Quick Drive – 2009 Ford Focus Sedan
By J.S. Smith
A 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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