Quick Drive – 2009 Ford Focus Sedan

By J.S. Smith

07.06.2009

2009-ford-focusA while back, I had the opportunity to take a 2009 Ford Focus sedan on a long road-trip to northern Michigan. I actually had no choice in the matter; this was the car available in the motor pool. Still, I was thankful, given that my two previous forays into the motor pool produced cars almost ready for expulsion. So, humble as the Focus sedan is, it was a marked step up from previous work-related trips. This particular car has 2,274 miles on the odometer, so it was pretty fresh by fleet standards.

I was also more than a little interested in driving the vehicle because my wife and I own a 2001 Ford Focus wagon. The first generation Focus is a truly great vehicle design. It towered over the other compacts of the early 2000s, and was recognized on both sides of the pond as the top car in its class. Sporty handling, firm ride, an interestingly esoteric dash layout and interior room rivaling mid-size sedans—not to mention good fuel economy and handsome styling. And the wagon versions boasted cargo capacity exceeding most mid-size SUVs. Sure, the early models—at least in North America—were alarmingly recall prone, and there were some quality issues, but the design and packaging are still, to my mind, unrivalled. At least in the US.

Gearheads know, of course, that Ford took the cheap route in 2005 and 2008, refreshing the Focus while Europe got an impressive new model. And the 2009 model is merely another edition of that automotive devolution.

The trip was about half interstate and half two-lane state highway. And anyone that has driven in Michigan over the past few decades knows that the condition of our roads is unrivalled in North America for pothole-laden depravity. Especially in late winter and early spring, when the pock-marked tarmac has emerged from snow and ice with manhole-sized craters that appear to have been transported from the Somme, circa 1916. These insatiable asphalt shredders indiscriminately chomp down Goodyears like an MSU undergrad sucks down Natural Light on game day. And, much like the MSU undergrad, they soon vomit up the remains of their binge. Thus, when traveling in-state for business, it is very welcome to have a suspension that soaks up roadway scars.

As with any car, the most noticeable initial aspect is the exterior styling. The contemporary Focus tarts itself up with fake side scoops in the front fender. Quite without function, these scoops serve no apparent purpose, including a styling purpose because the vents appear to be exactly what they are—tacky afterthoughts. The remainder of the exterior is handsome, although not interesting. Another sign of devolution, given the unique and bold lines of the first generation, not to mention the sharp lines of the European model.

On the inside, the seats have a firm feel and the cloth seat covers, for a base model, are acceptable. Certainly no worse than my 2001 Focus. There is ample room in the front seats and the rear seats have generous leg room for a small (by North American standards) car. The interior space seems to be about the same as my 2001 Focus, which is also pretty roomy for a small car. (Slight rant: given the roominess of the Focus wagon and its cargo capacity, I don’t quite see why anyone who doesn’t have to tow something would buy a five-passenger SUV. Sure, you get all-wheel drive, but with snow tires, my Focus has braved many Michigan winters without ever getting stuck. Rant over. You may return to your regularly scheduled car review.)

The dash has a logical layout and the buttons and dials functioned as intended. It doesn’t look bad, either. Unfortunately, however, it lacks a quality feel. The dash has a silvery plastic face that is hard and has all the tactile sensation of a cheap Fisher-Price play set. And it after a while, it begins to look every bit as chintzy as it feels. The top of the dash has a hard, grained plastic surface that also feels cheap. In fact, all of the plastic surfaces in the car have a hard and cheap feel to them.

In comparison, the interior of my 2001 Focus has a quality feel. Not only is the design striking, but the materials impart a pleasant tactile sensation. They feel and look like those of a more expensive car. Don’t get me wrong, the interior doesn’t have the quality sensation associated with, say, VWs, but it is much better than my mother’s 2003 Nissan Altima and centuries ahead of the Paleolithic dash of the late-model Cavaliers that haunted motor pools past. I’d even say that my 2001 Focus interior stacks up well against a 2009 Corolla I recently rented while on vacation.

All is not lost; however, because the seats of the 2009 Focus were relatively comfortable for the 6 hours I spent in it. And the stereo is quite nice and MP3 compatible. This particular car was not equipped with Ford’s wonderful Synch , however.

The important part, though, is the drive. The car is surprisingly quiet on the highway. Wind and road noise are present, but not intrusive. It is much quieter than my 2001 Focus and compares well with the above-mentioned Corolla and Altima. For a compact car that is Ford’s base-model, it offers a relatively serene highway experience. My 2001 Focus, in contrast, features ample wind and road noise, although it does not approach the lamentable wall of sound one encounters in, say, Kias of a few years back or a Cavalier.

It does get noisy, however, under hard acceleration. The 2.0-liter Duratec may be serene at cruise, but when stomped, it produces a loud zing. It revs freely and feels much more rev-happy than my 2001 Focus, which seems a bit reluctant, for a DOHC engine, to wind into higher RPMs. The 2009 iteration has no such hesitation and it revs up quite quickly, with a higher pitch than the 2001.

