Review: 2012 Ford Focus SEL 5-Door

By Kevin Gordon

If you have ever watched the BBC’s Top Gear you have probably heard the presenters discuss how much they respect Ford’s cars. In fact, the Ford Mondeo is one of the very rare cars that all three presenters agree is a great car. I have always found this to be a bit odd considering the general ribbing that those pecky and hilarious Brits continuously give the stereotypical American. How can Ford’s products can garner such respect with the most stringent of automotive critics? If you listen closely their love of Fords cars come from the way that they drive, much the way the American auto magazines endlessly gush about BMWs. Here again was a point of confusion for me. I have driven a lot of Fords, including living in a family that owned a number of 1990s era Tauruses (SP?). Few of these cars ever caught my attention as being great to drive. Even their much-loved Mondeo was a commercial flop in the states when it came here as the Contour/Mystique. Sure the SVT version was a nice car, but what did they sell… 31 of them?

Back to the point. When the 2012 Ford Focus ended up in the Autosavant parking lot for a week, I was expecting to spend my time focusing on economy, practicality, and other things that auto journalists have to do in order to have the chance to spend time in exotics and supercars. As it turns out I wasn’t in for such a boring week.

My first impression of the new Focus was positive. It is a handsome little car. The Focus is well sculpted with broad shoulders and an overall appealing shape for a hatchback. I would never buy a bright red car (no, not even a red Ferrari), but the one advantage of red is it does hide the size of the rear lights which are just a bit too large. The designers did a good job of managing angles and balancing interior rear storage without making it look like a box. To my eyes, the 5 door Focus is the best looking of the current cars in its segment. Many people may pick the Hyundai Elantra as a better looking car, but I am not a fan of the coupe-styled sedan.

In this price range, it is always the little details that make the difference. Lets face it, for $24,000 you are not going to get an Alcantara headliner, but you do find a lot of nice details that could have only been imagined ten years ago. Touch points from a driver’s perspective feel high quality and fit and finish is excellent. The center stack is nicely designed and the gauge cover is scalloped to match the shape of the hood ahead. In addition, the hidden gas flap (covering the cap less fuel filler) adds to the premium feel.

I think what lead me to an incorrect first impression of this car was the total lack of drama while driving it in a straight line. It could be considered sporty, but that would be a stretch. The little direct injected four clatters at idle and revs smoothly to redline, but it does so without really ever expressing any type of sporting potential. The 160 horsepower engine has a few to many pounds to move. Fortunately, one day while driving one of my frequented back roads, I figured I would see how badly it understeered into one of my favorite corners. I put the transmission in manual mode, downshifted into second and tossed the Focus into the corner. To my absolute surprise, the little hatchback rotated beautifully. Off-throttle, and trail braking the chassis sets for corners, and then driving it with power out results in continued powered rotation until you’re back on your way down the next section of straight road.

I have to confess that after this trip I had to sit down with Ford.com to confirm my suspicion that they were doing something to drive more power to the outside drive wheel. I was correct. They have actually put a torque vectoring system in the mix of stability and traction control. This system uses the car’s brakes to deliver more power to the outside wheel. This is less ideal than a gear driven system, but it does allow Ford to save the cost and weight of a mechanical system. What matters here is that the engineers won out over the accountants in making sure the driving characteristics of the car were up to par with the other excellent pieces of it.

The new dual clutch automatic gearbox functions just as well as a torque converter automatic with the expected benefits in economy. Every once and a while you can detect a shudder coming from the transmission while rolling up to a stop sign, but it is not something that anyone but the most critical auto journalist would notice. I did have one complaint about the transmission, though. It has three different modes – Drive, Sport, and Manual gear selection where you leave the transmission in sport and then activate a manual gear change. This is pretty common these days, but what isn’t is the following. The manual gear selection is chosen by a rocker switch on the side of the gear lever. When you are in Sport you touch little plus and minus signs to move through gears. Here is the rub: when you are in normal drive you can’t use the little minus sign to select a lower gear for purposes like engine braking on a descent. Instead, you need to slot the shift lever into the Sport position to do so. Then, once you have selected your lower gear, you need to continue to shift manually until you move the shift lever back into the normal Drive position. In most cars that I have driven recently, you can drop a few gears while still in drive and then after a period time the transmission goes back to normal automatic mode.

The interior is a nice place to spend time. This car had cloth seats, which managed to remain comfortable during the longest of my drives. This Focus had manually adjustable seats with height adjustment, which was very welcome. One place that the Focus does not lead in its class is in rear seat leg room. Ignoring the specs, it is clear when spending time back there that  cars like the Elantra have more rear room, despite thee Hyundai’s sloping rear roof.

When underway, road noise is well muted and ride quality is excellent for the segment. The sad reality of modern “compact” cars is that they have grown considerably and weigh a lot. This example tips the scales at 52 lbs. short of 3000. This is ultimately what dulls the performance of the 160 hp engine, but it does have a benefit. This much weight allows the Focus to be well mannered over rough roads at super legal speeds. It feels planted, well damped, and never skittish.

