My girlfriend had a Tercel. Well, I say “girlfriend,” but she wasn’t my girlfriend at the time. It was a white coupe, a 1996, if I remember correctly. One thing I know for certain: like all of her cars, it lasted exactly 130 thousand miles before rendering itself stationary in an inconvenient location. This time, it was the parking lot in front of the redbrick strip mall where she worked as a general purpose college-chick grunt in fairly successful party supply store. At quittin’ time, she found that her trusty Toyota had quit as well. I, her car-savvy friend, got the call.

The diagnosis: Transmission… something. Car savvy though I was, I didn’t have the hands-on knowledge of broken and misbehaving automobiles that I have today. As busy as she was in a town which expanded outward rather than upward, being carless even temporarily was a depressing prospect, and like most college students, she was comfortable self-medicating. “Byron’s here,” she told her dad on the phone. “He’s going to get me drunk.”

I vaguely remember promising to help her pick out a replacement. The Toyota was becoming a bit too unreliable for her budget, and she wanted something newer and less likely to strand her or drain her wallet unexpectedly. She did her research and made herself a short list, Saturns (“They’re cheap”) and Toyotas (“I still like them”) and Hondas (“They last”) dominating. My family had a Mazda3 that I quite liked, but they were a bit too new and expensive for her budget, especially since she wanted something that she could comfortably drive for a while without feeling like she had compromised just because she was feeling cheap. She wanted options–maybe even a sunroof–and comfort.

As you might expect, the Saturns were the first to be crossed off the list.

As we browsed the surprisingly diverse lot (we went to school in Salisbury, MD–home of chicken shit and temporary stopping point for redneck beach-goers whose kids really need to take a piss), I took note of a few cars I found appealing. One of which was a 2005 Focus SES. Automatic, which wouldn’t be my choice, but she wasn’t any good at driving a stickshift yet anyway, and she’d be perfectly happy with the 4-speed slushbox. 12k miles, pale green metallic, only a year old and in great shape. No sunroof, but…

“A Ford?” she said, making a face. Oh well, at least I’d tried.

But the list dwindled quickly over the coming days, and when we made our second trip to the dealer, I caught her standing in front of the little green hatchback. “The back is kind of ugly,” she said, without much venom. But she drove it.

Within 24 hours, she had the Focus. It only took that long because she went across the street and haggled the Ford dealership down to $500 less than what the previous dealer wanted for the used one, but decided she’d rather have the year-old car with more options. She took that price back across the street and they beat it by another $500. Done deal.

Last month, at seven years old, her Focus crossed the 130k-mile threshold… and it still runs. The door locks are going on us, and the injectors have a bit of a sewing-machine tick that they’ve developed over the years, but it’s still as solid as the day she drove it home. It only stranded her once–a bad alternator, which we replaced out of a local junkyard for $50 (less a military discount, plus tax) with a lifetime guarantee. All told, outside of oil changes and tires, we’ve put less than $1,000 in major maintenance and repairs into it. And you know what? It’s fun to drive, too. It’s a Mazda3 with less weight to carry around at the expense of a slightly less attractive (though tougher-wearing) interior.

With the 2008 refresh, the Focus fell off my radar–no hatch, no interest. When Ford announced that the 2012 model would re-unify the domestic and European models, I was encouraged. I knew that missing the intermediate European model would leave American buyers with a bit of sticker shock, and as an enthusiast, I knew that the weight increase would probably seem more dramatic than other compacts’ given the lack of incremental step-ups, but if you think of the 2004 Mazda3 as the second-gen Focus that America never got, 3,000lbs makes a bit more sense.

Our 2012 press loaner is the third new Focus I’ve driven. The first was a stripped-down SE Sedan which Ford was kind enough to loan us for the weekend of this year’s Detroit Auto Show. The second was a rental from National, a rather nicely-equipped SEL hatchback. Our evaluator here is yet another SEL, this time with MyFord Touch and a few other doo-dads which weren’t present in either of the previous cars. All of them have been equipped with Ford’s controversial new PowerShift 6-Speed, twin-clutch automatic gearbox, which I’ll devote some time to later.

The 2012 model represents a philosophical shift for Ford. It’s more expensive (and feels it) and more feature-rich than the previous generations of U.S. Focus. The switchgear feels more solid, the interior is softer and more attractive, and the options list reads more like a last-generation Volkswagen’s than a last-generation Ford’s. Touch-sensitive controls and touchscreen, voice-activated ICE and navigation? This from the company that mortgaged its own logo just six years ago.

When the Focus first went on sale here in 1999, it was a brilliant chassis suffocated by endless plastic, but consider the competition; Volkswagen’s Mark IV compacts, introduced here at roughly the same time, had the opposite problem, sporting a premium interior on top of ho-hum mechanicals. Here we are more than ten years later, and Ford has added Volkswagen’s earlier interior approach to their developed Focus platform and high-tech power trains, while the Germans embrace cost cutting everywhere they can in search of volume. Speaking of power trains, the 2.0L, direct-injected 4-cylinder seems to lack a lot of the character of its Duratec ancestor, but a lot of that is down to sound deadening. You just can’t hear the thing unless you’re really on it. Fortunately, the DI and new transmission work together to deliver excellent mileage. This is something we evaluated using rental cars a while back, but it was nice to see it work in the real world. Regular commuting kicked back a 33mpg average on the low end and 37mpg on the high end, depending on the route and highway miles. In a word, excellent. I’m sure it would breeze through its first mot Birmingham if treated properly.

