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Story and Photos by Jack Baruth

It’s a shame P.T. Barnum didn’t live to see the release of the ’08 Focus. The man who coined the phrase “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” might be surprised to see just how bad that publicity can be. From the moment Ford lifted the sheet at the 2007 Detroit Show, the race has been on between the media and the bloggers to concoct the most demeaning dismissal possible. The buzz spread through every car-related forum on the Internet: Ford screwed up! They could have had the Euro Focus – the charming-looking, if a trifle bland, “C1” model that is the basis for the Mazda3 and Volvo S40/S30 here in the United States – but they didn’t take it! Instead, they facelifted the old one! And it’s a disaster! Disaster! That was the very word they used, as if Ford had ground troops stranded in Somalia, instead of a rather homely-looking little car rotating on a blue-lit platform. Disaster!

Just look at it! The new coupe appeared to be a chrome-plated rehash of the unloved 1995 Nissan 200SX, while the sedan resembled nothing so much as, well nothing in particular. They could have had the Euro Focus – but they built this instead! Worse yet, the key feature of the new car wasn’t the storming turbocharged five-cylinder of the European Focus ST, but – wait for it – a Microsoft iPod interface! Honda has a daring new Civic, Nissan has the one-two punch of the Versa and revamped Sentra, and Toyota surely has a new Corolla on the way, and Ford has… a Microsoft iPod interface! All of a sudden, it seemed that Disaster! might be too kind of a word. The ’08 Focus looked like the Ishtar of automobiles – overwrought, over budget, and very much “over here”.

The first Focus, which debuted in Europe in 1999 to near-universal acclaim before arriving in the United States as a 2000 model, had been an example of Ford at its global best. Produced worldwide in places as diverse as St. Petersburg (Russia), Saarlouis (Germany), Hermosillo (Mexico) and Wayne, Michigan, the “C170” Focus proved to be a sharp-driving, radical-looking small car that managed to satisfy British pensioners and American street tuners at the same time. A string of special editions, including the tuned-up Focus SVT and Euro-only turbocharged RS, further fueled the enthusiasm of people who were passionate about the Focus. Passionate – about an economy car! This was a welcome surprise for Ford, which had probably not failed to notice that very few people had been passionate about the 1981 Escort and its successors in the marketplace.

The new car, by contrast, initially appears to be about as passionate an effort as an Eighties Hyundai. The styling has undergone the proverbial folding, spindling, and mutilation, with an extra helping of twin-razor-blade grille and plastic-fake-vent chroming for good (or bad) measure. It’s difficult to imagine customers getting excited about the way the 2008 Focus looks. Every body panel is clearly different from its counterpart on the previous car – and without exception, each one is much uglier. It’s a tough job styling a tall, narrow, short package like the Focus, but where the 1999 car reveled in its proportions, the new one appears to be ashamed of them, using a cavalcade of creasing to visually shorten panels and distract the eye. If there’s passion anywhere in this car, it will have to be in the driving experience.

Upon arriving in Seattle for the formal Focus introduction, reporters were given plain-Jane 2007 Foci to drive for “comparison purposes”; unbeknownst to Ford, however, there was a much tougher comparison in store for the new car. Less than forty-eight hours previously, we had taken Leo Capaldi Racing’s 2005 Focus ZX4 ST to a podium spot in the Spec Focus class at the NASA National Championships. The ZX4 ST was the ne plus ultra of American-market Foci, featuring the mighty(ish) 2.3 Duratec, strong brakes, and aggressive styling courtesy of the Street Appearance Package. It’s capable of lapping Mid-Ohio in a minute and forty-five seconds – something many more expensive Japanese and German sedans would struggle to accomplish. With memories of that car’s handling and accelerative prowess fresh in our mind, it would be difficult indeed for the ’08 car to make a positive impression…

Your humble author, in his weekend office.

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…yet that was exactly what happened when we sat down in the interior of our SES Coupe tester (priced at $18,215). The seats alone would almost justify buying the car; they would not be out of place in a Five-series Bimmer. The steering wheel is outstanding as well – proper thickness, spokes in the right places, and covered with a remarkably decent piece of leather. Ford created a “poke-though” design for the new center console, and it’s done well, with legible, high-quality controls. Even the vents are a joy to operate. Ford appears to have finally cracked the code of creating decent interiors. Forget the Corolla or Sentra; this interior would have been a solid improvement to the first-generation Infiniti G35.

