First Drive

FIRST DRIVE: 2015 Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost

Focus's 1.0-litre three-cylinder is the smallest engine available here in a compact

Fact one: The Ford Focus is the biggest-selling nameplate on the planet. Fact two: Ford is the biggest-selling automaker in Canada. Fact three: the Focus competes in the most popular category of cars in Canada. Logical conclusion: the Ford Focus is the top-selling car in Canada.

Not even close. In 2013 the Focus ranked seventh in passenger-car sales. Last year it slipped to eighth. Something doesn’t compute.

Talk to Ford people and their first response is that consumers think of Ford as a truck company. But while it’s true Ford Canada sold almost four trucks for every one car last year, that didn’t stop the Fusion and the Mustang from out-selling all rivals in their respective car categories.

“We do have a challenge with Focus,” admits our Ford source. “We need to get people to just try it.”

And that’s what we’re here to do. Ford is rolling out a somewhat tardy, freshened Focus for 2015 and introduced it to we auto writers with a 600-km depths-of-winter round-trip between Montreal and Whitefield, New Hampshire.

All in the family

Recognizable by a new face that strengthens the family resemblance to Fiesta and Fusion, the 2015 Focus also features improved aerodynamics, a quieter cabin, more user-friendlycockpit amenities (including the SYNC interface), fine-tuning of the optional Sportshift dual-clutch automatic transmission, and minor tweaks to what is arguably already the best-sorted chassis in the segment.

As well, new driver-assist tech includes a standard rear-view camera and available blind-spot warning and lane-keeping assist systems. Combine that with SYNC, MyFord Touch and the already-available automatic parking option, and Ford calls Focus the “most technology-dense” car in its segment.

On the mechanical technology side, brace yourself for the most extreme application yet of Ford’s engine-downsizing EcoBoost strategy. The Focus is now available with a 1.0-litre engine – a three-cylinder 1.0-litre engine! That’s exactly half the displacement of the standard (in North America) 2.0-litre four. The smallest engine available here in any other compact car is the Chevy Cruze’s 1.4-litre turbo four-cylinder.

Less engine for more car

The 1.0 EcoBoost engine itself is not new to this continent. It’s been available for a year or so in the sub-compact Fiesta, where an engine of that size seems more appropriate, especially when it’s turbocharged to achieve more power and torque than the standard 1.6-litre. But the Focus belongs in the next size-class up, and tips the scales at about 170 kg more than a Fiesta.

Before you get too alarmed, the 123-horsepower 1.0 is not compulsory. The 160-hp 2.0 remains standard, and the 240-hp ST pocket rocket remains in the lineup.


Like the ST, the 1.0 is only available with a six-speed manual transmission. But the absent autobox option isn’t the only reason Ford expects few buyers to choose the 1.0. It’s also only available in the four-door sedan, not the hatchback (Ford says that’s because the sedan benefits more from the aero gains).

And far from being an affordable base model, the 1.0 is pitched and packaged as an up-level choice. It’s only available on the SE trim, which MSRPs for $19,199 -- $2,400 more than the base S. And the 1.0 powertrain option comes with mandatory “bonus” features that include an aero body kit, 17-inch aluminum rims, fog lamps and a block heater.

More than just a gas-miser

All that extra kit must account for a big chunk of the $1,600 charged for the EcoBoost package. Presumably Ford’s thinking here is to present the 1.0 EcoBoost as a desirable upgrade, not an entry-level make-do for tightwad hypermilers. My thinking is that if I want to save money on gas why am I forced to pay almost $4,000 extra for a bunch of frills I don’t want?

But judging by 1.0 EcoBoost sales in Europe, Ford may be onto something. Over there, the 1.0 is offered in two power outputs. The way they’re packaged and priced varies from country to country, but the bottom line is that with up to half-a-dozen diesel engines also available, plus a similar number of gasoline alternatives, apparently 32% of European Focus buyers choose the 1.0 EcoBoost.

That can’t all be due to taxes and licencing fees that are based on engine displacement or CO2 output. So what else do all those Continentals see in Ford’s mighty mite?

Maybe, like me, they like the off-beat thrum of a three-cylinder engine, but for those who don’t, at least the sound volume is impressively muted. On the highway in sixth gear the powertrain settles into a long-legged gait (about 2,700 rpm at 120 km/h) that feels even more relaxed because a three-cylinder engine generates 25 per cent fewer “bangs” per rpm than a four.

Performance-wise you can feel the extra mass (about 170 kg) compared with a Fiesta; through-the-gears acceleration feels quite tepid. But at least the engine’s refinement and the slick shifter minimize the burden of keeping the gears down and the revs up to maintain brisk progress. That said, once up into sixth I was surprised how easily the teeny motor maintained my set cruising speed as the Interstate climbed, steeply at times, into New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

Classy chassis

The drive from Montreal to Whitefield, New Hampshire, mostly was on freeways, but even just one clover-leaf on-ramp was enough to confirm the Focus still has the sharpest handling of any car in the compact cohort.

Indeed, the lower mass of the three-pot mill likely makes that even truer of the EcoBoost model. Distracted or ham-fisted drivers may even find the steering too responsive, but engaged drivers – and the manual-only EcoBoost is unlikely to attract any other kind – should love the right-now response and pin-sharp precision of the steering. Better still, there’s no penalty in ride comfort.

At the wheel, there’s little to complain about. North American customers will welcome the relocation of the central door-locking switch from the instrument panel to the doors. The cup-holders are now aligned fore-aft instead of side by side, and to my eyes the overall IP appearance looks more upscale, with less of the previous edgy, sculpted look.

That much is true of all the new Focus models, but what about the 1.0? Available only as a mid-trim SE sedan with a stick, and at a significant price premium, the gas-miser’s biggest drawback is that it simply isn’t miserly enough. For our sedate, almost-all-highway drive from Montreal to NH, the trip computer reported a disappointing 6.8 L/100 km.

Admittedly, the route involved a net elevation gain of almost 300 metres, but even according to the official government figures, the 1.0’s combined fuel consumption of 7.1 L/100 km (5.9 highway) is only 12.5% lighter than for the 2.0 with manual transmission.

All things considered, there are more reasons than ever for Canadians to try the Focus before they buy their next new compact car. It really deserves to sell better than it does. But if Focus sales do break out in 2015, it won’t be the 1.0 that made the difference.

SPECIFICATIONS

Model: 2015 Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost

Price: $20,799

Type: Compact FWD sedan

Engine: 1.0 L DOHC Direct Injection Turbo in-line three-cylinder

Power/Torque:123 horseoower/125 lb-ft (148 lb-ft temporary overboost)

Transmission: Six-speed manual

Acceleration (0-100 km/h): 11 seconds (est.)

Fuel consumption (city/hwy):     8.1/5.9 L/100 km

Competitors: Chevrolet Cruze, Dodge Dart, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Kia Forte, Mazda3, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza, Toyota Corolla, Toyota Prius c

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