It’s no surprise then that the Focus drives like a more refined, less powerful evolution of my Mazdaspeed3. The steering and suspension tuning are top-notch, just as I expected, and even the winter-ready rubber on the SE sedan gripped the cold Detroit asphalt resiliently. With the whole of team Speed:Sport:Life on board, photographer Carl Modesette gave it a solid push on an on-ramp, and ran out of courage before the little sedan ran out of talent. What really surprised me though is just how quiet it is. Even on winter tires, cabin roar is minimal at speed. I’ve had the same results in both cars I’ve driven since, with the SEL rental being the best of the bunch. Our loaner is actually a bit more likely to lean in the corners than the rental was, which leads me to suspect that National may have ended up with a few models with the SEL sport package. If you’re ever in Atlanta and you want something cheap you can toss around confidently…

So what of that PowersShift transmission? By the end of my loan period with the press car, I’d learned to like it just fine. It seemed like each successive car had a slightly better transmission. This may be true, as everything is computer-controlled these days and Ford has updated the transmission software more than once since the car debuted, but it’s also likely that I simply got used to it. When we drove the Detroit car, it seemed clunky. When I drove the rental in Atlanta, I knew what to expect, and it gave me little trouble. By the time Ford provided the loaner, it was simply old hat.

It’s not a perfect transmission, especially if, like most people, you’re coming from a traditional torque converter automatic. You can’t just bang the car from drive to reverse when parallel parking; if you try, you’ll get lag and then a sudden surge as the clutches engage. Pulling away from a stop when facing uphill (or when reversing uphill from a parking space, for that matter) can be a bit alarming at first too, as the car will roll downhill before the clutches engage. It’s no worse than driving a manual, but it’s a problem for many because they simply don’t expect it. It takes a significant grade to overcome the idle speed of a torque converter, and if you’ve been driving automatics all your life, the Focus may seem daunting at first. Fortunately, you can get the SE or Titanium models with a manual transmission if that’s more your speed.

Ford also seems to be learning from their early mistakes with MyFord Touch. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not really SYNC that everybody hates. SYNC is just the communications system; MyFord Touch is the screen interface that everybody bashed so readily after its introduction. Some of the criticism was fair and warranted, and if I’m honest, my experience with the Focus loaner wasn’t 100% positive. After connecting my Samsung Galaxy Nexus as a Bluetooth device the first time, the entire system simply rebooted on me, leaving me ICE-challenged for a good fifteen or twenty seconds while it started back up. I’ve never had that happen before, and phone compatibility may have been a consideration, but I found it noteworthy.

On the plus side, though, Ford has decided that real buttons are better than fake buttons for a lot of key functions. The hazard light switch in the Focus is a real switch, not just a touch-sensitive surface at the base of the touchscreen (where your palm or fingertips naturally rest between clicks) a la the Edge, and the volume and power controls are on a traditional button/knob combo that most drivers will find intuitive and reassuring. Opt for a non-touch system, and you get a traditional knob-and-button setup for everything. In fact, this may be the ideal spec if you’re a smartphone user. All you need is Bluetooth to SYNC a phone equipped with Google Maps navigation; set it as a media device and the car will tell you where to go. Leave your phone in the glove box and control everything from the wheel.

I’ve seen complaints leveled at the front-seat interior space, and I can see how some may find the high center console and broad stack a bit confining. This area has never really been Ford’s strong point though. They struggled to package all the controls here in the first-generation cars, even with the 2005 refresh. It wasn’t until they relocated the cup holders from beneath (yes, beneath) the center stack to the middle of the console with the 2008 overhaul that they started moving in the right direction. The materials impress, but I could personally do without the painted plastic on the center stack. I’ve yet to see it in anything terribly obtrusive (like a glare-inducing silver), so it’s not hard to live with, but I’d just prefer something without a glossy finish, blended to match the dark grey dash material. Two-tone is plenty; three-tone’s a bit much.

There’s more strangeness inside, too. For example, if you skip the MyFord touch/Navigation options, the center stack controls include a full-on number pad. For a company pushing telephony integration and forward-thinking interface design, the site of something that looks like it was lifted from a ten-year-old Nokia handset is a bit odd. I’m sure it serves many functions, but I never identified one. I think it’s just there to look mysteriously European. (Ever seen somebody use the touchpad on the center console of a new Audi? Somebody who wasn’t an Audi employee or a writer for Motor Trend?)

When you get down to it, it’s all Focus: the intentionally tall seating position, the lovely handling and road manners of the IRS and the handy flip-forward rear bench to allow a true flat load floor when the rear seats are folded. The utility is there and the comfort is a nice bonus. Pricey? Sure. Worth it? I’d say yes. Worth it to the point that it’s on our short list for replacing the ’05 that sat on the sidelines for a week.

The early cars had their faults, and most of them seem to be remedied. What technology can’t fix, time can, and in the space of six months, I’d say the new Focus has thoroughly won me over. If May sales reports are any indication, I’m not the only one. Ford has set the bar high, and while Chrysler may give them a run for their money with the new Dart, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ford manages to remain the benchmark in this segment after the novelty of the Alfa re-skin wears off.

2012 Ford Focus SEL 5-Door
Price as tested: $24,530
Likes: Ride, handling, interior, comfort, mileage
Dislikes: Not as quiet as a Cruze (but more fun), not cheap, not light

One final note, my friend recently was driving her new Ford Focus on the way to do some shopping for her family and she ended up in a car crash. She decided to search legal support in a similar vein to Beaufort SC Car wreck attorneys. In the end, she finally found a fantastic legal representative that made sure she got the settlement she deserves.

                           

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Byron Hurd

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