Curbside Comparison: 1997 Mercury Sable GS vs. 2013 Ford Focus SE – The Results May Surprise You

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April 5th, 2013 marks two months since I purchased my Focus. Since then, I’ve been reflecting on just how the Sable stacks up when compared to the new car. So what’s the verdict?

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Exterior: The much maligned third generation Taurus/Sable turned off many buyers, but I still hold steadfast to my view that these cars were attractive, especially in wagon form. That does not mean the design is flawless; the front end was poorly done and could have been improved significantly.  A better grill and less circular headlamps would have likely improved the awkwardness you see above. Although the sleekness of modern sedans like the Sonata and Fusion have somewhat validated the designers of these cars, at least in my mind.

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So was the Sable just too far ahead of the times? No, it was just too round. The oval theme looks better from the rear, but the rear window and C pillar suggest that two different cars (or designs) were stitched together. There’s a sense that the exterior flows and then stops in an abrupt manner. Definitely some cognitive dissonance going on here.

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There’s really no contest here: the Focus is an attractive car. Large, expressive headlamps that flow upwards and run parallel with the hood instead of underneath it are largely to blame. Moving the grill openings south of the license plates also helps to give the Focus a confident look, which is enhanced by lower portion of the front end flaring out a bit. The standard 16″ alloys are an additional plus. The only drawback is the  black cut-outs where the fog lights should be. Advantage: Focus

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Interior: The Sable had a very interesting interior. Ford clearly invested quite a bit of money in some areas of the cabin, while skimping out on others. The soft touch dash, all buttons, and the steering wheel are of high quality; the door panels and the plastic surrounding the gauges are not. However, the aesthetic pleasantness of interior cannot be dismissed easily. It was always an enjoyable place to be. The seats are perhaps the most comfortable cloth buckets my bottom has ever touched.

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The Focus interior is positively Germanic, if the Germans still cared about interior innovation. Everything in the cabin has high quality parts, especially the HVAC knobs. Seat bolstering is sufficient, but it doesn’t replicate the living room couch feeling of the Sable’s seats, which might be a good thing when driving while drowsy. The only downside is the relatively dour sea of gray and black, although this is rectified by the ice blue backlighting of the gauges and buttons at night. Ford also decided to use other shades of blue with white lettering for the MyFord infotainment screens, which also helps liven up the cabin. Advantage: Tie.

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Driving DynamicsI’m obviously comparing two vehicles at very different stages of their life. So the operative question here is if the Focus is superior to the Sable. The answer: sort of. The Ford can move faster, navigate curves with ease, and take bumps with aplomb. But the Sable remained rock solid even in the highest cross winds, while the Focus tends to dart around a bit on drafty days. This is obviously due to the weight differences between the two. Still, I wish the Focus was a bit better in this area. Advantage: Tie.

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RefinementThe hardest category of all. Both cars have very smooth engines. The Sable might have the advantage here since it stayed smooth for the entire period I owned it. So let’s talk about shift quality. This transmission responds to throttle inputs with the reliability of a North Korean dictator. I am, of course, talking about Ford’s Powershift dual clutch transmission. In fairness, I am still within the break-in period for the car, and the gear shifting has smoothed out substantially, but sometimes it does things that have me scratching my head. But the hesitant feeling only rears its head at low speeds; when you’re moving, the shift quality is so good that you barely notice any gears changing. On the other hand, the Sable would thunk into downshifting when you needed extra power while driving around 30-45 mph. This wasn’t due to its age either; I remember reading a Motor Trend review of the 1996 Taurus that called out Ford for that bizarre behavior. Advantage: To be determined.