focus looking tidily modern, as well as aligning it to the look of other more recent additions to the Ford range. The Sport also stands out from the entry-level Trend with its mildly sporting body kit, 17-inch alloys and sports suspension.
Interior changes build on what was already a decent and highly practical cabin, albeit one that is now a little tight for rear and boot space by class standards. The big news up front is a revamped centre console that is now home to Ford's Sync 3 multimedia system. Via the home base of an eight-inch centre-mounted colour touchscreen, this brings satellite navigation as standard, as well as a reversing camera and Bluetooth phone and audio streaming. The system is Apple CarPlay, Applelink and Android Auto compatible and, as was the case with the previous system, scores hig hl y for ease of use. At base level, Sync 3 is linked to a six-speaker sound system, but for the Sport it runs with a nine-speaker audio unit. Other features provided as standard include dual-zone climate control, cruise control, rear-parking sensors and rain-sensing wipers. The Sport adds keyless entry and start, sports seats (trimmed in a mixed suede and mesh-fabric upholstery). Passive safety bases are well covered, but the latest active safety features (driver alert, active emergency braking, radar cruise, and collision warning and lane assist systems) come only with a further step up to the Focus Titanium. The mechanical evolution of the Sport is part of a wider move by many manufacturers to replace non-turbo engines in the 1.8 to 2.0-litre range with turbo motors of 1.5 litres or less. Often these changes deliver the dual gains of increased power and torque alongside improved economy, and in the case of the Sport, there's certainly more power and torque, but no substantive standard cycle economy gain. 
That may be, in part, a consequence of the transmission change that comes with the switch in motor: this sees a conventional six-speed torque-converter automatic replace the dual-clutch (DSG) automated manual of the pre-facelift Sport. There's plenty to commend the peppy new drivetrain. The engine pulls strongly from low revs; it is responsive in the mid-range, growly when worked hard, yet quiet and refined when cruising. The gearbox is also a more flexible all-round transmission than the old DSG unit, which was great for back-road blasts, but not always the smoothest around town. Easy round-town performance is backed by strong open-road credentials in respect of ride comfort and aural refinement, as well as performance.
Fine handling has long been a key attribute of the Focus. Accepting that the Sport, despite its name, is not the sporting flagship of the Focus line, this remains the case. Helped by quick, accurate steering and a torque vectoring control system which brakes the inside front wheel when cornering to enhance turn-in, the test car proved every bit as nimble as hoped through decent twists and turns. Given that it rides on relatively modest 215/50 tyres, the Sport also grips well. Body control when pressing on over bumpy surfaces is first rate. Returning the test car after a road test that included a substantial component of hi g hway driving as well as round-town and back-road work, I was impressed by how good the Focus still felt several years after its original launch. This is thanks in part to thoughtful updates, but primarily to its design and engineering fundamentals being so fine from the outset. It is a car that is ageing with remarkable poise and grace.

Poise and Grace of Ford Focus Sport
At a Glance

FORD FOCUS SPORT

Overall: ****
Design and styling: ****
Interior: ****
Performance: ****
Ride/handling: ****+
Safety: *****
Environmental: ****
For: Nice engine/gearbox combination, fine
dynamics, improved interior, user-friendly multi-media
Against: A little tight for space in the back and
boot, no economy gain with engine switch
Verdict: Excellent and sometimes overlooked medium-sized hatch.
SPECIFICATIONS

Price: $38,340

Engine: 1498cc four-cylinder direct injection turbo-petrol, maximum power 132kW@6000rpm, maximum torque 240Nm@1600-5000rpm
Transmission: Six-speed automatic, front-wheel drive
Brakes and stability systems: Front and rear discs, ABS, AEB Safety rating: Five-star European NCAP Wheels and tyres: Alloy wheels, 215/50 R17 tyres
Fuel and economy: 95 Octane petrol, 6.7 litres per 100km on standard cycle, capacity 55 litres
Emissions: 157 grams of C02 per km Dimensions: Length 4399mm, width 1823mm, height 1469mm

RATING (4/5)