Focus on efficiency

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Ford’s third generation Focus is at its best when a diesel engine is plumbed under its bonnet. Andy Enright explains why.

Few cars approach the sheer versatility of a diesel Ford Focus. Offering excellent economy, a beautiful standard of fit and finish, some incredible high-tech options and a high quality of ride, the Focus diesel has crept upmarket but still offers something very special at a relatively proletarian price.

Given that diesel cars made up 46 per cent of new car sales in 2010, take a guess at the percentage of new Ford Focus sales that will be accounted for by diesel models. 50 per cent?

Maybe 60 per cent? Not even close. According to Ford, fully 80 per cent of Focus sales will be diesel powered, relegating petrol engines to the role of bit part players.

The reasons for this aren’t hard to grasp. The diesels offer better economy, lower emissions and higher residual values. While these factors are present in the purchasing decisions of private buyers, add the service charges and bulk discounting rates that are crucial to a fleet manager’s calculations and it’s clear that the Focus, despite becoming a higher quality proposition in third-generation guise, still needs to make these numbers work in its favour.

Ford brings the Focus to market with no fewer than five diesel engine options. First up is the 95bhp 1.6 TDCi, followed by a 115bhp version of the same engine. Also packing 115bhp is a 2.0TDCi when specified with the clever PowerShift twinclutch gearbox. A more powerful 140bhp version of this unit is available in manual and Powershift guises while the same pair of transmissions is available on the diesel flagship, the 163bhp 2.0-litre TDCi.

Comfort and refinement were the key criteria when designing the chassis of the new Focus and the engineers have certainly succeeded in that task. Drop into the driver’s seat and you’ll initially notice that it’s lower set than the previous car, while the sharply-raked windscreen pillars are bulkier than is ideal. One thing all engine choices have in common is a ‘torque vectoring’ system. This works by nipping at the brake of the inside front wheel as you turn into a corner, helping to reduce understeer. You might well notice it drag the car into the apex on wet roads if you’re pressing hard. The electric power steering system is very quick and accurate, if trading a little something in ultimate feedback. Ride quality and refinement are massively improved over its predecessor.

The latest Focus front end looks a good deal more aggressive than that of its rather low-key predecessor, with gaping triangular front air intakes that wouldn’t seem out of place on an RS model. Closer inspection reveals them to be mere plastic blanking plates but between them is what Ford dubs its dynamic shutter grille that can close at speed to improve aerodynamics. The rear lights are an intricate design that integrates with the fuel filler cap on the right side of the car.

These also contrast with the less extrovert rear window treatment. The estate version is extremely well proportioned, with a shrunken-Mondeo silhouette.

The interior is a massive step forward in terms of materials quality and fit and finish from its already solid predecessor.

Some commentators have claimed that the Focus has targeted the Volkswagen Golf, but the interior is a far more extrovert design than you’ll find in any Wolfsburg vehicle. The centre console looks busy but it’s fairly easy to figure everything out quickly and the Sony stereo in the upper spec models is a very classy touch. The PowerShift gearchange does away with the clutch pedal but also does without paddle shifters behind the steering wheel which seems something of an odd omission.

Perhaps the most contentious issue surrounding this latest Focus diesel is the price that Ford asks for it. The Focus made its reputation as a car that brought dynamic excellence to the mass-market. Now its priorities seem to have shifted significantly towards big car refinement and technology with the, perhaps inevitable, corollary that prices have risen.

Even the entry-level Edge model gets a DAB radio, ESP, torque vectoring, Bluetooth and voice control and the EasyFuel capless refuelling system designed to prevent the driver filling the diesel car with petrol.

Zetec trim includes 16-inch alloys, sports seats and a heated windscreen while Titanium adds keyless start, hill start assist and a premium Sony stereo. Titanium X tops that off with 17-inch alloys, active park assist, bixenon lamps and heated half-leather seats.

Some of the options offered on the Focus are the sort of thing only seen on flagship supersaloons not so long ago. The park assist system, which guides you into a parking space, is one and then there are five systems that use a set of inbuilt cameras. These comprise Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Aid, Driver Alert, Traffic Sign Recognition, and Auto High Beam.

You can usually count on Ford to offer low running costs and by and large the Focus scores in this regard. The engines are certainly both clean and mean on fuel. It can still entertain on a back road but its emphasis has shifted towards delivering impressive refinement and quality.

Look a little closer at the range and you’ll appreciate the advances Ford has made in economy and efficiency. The PowerShift gearchange is but one example of premium level engineering now filtering to the mass market. The Focus can count on many others.

Whether cash-strapped customers are prepared to pay the increased prices Ford is asking is another matter.

With a whole slew of talented rivals to contend with, the new Focus diesel has its work cut out.

Despite being a hugely better car than its predecessor, its market share looks set to decrease. That’s a tough thing for Ford to come to terms with but a sign of the times.