No, we didn’t take this photo.

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It’s probably necessary to spend a moment talking about SYNC before we get to the inside-rear-wheel-off-the-ground part of this review, so here goes: it works. It really works. The Bluetooth phone integration is outstanding. Simply press the voice button, say “Phone”, and it is possible to dial any of the contacts stored on the paired phone, or to dial by number. The number dialing is probably the most impressive feature, as the system is capable of perfectly recognizing numbers spoken at a normal pace. It will also read text messages in a remarkably lifelike voice, and permit the driver to respond to a text message using the steering wheel buttons. Unfortunately for those of us who like to drive and text, outbound texting is disabled when the car is in motion.

SYNC’s integration with an iPod is just as good. It recognizes most band, album, and song titles very well. It stumbled on “Feist”, preferring instead to provide “Pink”, but aside from outraged fans of the diminutive Canadian songstress, most users will find it perfectly satisfactory. One complaint: While connected to SYNC, the screen of the iPod or Zune is blanked out. Most good aftermarket interfaces for iPods (such as the DICE interface) permit the iPod to be operated using the player’s own controls. SYNC limits the operator to the voice interface, which will frustrate drivers who have filled their eighty-gig iPods to the brim.

All of the “connected media devices” hype is worthless, though, if a car is miserable to drive. Ford claims that the chassis was revamped for additional stiffness, and a few tire-warming weaves down the road prove the claim. It’s much closer to a cage-stiffened Spec Focus than the previous model was. Unhappily, however, the 2.0 Duratec engine, although it is six horsepower up on the ’07 version, simply doesn’t have the pull of the old 2.3. Coupled to the four-speed automatic, it occasionally struggles to climb hills, with acceleration best described as “adequate”. With the five-speed manual, however, it’s a bit more than adequate, making a classic twin-cam sound and running freely to redline.

At some point during the drive around the twisty, steep roads surrounding Snoqualmie Falls in Washington state, it hit us: Ford didn’t phone this revamp in. Through the fast sweepers, the Pirelli-shod SES Coupe proved to be a capable dance partner. Grip was stout and the steering is as communicative as ever – perhaps more so. The nose tucks in with a whisper of left-foot braking, same as it does in the Spec Focus racer. When the front end does break away, it’s predictable and easy to gather back up. The Focus simply can’t keep up with more-expensive sporting compacts like the Civic Si and Volkswagen GTI, but it’s an issue of power, not of handling.

The more time we spent with the ’08 Focus, the more we respected it. Ford has done an outstanding job of sweating the details on this car – from the folding trunk hinges, which make the Civic’s “gooseneck” trunk look cheap, to the positive action of the shifter – and the result is a car which feels as if came from the proverbial “class above”. The Focus enthusiast community won’t be entirely satisfied with the SES model; it’s too slow in a straight line, too homely in profile, and not nearly “Euro” enough. We were told that Ford is “keeping options open” for an enthusiast model, but it would probably be folly to expect a successor to the SVT or Duratec ST.

This photo appeared in AutoWeek two weeks ago, but it’s us driving! Those crazy AutoWeek stalkers!

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For those of us who carry a flame for fast Fords, there’s no reason to party like it’s 1999 again. The first Focus was a enthusiastic, European revelation for a generation brought up on tepid Mazda-based Escorts; this time around, Ford’s emphasis is on providing a volume-selling small car capable of fighting the Civic, Corolla, Sentra, and Elantra heads-up in the marketplace. Viewed in that light, the 2008 Focus is an unqualified success. It’s quiet enough, fast enough, well-built, satisfying to operate, and is priced aggressively. It will make a decent “tuner car” for the Focus community, and the rumor is that there’s already a 2008-based Spec Focus in production somewhere in Michigan, but a car this good deserves a solid enthusiast model. At the very least, there should be a six-speed 2.3-liter sport coupe. There’s a business case for it, too; in the past few years, the SVT and the Focus ZX4 ST have shown that customers will buy a faster Ford if there is one offered. There’s a crowd of people out there who want it, and it calls to mind another P.T. Barnum quote: “Every crowd has a silver lining”.

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Jack Baruth

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