On my test drive of the 2008 Ford Focus, I took it for a spin through my hometown, which looks a lot like it did when I moved away 10 years ago. In fact, it looks exactly the same.
Some of the homes have been redone, and the quaint brick grammar school I went to has been replaced by a new high-tech brick grammar school, but everything is exactly where it was when I lived there.
The town's bones, its streets, haven't moved a foot.
The roads leading there are the same too. The off-ramps, intersections, speed limits, all unchanged. I'm not even sure if the roads have been repaved.
Your hometown is probably no different. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.
A decade ago, the Ford Focus was the new kid on the block. It was one of the best compact cars on the market, and it could handle those roads just fine.
So why do we need a new one?
Apparently we don't, at least not entirely, because the 2008 Focus isn't much more than an updated version of the old one.
And that's not necessarily a bad thing either.
Starting at $14,395 for a two-door coupe, the Focus is one of the most affordable compacts on the market. For that price you get six airbags, a tire-pressure monitoring system and a CD player with an auxiliary input for an MP3 player or iPod. That last one may not seem like a big deal, but there are still plenty of cars, some costing many times more than the Focus, that don't offer that feature.
For a couple of bucks more, you can get one that's even better.
Step up to the mid-level SE ($15,225), and you are presented with an options list that includes something called Sync. For only $395, you want Sync.
Developed by Microsoft, Sync integrates the audio system with your Bluetooth cell phone and MP3 player, and allows you to control many of their functions with nothing more than the press of a button on the steering wheel and the sound of your voice. You can pick songs, make phone calls and even ask it to read your text messages aloud to you. Other Ford vehicles offer it, but nothing in the Focus' price range has anything like it.
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It's not flawless, but most voice-recognition systems are still a little weak in the recognition department, and Sync works as well as any. When you hit the button, the car starts a conversation with you that usually goes something like this:
Sync: "Please say a command."
You: "Play artist Bjork."
Sync: "I didn't understand you. Please try again."
You: "Play artist Bjork."
Sync: "Playing artist Beck."
You: "Jeez. Cancel, cancel, cancel."
Sync: "Please say a command."
You: "Play artist Bu-jhork."
Sync: "Playing artist Bu-jhork."
It works better with less challenging names and in rush-hour traffic it's still a lot better than fiddling with your iPod, or wearing one of those Bluetooth headsets that make you look like Uhura from "Star Trek."
Everyone around you will think you're talking to yourself, but you do that anyway, so it's not a problem. Just make sure you're devices are compatible with the system before you buy it, or "play" won't be the only four-letter word coming out of your mouth.
Unfortunately, the rest of the car isn't quite as cutting edge. It has a new face, redesigned interior and a couple of upgraded parts underneath, but it is basically the same car the world was indifferent about last year.
It's still not fast, and it doesn't try to be. With a 140-horsepower four-cylinder engine that's content with just being peppy, the Focus' claim to fame is that it gets 35 miles per gallon on the highway with a manual transmission, the best of any American compact. Even an automatic version like ours manages 33 mpg. Those numbers compare well to the imports too.
Away from the pumps, things are different.
Where the old Focus had sharp handling and a tight suspension that felt European, the 2008 edition is more of a boulevard cruiser. It is the easy chair of small cars. The top of the line SES four-door that I tested (base price: $16,925) had a ride bordering on cushy. Combined with Sync, this makes it the ideal commuter for drivers who would rather be passengers.
For those of you who like to get down the road with spirit when the opportunity arises, the Focus can still deliver, but it takes effort.
This is a front-wheel drive car and proud of it. Step on the gas and you can feel a lot things happening through the steering wheel. It must be reigned in and brings to mind what driving a chariot must be like. This will discourage most people from exploring the Focus' limits, and rightly so, but if you can get past it, you'll find that old softy still has a few moves.
Throw it into a curve and the body rolls substantially, then settles down and can handle a surprising amount of speed, even on bumpy pavement. Better yet, there isn't much understeer, and you can get the tail to come around with a quick lift of the accelerator, or a tap on the brakes. Uncommon traits in a cheap front-wheel-drive car.
It's fun, but within its own limits. Compared to the newest offerings from Japan and Europe, the Focus is few steps behind and won't be catching up anytime soon.
The supple ride is backed up with seats that are designed to sit on, not squeeze you like a vice. The optional leather buckets stand out from what's normally available in this class, with soft padding and a thick hide that is still a refreshing change from the thin, stiff seating usually found in compacts.
Hopefully most of the time you'll spend in them will be in the dark because that's when the rest of the interior shines best, or, rather, shines least. The view forward on the SES is dominated by a distracting block of hard silver plastic that stretches across the dashboard from door to door and brings to mind the faceplate of one of those old Panasonic cassette-tape recorders. You wonder when one of the corners will start peeling up so you can grab it and rip the entire thing off.
It's a shame, because it has a very functional layout, with the kind of simple, easy-to-use controls that you find in most Ford products. I've seen a Focus or two on the road sporting the silver only on the center stack, the rest of the dashboard being black. If you can navigate your way through the options list to figure out how to outfit your car this way, do it.
At night, things are much better. The instruments and controls are backlit with the same cool Ice Blue color as the Sync display on the top of the dash. With just a little bit of red on the dials, the look is unique and presents itself much better than during the day.
The exterior is probably better experienced at night, too.
I'm not sure when teeth whitening and collagen injections became available for cars, but the Focus has had both. With a bloated body and huge chrome smile where a grille should be, its exterior is don't mind it or hate it, but at least it's doesn't blend in.
The design is best described as awkward, and the big earrings behind the front wheels don't help (they're supposed to look like air vents, but they're fake, so calling them earrings is just as accurate). Someone at Ford has a serious silver fetish and needs help, now.
For 2009, the two-door version of the Focus is losing the vents and getting a darker colored chrome on the grille. Hopefully the sedan will follow suit.
In any case, try as it might, the Focus can't hide what it is; an old car with a fresh coat of paint, some new furniture and a couple of new gadgets to keep you entertained. It's a lot like the house I grew up in, and my parents like that just fine.
With sales up 53 percent in May 2008 compared to the same moth last year it seems a lot of people feel the same way about the Focus.
2008 FORD FOCUS SES SEDAN
Base Price: $16,925
Type: Front-engine, front-drive, five-passenger, four-door sedan
Engine: 2.3-liter inline-4 cylinder
Power: 140 horsepower, 136 pound-foot torque
Transmission: 4-speed automatic
MPG: 24 city/33 hwy
What do you think of the Focus?
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