The Focus is clearly capable of returning its EPA mileage estimates of 28/38. During my 477 miles of seat time I saw a calculated average MPG of 30.4, which may seem low, but I can promise that for the way it was driven, that is impressive. During one highway only stretch of 80 miles I saw an average MPG of over 40 and the lowest number I saw during hard city driving was 21.8 MPG. Driven in any type of sane manner would easily return a combined number of 34 or 35 miles per gallon.

Efficiency was obviously given a priority in certain areas when building and designing the car. I found two places where I missed a conventional accessory drive arrangement that would have been found by default only a few years ago. First, the air conditioning just could not keep up with 90 plus degree heat in stop and go traffic. I found myself running the dual zone climate control four or five degrees below my standard 72 degree setting in order to keep the car fighting to keep interior temperatures and humidity in check. This appears to be more and more commonplace in today’s world, but I do miss a car that can practically blow frost out of its vents during hot days. The second place that a compromise is obvious is in the electric power steering. Steering feel and feedback is not poor, but in something that has this willing of a chassis, it just doesn’t quite deliver the feel that is possible. In this class everyone seems to pick the Mazda 3 as the benchmark for steering feel, and I would have to agree. Here is hoping that the engineers keep tuning for the Focus ST.

As I learned after taking this car with me to pick up the Autosavant long term F-150, it is a car that you as a consumer will probably never see on a dealer,s lot. Specifically, a 5 door SEL with cloth interior is a car that the local Ford dealer has never come across (they all have the premium package with leather). The car tested here is a 2012 Focus SEL 5-Door, with a 2.0L inline four GDI Engine, and a dual clutch (PowerShift) six transmission. This model has a base price of $21,100, and includes the 301A package ($995) which adds Ford MyTouch and the Sony Stereo*. This package does not come with navigation*, but this car did have it as an additional option for $795. The final option that this car had were the 17” polished allow wheels for $495. All of this adds up to a grand total of $24,180. This compares well to everything else in its class. If you compare it to the Hyundai, the Chevy, and the new Civic the differences are small enough to make them negligible.

As it turns out, a lot of the good that has come along with the Focus has come as a result of selling the same car across the globe. The reason for this is simple; in the rest of the developed world, buyers expect to be able to buy a fully optioned car in a variety of sizes. Small cars do not necessarily have to be cheap cars. On top of being able to option this car nearly as well as many luxury cars, Ford has baked in the driving capability that those Euro journalists have been touting for so long. That might be the most important point of this car; it does everything from a practical standpoint as well as its competitors, but drives better than nearly all of them.

*NOTE: You might notice that none of the infotainment in this car was covered in this review. This is because we will follow this review with a specific review on the Ford MyTouch system in the Focus.

Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.

Author: Kevin Gordon

Kevin is Autosavant's owner and Editor-in-Chief, responsible for setting the overall strategy and editorial direction of Autosavant. He's also the primary contributor to Autosavant's YouTube channel (youtube.com/autosavant) where you can find a comprehensive library of new-car reviews.

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6 Comments

  1. if you have been following the series form the start, the Mondeos Top Gear like are the second and third generation of the car that did not come over here. Please be careful of the facts.

  2. Ian, you might have a point there, but if you look here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP7Hw9oTNso&feature=related and skip to :45 seconds in I think Jeremy points out that it is very good, if not very reliable. Also, I think you are missing the point. My point, was that Ford has been building world cars that respected journalists like, but Ford has not brought many of those cars to the US. In this iteration they have a world car that should be able to make everyone happy.

  3. I’m not sure about this but this focus looks bigger to me.. But Maybe it’s just the additional exterior design. But I think Focus is a really fun car and would be a really good first car for anyone.

  4. Fair enough Kevin and couldn’t agree more. I used to live in the UK before I moved here and had both a Mondeo and a C-Max and they were fabulous cars to drive. I could also get 53mpg (imperial) from a 2 litre diesel that had loads of torque. Quite why you had to wait so many years to get the latest Focus is beyond me. Keep up the good articles.

  5. Kevin, in response to your response to Ian about missing your point: I’m sorry, but you never made that point! Nowhere in your article do you indicate any understanding of the fact that, with a few exceptions (like the Merkur XR4Ti/Scorpio, MKI Mondeo and Focus), Ford has sold entirely different cars overseas than here. Your mention of the Taurus only reinforces an impression of naivete on your part – I guarantee that no one on TopGear would gush about ANY Taurus (not even an SHO). TopGear’s consistency is safe for now; they can unhypocritically mock American’s and American cars while lauding the Fords they drive because: brand name or not, the Fords sold in Europe are NOT American cars.

  6. Oops – I submitted the above prematurely.

    (1) I did not intend to write “American’s”;

    (2) I meant “they” in the last sentence to refer to TopGear’s staff, not Americans – but my wording makes that unclear.

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