Bring on the world cars

The 2012 Ford Focus is a great looking car that is easy to drive, economical and so chock full of technology that you’ll be finding gizmos to play with for years after purchase — but is it a good car for a student?

That question is hard to answer, especially in the compact segment the Focus finds itself in, lined up against rivals such as the Toyota Corolla, Mazda 3, Honda Civic and Chevrolet Cruze.

At no other time in history has the compact car buyer been given such an embarrassment of competent choices. Even the Korean manufacturers, the butt of many automotive jokes in my lifetime, have stepped up. The Japanese are strong as ever, and the Americans have finally seen the value in bringing their A-game to the North American market — and the Focus is most definitely Ford’s A-game.

Unlike the previous Focus — the one with the weird chrome trim on the fender — the 2012 example is a “world car,” meaning North Americans can buy the same model as our European neighbours, at the same time. I’m not sure if this matters to the average Canadian compact car buyer, but it should.

Europe is a much more competitive market than North America. Across the pond the Focus not only has to deal with the familiar Japanese rivals, but a whole host of Italian, German, French and Eastern European marquees. Likely because of this increased competition, the 2012 Focus feels better put together than any I’ve driven.

It accepts inputs from the steering wheel and accelerator seamlessly, and the six-speed, dual clutch automatic transmission efficiently translates the 2.0 litre engine’s 160 horsepower into forward momentum. Burying your right foot into the carpet causes the car to surge forward with surprising speed — Car and Driver reported a 7.6 second 0-96.5 km/h acceleration — to put that into context: a 2012 Focus would out drag Magnum P.I.’s Ferrari 308 GTB. Stopping, at first, was also surprising, but not in a good way.

The brakes in the Focus sometimes felt like they were on or off — with no progression between the two modes. Even the lightest tap of the pedal would result in my passengers and me being hurled at the windshield. It took me several days, and a serious recalibration of my right foot, before I could stop the car comfortably. I found this especially difficult to do because the car does such a good job of isolating you from the outside world.

Between the electrically assisted steering, electric throttle and electrically assisted brakes, the Focus makes sure that its driver is kept well away from the harsh realities of the road. I might be biased — having spent a large portion of my driving history behind the wheel of seriously analogue ’80s sports cars — but I found the Focus’s digital isolation to be disconcerting at times.

It became most apparent after an ice storm that left the roads around Winnipeg as slippery as a skating rink: in the cars I’m used to, when setting off from a stop, you can judge what the wheels are doing via the feedback, allowing you to adjust throttle and steering as needed. In the Focus there was no feedback — just the sensation that the car’s movement was disproportionate to the amount of gas I was giving it.

I eventually learned that if you keep steering straight ahead and used a light foot on the throttle the standard-equipped traction control would sort everything out for you. I would have preferred to do it myself but I also might be past my best-before date.

Other gripes? The way the front of the car slopes away from the driver made it hard to judge where the bumper ends. Not a big deal if you have the optional parking sensors installed, but I wouldn’t want to parallel-park an unequipped car — something I’m sure you would get used to though.

My only other complaint was the optional MyFord Touch system.

While I’m not an electrical engineer, I am computer literate. Even so, I could not for the life of me figure out how to use the communications and entertainment systems properly. I’m sure that, given enough time (or maybe a thorough study of the manual), it would eventually become old hat, but in the age of the iPad I have to question why these systems are not more intuitive.

The above complaints are minor though. When it comes down to the brass tacks the 2012 Focus drives well, looks great and, while the base model can start at more than $1,000 above its rivals, in most cases it has a more powerful engine and more standard equipment.

Someone who cares about cars signed off on the 2012 Focus. It seems to have a je ne sais quoi about it, an excitement to its design not often found in compact cars; it made this car-snob smile.