By Mark Nichol
What Is It?
Across 4 generations since 1998 the Ford Focus has become the go-to family hatchback for millions, and it’s achieved that by, on a basic level, just being a very practical and economical all-rounder, and getting better and better with each new model. But for the last 2 decades it’s also provided the benchmark for driving dynamics in the class, and that remains its true appeal: you’ll do the school run in it comfortably, but you’ll actually enjoy driving just for fun too.
The latest Focus was released in 2019 but Ford recently gave it a major midlife update to try to keep it on top in a class that includes loads of brilliant family cars: the Volkswagen Golf, Mercedes-Benz A-Class, Kia Ceed, SEAT Leon, and the brand new Vauxhall Astra, to name just a few.
What's Good About It?
Ford has definitely shifted the styling of the Focus into a more conservative direction over the years, possibly with one eye on the Volkswagen Golf; the first Focus still looks fresh today, so it’s easy to forget how radical it seemed at the time. This latest one doesn’t resort to fussy or controversial detailing, but it's a very handsome and well-proportioned car that hides its bulk well: it’s 20cm longer than the first Focus (that’s a lot in car terms), although that does mean interior space is especially generous for the class.
A lack of fussy detailing applies in the cabin too, especially since the car was updated for 2022. Alongside a few minor exterior adjustments - the Ford badge has moved from the bonnet to the grille, for instance - the Focus now comes with Ford’s latest ‘SYNC 4’ infotainment software, found in the Mustang EV and displayed on a 13-inch central touchscreen. It makes for a much neater interior and, as ever, the Focus feels built to a high standard throughout.
But mainly, it’s the way the Focus drives that defines it and makes it special. It remains the benchmark for family hatchbacks when it comes to blending comfortable refinement with properly enjoyable driving dynamics.
What Could Be Better?
Not much, to tell the truth, although the Focus’s cabin doesn’t feel like a very inspirational piece of design these days, neither in the context of the first Focus - whose slashy, angular dashboard was genuinely groundbreaking in the late ‘90s - nor set against the stylish interiors of the Peugeot 308, Citroen C4 or SEAT Leon. And while Ford argues that the SYNC 4 infotainment setup makes every major control “never more than a touch or two” away, the removal of proper air con controls from the dashboard is definitely a small step backwards for intuitiveness.
There’s no plug-in hybrid or full electric version of the Focus either, despite most versions being badged ‘Hybrid’ now - it actually denotes that they’re ‘mild hybrids’, which use a small electric motor to assist the engine and save a bit of fuel. So, those wanting the most tax-efficient family hatchback as a company car will be better served by a plug-in hybrid version of the Peugeot 308, Skoda Octavia or Volkswagen Golf.
What’s It Like To Drive?
It really only takes a few minutes with a Focus to recognise that it has a chassis at the pinnacle of the front-wheel drive hatchback thing. It really sparkles, giving you proper fun and feel through the wheels on one hand, but on the other a ride quality and sense of quiet refinement that makes it feel lovely and calm.
Quite unusually, basic and mid-level Focus models get less sophisticated rear suspension than the top level versions - less sophisticated than the rear suspension of the very first Focus, even. That seems retrograde, and it is something that Ford got a bit of stick for when the car came out in 2018. The truth, though, is that it only really makes any difference at the very edge of the car’s dynamic capability – as in, during the sort of driving that you won’t (and shouldn’t) be doing on the way to work or wherever. High-performance ‘ST’ cars and estate versions get a more sophisticated rear setup, but actually, a Focus equipped with a basic 1.0 engine, basic suspension, a manual gearbox and small wheels still feels like more fun than 95% of other hatchbacks.
At the risk of overstating it, this is a car whose bits come together with a real x-factor. Ford’s chassis engineers have achieved that ‘built around the driver’ vibe: lovely pedal feel, lovely gearbox, and a light-as-a-feather feel at the front. Especially the 1.0-litre petrol versions. The steering itself is weighty and has the immediacy of a proper sports car. Even the way the car moves over the road. It’s taut. It’s telling you stuff about the road. But it’s still filtering out most of the rough edges.
The 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine is a brilliant thing, too - whether the 125hp version or the 155hp one. EIther way you get a lovely slug of torque in the midrange so it feels much quicker than it actually is. It’s tuneful, and yet it’s generally very quiet when it’s settled in a higher gear at town or motorway speed. The 120hp diesel is noisier, of course, but it too feels quick and smooth, and over longer distances you’ll get a solid 60mpg from it.
In general, the Focus really does all feel like a car from a higher class or from a “premium” manufacturer. And although the EcoBoost engine can feel occasionally lumpy when it’s cold, and the low rolling resistance tyres that Ford fits as standard can sometimes feel a little slippery at the front in the rain, this is largely a brilliant driving experience.