Part of that is probably the lack of low-end torque. Although it produces 140 horses at a lofty 6000 RPM, it peaks at a mere 132 pound-feet at the same RPM. There isn’t a lot of grunt to be had, so the engine has to rev quite high to pass on the highway or when accelerating to freeway speeds. To be fair, it is not the raucous thrash of an engine like the old GM Quad-4, but neither is it the smooth wind-up of the Corolla’s 1.8-liter powerplant. And it does provide adequate acceleration, feeling noticeably quicker than my 2001 Focus, although it won’t upset anyone’s cardiologist either.

The most noticeable driving change from the 2001 model is in the ride and handling. It soaks up all manner of road conditions with admirable composure. It tamed even the Soviet-style roads of Michigan, which is no small task. And it did so without the pitch and wallow ordinarily associated with smooth-riding domestic steel. For a car of this class, it is placid and smooth, very much like a Corolla.

And much smoother than the 2001 Focus, which has a firm, sporty ride. To be certain, the first generation Focus does not have a harsh ride; it lacks the oxcart punishment of econoboxes of yore. But the ride definitely leans on the sporty end of the spectrum, even in wagon form.

The handling is another story. I would not describe the 2009 Focus’ handling as sloppy. It is acceptable and reminiscent of a Corolla. Not dangerous or imprecise, but not sporty either. It simply is not bred to tame curves or be tossed into corners. The 2001 Focus, on the other hand, handles brilliantly. Hard cornering and curves of all kinds are treated with professional efficiency and the limits of the chassis and suspension are well beyond the limits of my driving skills. At the time of its initial release, the Focus was lauded for its crisp, European handling. For a compact car, it featured genuinely entertaining handling that easily outclassed its competitors. When Ford “updated” the Focus, it clearly tuned in the suspension for ride quality and softened the handling for American drivers. Domestic automobile companies have always in the past calibrated the suspension of their small cars to imitate big cars; that is, a soft pliant ride. A pity, given the charm of the first generation.

The brakes posed no problems, although I did not unduly tax them on my drive. I did, however, notice unwanted tire squeal when accelerating from a stop. Of course, my idea of accelerating from a stop is to stomp on the gas pedal, and in all fairness the pavement was slightly wet, although the weather was warm—well, warm by early-March-in-Michigan standards. But the stock Hankook Optima H725s didn’t come off as particularly grippy tires.

I spent about six hours in the Focus and put 373 miles on it. The drive itself was rather dull, and the car certainly added nothing to liven up the experience. But the drive was pleasant and serene and not taxing, which are the characteristics that most people prize in a commuter car.

And it was pretty economical. The EPA figures for the slushbox 2009 Focus sedan are 24 city and 33 highway. The trip computer reported fuel economy of 34.4 MPG. My measurement turned in a figure of 32.36 MPG. In either case, the car returned excellent real-world highway fuel economy, particularly for a four-speed automatic. My 2001 Focus gets about 30 MPG on the highway. Interestingly, a 2009 Corolla I recently rented while on vacation—and of which I hope to finish a review soon—received 29.032 MPG in mostly highway driving.

Given the bargain-basement prices at which a 2009 Focus can be bought, I found it to be a good car. Not exciting or cutting-edge like the first generation, but solid and economical. If it were available in wagon form, I would seriously consider buying one—although I would still likely hold out for the upcoming Fiesta hatch, which promises to be much more fun and economical. For someone looking for an inexpensive commuter car or even a small family car, however, the 2009 Focus merits serious consideration and, at the very least, a test drive.

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Author: J.S. Smith

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11 Comments

  1. I realise it’s salt in the wound, but it is simply awful you have to drive this instead of the Focus we have in England.

    Maybe you’ll get the good one soon (touch wood).

  2. I personally like the 2007 Focus here when I drove it as a rental car but they really dropped the ball with the current Focus here. I don’t understand why Ford couldn’t give us the world Focus here and give us this thing.

  3. The Ford Focus sold in England is a great car. BUT it sells for more than the average Fusion (US Fusion is a midsized sedan)

    In America bigger is ALWAYS better. Even if the smaller car costs more.

    Will Ford be able to sell $25,000 Focuses built in Germany in Texas? I think gas would have to be about $6.00 a gallon.

  4. Perhaps a better review would be one that compares the vehicle to one that is currently being sold as a competitor. I can understand your disappointment in the fact that the latest iteration of the Focus doesn’t handle as well as the 2001 model, but perhaps you should consider why that is. Could it be because the two top selling vehicles in the C-segment exhibit virtually no handling characteristics at all. Of course, I’m talking about the Civic and Corolla. In Ford’s mind the consumer had spoken, and they wanted dull generic handling in their entry level vehicles. Ford however has been able to provide a ride that soaks up potholes with ease but still provides better handling than the Civic and most definitely better than the boat-like handling of the Corolla. I have rented all three in the last 6 months and the Focus did return the best real world mpg of the group. On my recurring 1,000 mile trip that is about 85% highway and 15% city I was able to average 38 mpg in the Focus, 36 mpg in the Civic and 35 in the Corolla. Obviously, I was trying to achieve the best mpgs I could just short of hypermiling.

