Future Curbside Classic: 2012-2018 Ford Focus – You Were Supposed To Rise Above The Unreliable American Cars, Not Join Them!

In 2009, critics and audiences alike were delighted when Star Trek premiered in theaters. The movie critically and commercially revived a franchise that had been on life support for quite some time. With a fresh new take on familiar characters, it seemed the possibilities for a series of fun and engaging movies were endless. Unfortunately, the series went from bold and energetic to tired and mediocre in just a few short years. Unnecessary call backs to older films and a constant rehashing of Kirk’s daddy issues contributed to a sentiment that Paramount Studios ultimately failed to reboot the franchise beyond one great movie.

The 2012 Ford Focus also seemed promising at first, but like Paramount, Ford made some decisions that would greatly diminish the good will that customers and enthusiasts had built towards the car.

Before the recession altered the buying habits of the American car shopper, small cars tended to lack the options found in the mid or full size sedan segments. Automakers put issues like wind and road noise, high quality interiors, and overall driving refinement low on their priority lists. Economy was the name of the game. And the thinking at the time was that the average candidate for a small car valued a low price above anything else.

There were some exceptions to this rule. The first generation Ford Focus set the standard for ride and handling in the small car segment for years. And the 2006 Honda Civic proved that the segment could tolerate a boundary-pushing exterior design. But for every dynamic and innovative compact car available in the mid 2000s, an equal and opposite entry existed as well. The Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, and Chevrolet Cobalt fulfilled the roles expected of them without advancing the segment in any meaningful way. Not that they had to. No frills transportation always had its place. And there really wasn’t much of a market for premium compact cars before the financial markets collapsed.

The need for smaller, cheaper cars equipped with the amenities normally reserved for more expensive vehicles arose when shoppers started downsizing around 2008 or so. Gas prices also pushed buyers to ditch their utility vehicles for more fuel efficient transportation. The CARS rebate program encouraged Ford Explorer and Toyota Previa owners to trade in their respective vehicles for smaller ones like the Ford Focus and Toyota Corolla.

America’s second generation Focus attempted to bridge the gap between value conscious transportation and technologically sophisticated people hauler. According to some critics, it failed at both. Automotive publications and bloggers, of course, knew that Ford’s dysfunction deprived America of the “authentic” second generation Focus that plied the highways of London and Berlin, so naturally their instinct was to condemn the reheated 2008 model. In retrospect, their wails of injustice seem laughably quaint, given the steadily increasing base prices of the compact segment and the decline of sedans in general.

If anything, the 2008 Ford Focus represented a return to form for the Blue Oval. Since about 1980, Ford’s American small cars emulated their European or Japanese counterparts, to a point. The Tempo and Escort were two such vehicles. In the ’90s that philosophy reached its apotheosis with the second and third generation Escort, which used Mazda’s B platform and were generally considered decent vehicles. Sure, they weren’t the most sophisticated sedans in the segment, nor did they boast the highest quality interiors, but they were more affordable and a bit more dynamic than their competitors.

Ten years after the Escort made way for its successor, the second generation Focus rekindled the “cheap and cheerful” flame. The cabin lacked sturdy materials and buttons but boasted an attractive aesthetic augmented by ice blue lighting and faux-aluminum trim that could plausibly fool customers into thinking it was upscale. Ford’s Mazda-derived Duratec 2.0 liter four cylinder was more powerful than its rivals, although not as refined. The C170 platform soldiered on, and while it was ten years old, it still exhibited solid driving dynamics.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Focus centered around its infotainment system. Yes, infotainment. If we’re talking about a system that at its most basic displays information and entertainment, then the first iteration of Ford Sync qualified. Sync essentially pioneered the connected car revolution. Just like its modern counterpart, the system allows cell phones and audio players to seamlessly integrate into the car’s audio system. Pretty standard stuff today, but back in 2007, very few automakers offered anything like it. Sync stood apart from the others with its highly advanced voice recognition system, which enabled drivers to select anything in their iPod Classic or Zune simply by stating the artist, genre, album, song title or playlist. That type of functionality was still relatively uncommon five years after Sync’s introduction, and some voice recognition systems still don’t have the capability.

If Ford mixed in several tasty ingredients like decent driving dynamics, attractive tech, and decent pricing into the small car mix while leaving out things like a fancy interior and overall refinement, what was it going to do for the next generation? Basically, address all those areas. Ford’s Global C platform accomplished several goals. It improved on the formula set by the C1 platform by offering an architecture focused on responsive driving dynamics. And true to its name, the platform was designed for products in all regions. “One Ford” did actually work for some vehicles. Alan Mulally instilled at least some corporate discipline into Ford, firing executives who weren’t on board with his changes and advocating for a more unified approach to product development. That was more than Bill Ford Jr. accomplished. Ford Jr. never pushed back when offered the explanation of “the product cycles don’t match up” as the reasoning behind America not getting Europe’s second generation Focus. That’s probably why America’s second gen only had a short four year run.

In any event, the Focus was overdue for a redesign in every region in which it was sold. The third generation needed to appeal to a global audience both visually and dynamically. In that regard, Ford greatly succeeded. Following the 2008 Fiesta, the Focus took Ford’s “Kinetic Design” and adopted it for the compact segment, with its large trapezoidal grille and swept-back headlights, it was an update of the overall design Ford sprinkled on its European sedans throughout the mid 2000s. Unlike its smaller sibling however, the Focus retained some sharp lines along with its curves. While the hatchback model is the most distinctive of the duo, the sedan also looks good, although it’s clear Ford borrowed some rear end styling from the Mazda 3. It’s not much of a mystery as to why that’s the case. Moray Callum worked at Mazda from 2001-2006 before joining Ford. It’s likely he and J Mays worked on the Focus, but Callum’s fingerprints are all over the Focus and the Mazda 3.

