Should you buy a used Ford Focus?
Transmission woes spoil Ford’s otherwise desirable best-selling carMark Toljagic
Published: May 13, 2016, 7:35 AM
Updated: June 13, 2016, 4:00 PM
Henry Ford crossed the Detroit River in 1904 to establish Ford of Canada just one year after setting up his U.S. manufacturing operation, proving he was a quick study when it came to international commerce.
More so than some of its competitors, the automaker recognized the benefits of going to night school and picking up another language or two. Today, Ford’s blue oval adorns cars and trucks on six continents.
One of its longstanding goals has been to produce a “world car” that could be marketed on every continent with a minimum of modifications.
To that end, the third-generation (2012-15) Ford Focus, groomed to compete in the hyper-competitive compact segment, was a clean-sheet design penned and engineered by Ford’s European division as part of the automaker’s “One Ford” efficient production strategy.
What we got was a lively, front-wheel-drive car that could function as a family’s sole conveyance in a world of diminishing parking spaces. Which is something we could all agree on, whether we live in Montreal or Mogadishu.
Here in Canada, it was consistently Ford’s best-selling passenger car.
Models and features
The new global-platform Focus – in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback forms – was launched simultaneously in Europe and North America early in 2011. With 55% of the platform made from high-strength steel, torsional stiffness was improved by 25% over the old car.
Equipped with a multilink rear suspension and struts up front, the Focus rode on a 3-centimetre-longer wheelbase and a wider track for better stability. Electric power steering replaced the previous hydraulic system.
Occupants were treated to a highly stylized cockpit with soft-touch plastics that were heavily grained to provide an inviting texture, set off by silver accents. The seats were firm and supportive and easily adjusted to an optimal driving position, though some found the front-seat headrests a little too close and unforgiving. The back seat felt snug for two, despite the fact there were three seating positions.
The Focus bristled with new technology, including optional Automated Parking Assist, which could parallel park the car by itself, and hands-free SYNC technology and the MyFord Touch interface that employed a large, central touchscreen.
A new direct-injected 2.0-L DOHC four cylinder with variable timing on the intake and exhaust valves powered every Focus. Good for 160 horsepower and 146 lb-ft of torque, it worked through a five-speed manual transmission or six-speed sequential gearbox that emulated an automatic.
Developed by Ford and Getrag, the automated six-speed was essentially two manual transmissions, each with its own clutch alternating shift duty. One clutch acted on first, third and fifth gear, and the other handled second, fourth and sixth gear. The autobox relied on dry clutches and electric solenoid actuation to provide quick shifts, avoiding the hydraulic losses associated with torque converters.
Not content with just a fuel-efficient powertrain, Ford also released the Focus Electric model, which was propelled by a 141-horsepower electric motor and fueled by a 23kWh lithium-ion battery pack that could be recharged in four hours using a 240-volt outlet.
For 2013, Ford released the performance-oriented Focus ST hot hatch, which used a turbocharged 2.0-L four cylinder that delivered 252 hp and 270 lb-ft of torque to the front tires. It came bundled with a six-speed close-ratio manual transmission exclusively.
The Focus got a thorough refresh for 2015 that included exterior and interior styling changes, upgraded infotainment and safety systems, plus a new fuel-efficient engine option. The 1.0-L three-cylinder EcoBoost turbocharged engine, good for 123 hp and a significant 148 lb-ft of torque, promised class-leading fuel economy. It came only with a six-speed manual transmission that year, however.
Driving the focus
Developed by Ford of Germany, there’s no mistaking the Focus’s European breeding: the ride is firm, body motions are nicely dampened, and the car stays flat in the curves. Its electric steering feels weighty and progressive.
Refinement is everywhere, from the way the door closes to the thrum of the tires on expansion joints. The structure feels as solid as, well, a Volkswagen. The Focus is immensely quiet – another way quality is conveyed to potential buyers.
Still, it’s intended to be a do-everything economy car, so acceleration is average, taking 8.1 seconds with the automatic and 7.5 seconds with the five-speed stick. Impatient types should invest in the ST; it sprints to highway velocity in 6.3 seconds, no waiting. By contrast, the 1.0-litre EcoBoost motor does the deed in an underwhelming 9.4 seconds.
At the very least, the Focus is good at avoiding fuel stations with a reported average consumption rate of 8.7 litres/100 km (27 mpg (US)), according to Fuelly.com.
Assembled in Michigan, the Focus is a well-put-together car. Too bad about that automated transmission, though. Many drivers report disconcerting clunks, jolts and clutch chatter at low speeds, and eventually no forward motion at all. The Getrag dual-clutch automated gearbox has proven to be a mechanical disaster, prompting some owners to walk away from their cars.
“The clutch has been replaced five times – yes, the clutch in an automatic transmission. The car shudders and shakes, and doesn't properly drive,” complained one owner online. Another noted that his brand-new company car needed a new transmission after leaving the dealership and driving just 100 km (!).
The Internet is as vast as it is partially due to all the Focus owners complaining about their dual-clutch transmission. Fixes have included numerous software upgrades, new clutches, TCM computer swaps and complete transmission replacements. Astonishingly, say owners, they often return for more transmission repairs after all that.
Perhaps more troubling is the fact that even owners of 2015 models are reporting the same dual-clutch transmission problems. Shoppers kicking the tires of the wee Fiesta model should note it employs the same automated autobox.
Beyond the worrisome automatic transmission, other common mechanical lapses in the Focus have included failed power-steering racks and air conditioners, recalled engine mounts, short-lived batteries and truculent MyFord Touch interfaces – a scourge in many Fords.
Unless you enjoy rowing a manual transmission (we do!), used-car buyers should avoid the automatic-equipped Ford Focus like the Plague – which, incidentally, is another European thing.
2012-15 Ford Focus
Typical price range: $10,500-$17,500
> Refined Euro-bred manners
> High-tech gear galore
> Delivers on fuel-economy promise
> Disastrous automatic transmission
> Tight back seat
> Fussy MyTouch interface
Watch Out For:
> Clunky and malfunctioning automatic transmission
> MyFord Touch usability issues
> Electric steering-rack failure