    As for interiors, the Civic is possibly one notch better than the Focus, but the Corolla is equal at best.

    Interior noise levels were of no comparison between the Focus and Civic. The Focus wins hands down. The Corolla is close but it does not match the Focus either.

    None of this tells me that a Civic is worth $3,000+ more than a Focus and the Corolla is certainly not worth $2,000 more. And for those who are certain that they will make these premiums up in their residual values at trade in time let me point out that I had to search far and wide to find a Focus on a rental lot and when I did it had 29K on it. The Corolla and Civic were readily available to me with both having under 5K. If these vehicles are becoming more prevalent on the rental lots it won’t be long before those residuals start dropping. To be fair, this is an issue for Toyota moreso than Honda since Toyota appears to have been upping their rental fleet numbers for the past few years while Honda only just recently started resorting to this tactic.

    If people based purchases on test drives instead of perceptions you would not see Civics being sold for $23K and Focus selling for 18K. If anything, the Focus should demand the premium.

  5. New Focus will demand highe price. Much better car, but higher price,so i wonder how tha will go?

  6. Next time I rent a car, can I write a review for you guys?

  7. Ford’s dropping the Focus wagon in the US still grieves me. I love station wagons and have no desire for an Escape, Edge, Flex, or new Explorer coming out next year.

  8. Lance48: I appreciate your informative and intelligent comment. My intent, however, was to compare it to my Focus, which I have lived with for many years, not its current competitors. Perhaps that would have been more relevant to the new car buyer, but I was writing from my own perspective, which is that of a car enthusiast who has a family and limited piles of cash to spend on cars. Were I asked to revise the article, I would have emphasized a descent of the species approach that is apparent in the review but by no means a consistently strong theme.

    I may be reviewing a Corolla soon–JWynne permitting–and could work in some comparison. Head-to-head, the cars are very similar, but it’s really Toyota’s reputation that commands the premium. As to the Civic, I’ve never driven one.

    JWynne: Not everyone drives a Bentley. But there are Alfa reviews a few steps above mine. And it wasn’t a rental. And you can always write a review. That, of course, doesn’t mean it will get published. Although I have no say in what gets posted here, I would love to see your rental car reviews. Let me know if you get the G6.

    Troy: Agree completely. If Ford made a small wagon, or planned on it, I’d buy one in a hearbeat. As it stands, it seems unlikely they’ll produce a new Focus wagon. A shame, because my 2001 Focus, as stated above, has more sport or utility than most SUVs, at half the size and twice the MPG (slight hyperbole, but you get the gist). [CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT] But, of course, SUVs can be sold at a higher price, so why not nix the wagon? [END CONSPIRACY THEORY ALERT] IN reality, Americans seem willing to buy SUVs and reluctant to buy wagons. Makes no sense, but there we are.

  9. There’s no conspiracy in why Ford dropped the wagon body style – They’re CHEAP. They did the 08 redesign very low budget and kept the body styles simple – sedan and coupe. And the coupe is so ungainly because it shares the sedan’s roofline and body structure.

    BTW, the wagon used to sticker for a good $2k more than the same sedan, so it isn’t about the profits.

  10. Doug, you’re right, but domestic automakers appear to be in no hurry to offer wagon versions either. Not sure why–I’ve noticed that the resale values are quite high for the Focus wagon, at least in comparison to the sedan or hatch. On the other hand, it seems unlikely they’d cut a profitable model. But they certainly did the redesign on the cheap.

  11. I just got back from a trip to Ft. Walton Beach, and got a 2009 Focus as my rental. Was very pleased with it actually. Had roughly 6,000 miles on it. On my last trip I was stuck with a G6 *bleah*.

    My biggest concern was the two large equipment cases, I figured I’d have to put them in the back seat, but they fit in the trunk just fine, Ford designed the trunk lid right for a change.

    The little 4-banger was actually fairly zippy, no problems passing or accelerating, though I agree it’s a noisy under hard acceleration. (lightyears ahead of the wheezy Pontiac I had on the last trip)

    Came with Sirius radio, nice tough, but the controls were a pretty good reach. Steering wheel mounted controls seemed unusable (probably needed to be programed).

    Normal controls such as lights, windshield wipers, etc were in the standard Ford location, no problem finding controls in the dark.

    Back seat looked cramped though. Cramped as in smaller than my Mustang cramped.

    For a compact, it seemed pretty nice.

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