The interior also got a significant makeover. Instead of materials you’d find at the dollar store, Ford outfitted the Focus with stuff you’d encounter on a trip to…Target. At least for the lower trimmed models. Titanium trimmed models received more premium soft touch plastic on the doors. The 2012’s spread covered a lot of ground. Mulally era Ford vehicles took the complete opposite approach to Henry Ford’s old saying about the Model T. Basically, you could have any color you wanted, including black, plus any option you wanted on any trim level.

That’s not entirely accurate, but consider this: For 2012 there were eight different wheel choices, with three of them being plastic wheel covers. Cruise control and rear power windows were unavailable on the base S trim. You could get leather as part of the SEL Premium Package, but cloth was still standard on the Titanium, the highest tier trim. Head here to check out more specific information about what Ford offered on the 2012 model. The Blue Oval presumably created extremely basic trim levels in order to appeal to thrifty shoppers, fleet buyers, or both. Overall, any trim of the third generation represented a huge upgrade from its predecessor and propelled Ford to top of the class, depending on what trim level and option package you selected. At the very least, Ford created a cabin that was at least competitive with rivals.

What every Focus did get was a well sorted chassis with a couple of features that augmented its basic capabilities. In addition to electric power steering, the Focus debuted Ford’s Torque Vectoring Control. The Focus will apply braking power to the inside wheel in a sharp turn, essentially emulating a limited slip differential. Ford was one of the first mainstream brands to implement such a system. All of this supplemented the front MacPherson struts and “Control Blade” rear trailing arm independent suspension. Every Focus also offered a single engine choice in the first year of production. Ford’s 2.0 Duratec, itself an evolution of Mazda’s four cylinder and a carryover from the previous model, could be had with either a five speed manual or six speed dual-clutch “Powershift” automatic. The 160 horsepower unit boasted a good output figure for its time, as most entries in the class measured in at around 130 or so.

Combined with an eight percent more aerodynamic body surface, a modern chassis, and a sophisticated suspension setup, the Focus garnered near unanimous praise for its balanced ride and handling. Reviews found the 2012 far more refined than its predecessor and on par with the contemporary Mazda 3. Auto critics differed in their opinions of the interior. Some thought the lower trim levels could have used more pizazz while others celebrated all of the available cabin configurations. Customers flocked to the 2012 Focus, which gained nearly 90,000 additional sales compared to 2011’s figure, for a total of just under 270,000. That kind of shift is almost unheard of today, and Ford really had a chance to make further inroads in the segment, especially with the Focus receiving its own halo car, the 2013 ST.

Consumer Report’s reliability summary for the Ford Focus.

There is no happy ending to this story. Ford knew the Powershift dual-clutch transmission was problematic years before the Focus arrived at dealerships nationwide. A significant amount of owners have experienced problems with their cars, and a major lawsuit is currently ongoing, with a decision likely at the end of the year. The 2015 refresh did not produce a more reliable unit, although it did introduce the 1.0 liter three cylinder EcoBoost engine into the lineup one year later, complete with its own unique variant of the six speed automatic offered in other Ford vehicles. Ford apparently didn’t see the point in adapting any of the powertrains found in Europe to America. Pushing fundamentally defective vehicles down the road in hopes of a future fix is nothing new for American automakers, but the Focus, and by extension Mulally era Ford, initially promised something different.

That’s not to say the third generation Focus wasn’t impactful in a positive way. Its feature content and overall presentation forced Honda to initiate an emergency refresh for the Civic only one year after the ninth generation’s debut. That and all the negatives reviews it received. Anyway, the Focus still looks modern because competitors emulated the design. Dynamically speaking, it may not have been class leading, but it forced rivals to step up their game. In March 2017 Motor Trend tested the redesigned 2017 Subaru Impreza and found its ride and handling to be inferior to the Focus, a car Ford introduced in 2011.

Be it lower gas prices, high cost of manufacturing, or the widely publicized transmission issues, Ford decided against selling the fourth generation Focus in North America. The ongoing tariff situation is also to blame, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Ford saw an opportunity to conveniently exit the segment and took it. And given the subsequent cancellation of the Fusion, a reliable Focus might not have mattered in the long run. In any event, Ford completely fumbled their small car strategy and ceded the market to rivals who adopted the best aspects of the Focus into their own small cars without any of the baggage. To paraphrase The Clash, phony Euro-mania has bitten the dust.

Paramount really had something with 2009’s Star Trek. They modernized a moribund franchise and earned tons of goodwill in the process. Unfortunately, by 2013 it was clear something was amiss. Corporate mismanagement squandered a once promising return to form and now Star Trek’s future on the big screen is uncertain. That being said, the movies clearly influenced Viacom’s decision to green light a new era of Star Trek television shows, so something positive came out of it. Still, it’s hard not to think about what would have happened if Paramount followed up the first movie with two more successful sequels. Star Trek’s cinematic universe was never going to be as popular as the Marvel movies or the new Star Wars films, but they offered a compelling alternative for audiences who craved something different.

Likewise, Ford squandered their post-recession renaissance, at least as it relates to their small cars. Mulally may have united Ford, but his tenure simultaneously embodied the best and worst of late 20th and early 21st century Ford: Moon shot car programs buoyed by incrementally improved trucks and utilities, all beset by extremely inconsistent quality. Ford’s current strategy of investing in niche vehicles may pay off, but the company will be forced to rely on those products even more now that their cars have vanished.