How Practical Is It?
The general growth of the car means there’s noticeably more legroom than in any Focus before, especially for rear passengers. It’s a full five-seater that will accommodate five adults comfortably.
The glovebox is basic and large, and there’s a small storage tray to the right of the steering wheel that’s surprisingly deep and useful. The phone storage tray is scooped out so that you’ll fit your iPhone Plus or other massive smartphone in there. Even the cupholders are adjustable so that you can securely fit cups of different sizes. It also comes with built-in bump protectors in the doors that pop out when you open them. They make closing the door sound like pushing over a wheelie bin, but better that than dinging your door edge on a wall, right?
The only relative disappointment is the boot in the standard hatchback, which lacks the practicality flourishes of the cabin. It’s big enough – the 375-litre capacity is about average for the class, and it’s 60 litres bigger than the outgoing Focus’s boot – but the rear seats don’t fold down flat and there’s a large lip at the tailgate which can make loading larger items awkward. Total capacity is 1354 litres.
Having said that, if you want a more practical package there is a Ford Focus estate version. Its features include a retractable, removable tailgate that you can store under the adjustable boot floor, a standard ski hatch, and a properly flat loading bay. And at 608-1650 litres, it’s a much larger usable space. The 2022 update also added a ‘wet zone’ for the estate, where the floor can be lifted to separate out a compartment with a rubber base, for keeping dirty wellies and such like away from your shopping bags or your coat.
If space isn't a priority for you but you're commited to leasing a Ford we've compared the Focus with the Fiesta in a seperate article.
How Much Will It Cost Me?
Prices start at around £23,000 for a base model, called Trend, with leasing rates coming in below £300, which feels great value for a car of this space, quality and ability. Ford has pared back the engine range lately, offering a 1.0-litre turbo ‘Ecoboost’ petrol with either 125hp or 155hp, a 1.5-litre 120hp Ecoblue diesel, and a 2.3-litre turbo petrol with 280hp, specifically for the ST high performance models. Again, don’t be fooled into thinking Focuses badged ‘Hybrid’ are the same sort of hybrid as, say, a Toyota Prius. You won’t get any electric-only driving in any Focus, but what you do get with anything this side of the 2.3-litre model is a very economical experience.
The lower powered 1.0-litre engine officially returns a 52.3mpg average fuel consumption rating, whether it’s a mild hybrid or not (puzzlingly, given the function of the mild hybrid setup), while the higher powered 155hp mild hybrid-only version is actually a couple of mpg more efficient. The diesel returns a 61.4mpg average according to the WLTP testing protocol, making it the one to get if you’re most interested in outright efficiency. Thankfully, you should find that any Focus gets very close to its claimed average efficiency in real life - not always the case.
Anything Else I Should Know?
Base model Trend cars are the only ones that don’t get the new-for-2022 big touchscreen, coming instead with a smaller screen running older SYNC 3 software. Still, they do get alloys, air con, LED headlamps, parking sensors all round and cruise control, so they feel well specced. Beyond that, the trim hierarchy moves up through Titanium, ST Line and the proper high performance ST models, and there’s a version called ‘Active’ too, which has raised suspension and protective plastic body cladding, making it a bit more conducive to gravelly roads.
Most versions are available with the so-called Vignale pack on top. If that word means anything to you it’s probably because it was a standalone trim until recently, denoting the fanciest version of any particular Ford model. Today it’s basically a high-end options pack that includes stuff like a Bang & Olufsen stereo upgrade, heated leather seats, a heated steering wheel and wireless phone charging.
Euro NCAP crash tested the Focus in 2018 and gave it a full 5-star safety rating.
What Alternatives Should I Look At?
Still the standard bearer for family hatchbacks, especially in the cabin quality and refinement stakes. It’s not as much fun as the Focus to drive, though.
The 308 has a much more interesting cabin than the Focus and is arguably a little more comfortable, but it doesn’t feel as spacious nor, again, involving to drive.
The brilliant Astra is a newer model than the Focus and that shows in its high-tech cabin; Vauxhall’s family hatchback has never been this close to the greatness of the Focus.
The Vanarama Verdict = =9/10
"Very few family hatchbacks - if any - will give you as much fun per pound that even a basic Ford Focus will. And it does that while being spacious and cost-effective. Highly recommended."
3 Things To Remember About The XXXX:
It’s the most rewarding family hatchback to drive in pure ‘fun to steer’ terms.
It’s got one of the most spacious cabins in the class.
The new touchscreen is big, impressive and mostly intuitive… but you still might prefer plain old buttons.