Ford Focus on the drive as small family cars face massive competition from SUVs and crossovers
First drive in Nice: Ford Focus
Ford says the new Focus is the best car it has ever made. You would expect it to be, of course, given its forerunners have been bought by more than 16 million people since its 1998 introduction.
More importantly, however, it has to be that good given the craze for small SUVs and crossovers these days.
We drove the new car - the first Ford based on the brand's new C2 platform - over twisty hill roads and open highways around Nice recently.
On first sight, it looks longer, lower and wider. It is, but only by marginal amounts. How the eye can deceive.
The front is cleverly drawn, smart and, forgive the pun, focused.
The rear, as my driving colleague noted early on, is reminiscent of a Volvo. I think that is a compliment.
Extending the wheelbase (by 53mm) and shortening the overhangs is the secret to making it roomier inside, though the boot in the hatch isn't huge by any means - it is in the smart-looking estate.
The hatch is effectively on sale as you read this. Prices start from €24,900 for the 1-litre EcoBoost petrol. It represents a drop of €90 or so on the starting price of the old, despite a lot of technology and newness being built-in.
The estate will follow, and next year we'll get a new Active crossover version as acknowledgement of that demand for small SUVs.
The Active has better ground clearance (30mm-plus), protective back-wheel arch and rocker claddings, front/rear skid plates and its own front-end design.
An ST will follow too. There will not be a saloon.
Thankfully, Ford is keeping things simple on the engine front.
For Ireland there will be a 1-litre EcoBoost 125PS petrol (claimed 4.8litres/100km, expected 108g/km, €180 road tax), and a 1.5-litre 120PS diesel (3.6-litre/100km, 94g/km €190 road tax).
There is a 6spd manual and an 8spd automatic transmission which, with cleaner engines, mean a claimed 10pc cut in emissions across the range.
There will be four trim levels: Zetec, ST-Line, Titanium and Vignale.
Standard (Zetec) spec includes 6.5ins SYNC 3 with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, selectable drive modes, cruise control, pre-collision assist including vehicles, pedestrians and cyclists, 16ins alloys, and LED DTRLs.
ST-Line adds 17ins sport alloys, ST-Line body kit, sports suspension, twin polished tail pipes, keyless start and interior sports trim.
Titanium tops that with front/rear parking sensors, 8ins SYNC 3 with nav, Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, FordPass Connect, keyless entry and start, LED rear lamps.
Finally, the Vignale spec adds 18ins special alloys and body-styling, 8ins SYNC 3 B&O Play with navigation, full leather seats and armrest, head-up display and privacy glass.
We drove a mix of hatch/estate and petrol/diesel engines, with the spotlight, naturally, on the relevant ones for the Irish market - the 1-litre petrol and 1.5-litre diesel.
We also drove the 1.5-litre EcoBoost, which was truly lively and benefited from a more sophisticated suspension.
The 1-litre held its own on mountain climbs around Nice, and considering the size of car, it is eminently suitable for families covering up to 15,000km a year, especially if much of their driving is urban or short hops. It's not a tearaway drive, but it was nicely adequate.
The 1.5-diesel was surprisingly good, quiet and smooth. We drove it in an estate with the 8spd automatic box and found that an excellent combination.
I liked the estate - especially because it had more space - but we don't buy a lot of them and are unlikely to do so with the current SUV/crossover buying trend.
As we all know, the whole small family car area is under fierce pressure from the proliferation of SUVs and crossovers, which makes the segment even more competitive.
One of the Focus's main attractions over the years has been its sporty handling and ride.
I'm not as sure as I once was that this is necessarily such a compelling factor any more given that people are placing so much attention on connectivity, infotainment (and SUVs), but it is a distinguishing facet for those who like a car with a spring in its step.
It was good to get the feel of a decent chassis on those Nice roads, and a sense of a car being well within its capabilities.
Speaking of connectivity and infotainment, depending on trim and spec you can get FordPass Connect embedded modem for connectivity on the move, a wireless charging pad, and SYNC 3 with 8ins touchscreen etc. The wi-fi hotspot (up to 4G) includes a three-month complimentary wireless data trial (or when you reach 3GB of data used).
The firm made a fuss of a first HUD for a Ford model in Europe, and it is helpful but hardly new. There is a litany of other bits and pieces that we're increasingly coming to take for granted, no matter what car we're in. They include (again depending on spec): active park assist two, adaptive cruise control with stop and go, speed sign recognition, lane centring, adaptive front lighting, and evasive steering assist.
After all that, I can report that the Focus holds its best-in-class driving position with comfort. It looks and acts the part of a smart small car. But even if it is the best the company has made, buyers are going to compare it more against SUVs and crossovers than traditional rivals. That's where the real test awaits.