Loudon, NH —Don't buy a new small car without looking at Ford's premium subcompact, the Focus. When Europe's Car of the Year for last year came to North America, I got the chance to take it for a jaunt across Northern New England, and compare it with other subcompacts, such as the Dodge Neon, Honda Civic, and Toyota Corolla, on the track. Although less refined than a Civic or Corolla, Focus has more room and body styles than any rival.
Focus is 3 inches taller and some 4.5 inches longer in wheelbase and overall length than Ford's aging Escort. New edge body styles include: a 2-door hatchback in sporty ZX3 trim; a 4-door sedan in LX, SE, and top ZTS models; and a 4-door SE wagon. Standard in the LX and SE is a 110-hp version of Escort's single-cam, split-port, 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. Standard in the ZTS and ZX3 and optional for SE is the Zetec 130-hp twin-cam, 2.0 liter, as in the Escort-based ZX2 coupe. Both engines team with 5-speed manual transmission or 4-speed automatic.
Although the single-cam engine feels peppier off the line, I recommend the dual-cam engine, even as a $200 option. Despite its lackluster acceleration, you can feel its extra torque kick in at higher engine speeds. Nonetheless, it may be Focus' average engine performance that tempers its road manners. But despite the ordinary engines, Focus is fun to drive.
The car tackles twisty roads with linear, unrestrained steering. Well-controlled body lean and the 15-inch tires have a sticky grip on the road that kept me out of trouble. The car handles and rides nicely cruising down the highway, winding through mountain roads, tearing up the track, and even racing down washboard-riddled dirt roads through the hills of Brattleboro, VT. Bumps register with a solid-sounding thump, with minimal energy transferred to passengers.
I rode comfortably upright with plenty of leg and headroom for the better part of two days. Even in the back seat, my size 12s slid comfortably under the seat in front of me, and my head didn't touch the roof liner. All body types, the wagon in particular, have generous cargo holds and fold-flat, 60/40 split rear seats. Liftovers are low, and the sedan's trunk lid uses gas- spring type hinges that don't intrude into the luggage area—something many costlier cars lack.