Monday, October 06, 2008

2008 Ford Focus SES

If you follow business news, you probably know that Ford's finances haven't been in the best of shape these past few years. As such, there hasn't been much money to go around. So what's an automaker to do when one of its cars is in need of an expensive redesign? Put out the tin cup? Hope that Monopoly money suddenly becomes legal tender?

No, silly. Give it an Extreme Makeover: Ford Edition! While the 2008 Ford Focus is being labeled as new, in fact, it's the beneficiary of a major refresh rather than a redesign. The car has updated sheet metal, a new coupe body style, a new interior design and the much-hyped Ford Sync system, but the underlying body structure and powertrain are largely the same as last year...and none too different from seven years before that.

The question, of course, is whether this makeover is sufficiently deep to keep the Focus a viable and recommended choice for a small car. To find out, we bought a 2008 Ford Focus SES Coupe for our long-term program. This road test concerns that car.


The Focus comes equipped with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. In most states, it produces 140 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. Focus models sold in California and other select states meet the super squeaky-clean "PZEV" tailpipe emission tier; this is the case for our car, and consequently power drops slightly to 132 hp and 133 lb-ft. In instrumented testing, our four-speed-automatic-equipped Focus accelerated from zero to 60 mph in 9.7 seconds.

As economy cars go, 9.7 seconds is about average. Given our car's sporty coupe body style, however, one might expect better performance. Unfortunately, a more powerful optional engine — cars like the Chevrolet Cobalt coupe and Honda Civic coupe offer one — isn't available. The flip side, however, is that the Focus delivers better-than-average fuel economy. The EPA gives an automatic-equipped Focus a 24 mpg city/33 mpg rating, with a combined rating of 28 mpg. In our time with the car, we saw slightly lower numbers.

On the move, the 2008 Ford Focus SES falls in the middle of the road in regards to handling performance. Earlier Focus models were known for their lively steering and fun-to-drive nature. These attributes aren't as immediately apparent in the new car, as Ford chose to prioritize stability and ride quality instead. This is even the case with the as-tested SES trim, which comes standard with sportier wheels and tires and a rear antiroll bar. The Focus still possesses decent steering response and grip. But drivers looking for a sport-themed small car will find driving excitement elsewhere.


Ford says that it made a number of improvements to the 2008 Focus to help reduce wind noise. This is all well and good, but the Focus won't be getting many smiles from shush-happy librarians. Wind noise is, in fact, fairly muted, but road noise and vibration can be intrusive at highway speeds. The Focus' ride quality, at least, is pleasingly stable for a small car.

The front seats are firm and flat — they seem shaped for people who never met a Triple Whopper with Cheese they didn't like. On the SES coupe, height adjustment for the driver comes standard. One disappointment is the lack of a telescoping function for the steering wheel — this previously available feature was discontinued for 2008.

The Focus coupe isn't as rear-passenger-friendly as other small coupes. The front seats don't slide or cant forward easily, nor do they return to their original positions when placed back. Once seated in the rear, at least, normal-size adults will find suitable amounts of legroom and headroom. There's also generous foot room thanks to high mounting of the front seats. Unfortunately, there aren't any rear head restraints, which hampers long-distance comfort for adults and raises questions about crash safety.


Sync this into your brain: Sync is cool. Essentially, it's a Microsoft-developed, voice-activated control system for portable MP3 players plus Bluetooth cell phone connectivity for hands-free calling. It comes standard on the Focus SES.

Most portable MP3 players are compatible. You just need to use a special cable to hook up the player to the combo auxiliary audio jack/USB port. Sync will scan the MP3 player's musical contents and then one can control the player using voice commands, such as "Play artist: Madonna," or "Play playlist: Driving Songs." Sync confirms commands with a synthesized voice ("playing: Madonna"). Song information is also presented on a dash-mounted display. Other nice touches: MP3 players get their batteries charged while connected, and you can use the steering-wheel-mounted controls to skip through tracks.

In general, Sync worked very well for us. It recognized most of our voice prompt requests, and it didn't get tripped up when we threw some Spanish song titles at it. (The thick Sync manual says it can even be set up to operate in French or Spanish. "Tocar artista: Madonna!") There were times when Sync didn't recognize a voice request (it absolutely refused to play any music associated with Dean Martin), which means you're out of luck since the Focus' dedicated buttons can only advance tracks within a voice-selected song list. Plus, once your player is connected, you can't operate it by its own controls. You can, however, simply plug your iPod into the standard auxiliary audio jack (if you're really hankering for some Dino).

Design/Fit and Finish

Ford did what it could to make the Focus look new. But most of our staff found the '08 model to be worse looking than past models. The car's lines simply aren't cohesive, and certain design elements, such as the chrome fender vents (which don't actually vent anything) look totally tacked on.

Change for the better will be found on the inside. The dash and center stack have been completely redesigned and additional storage areas have been added. The look of the dash is high-tech. At night, the controls have blue illumination, and our car had the optional custom-color LEDs that light up the cupholders and footwells. There's enough interior storage for cell phones and MP3 players, and the center console bin is quite deep.

There are some annoying design missteps, however. The interior door handles for the coupe are placed too far forward. Leveragewise, this makes the doors feel overly heavy when closing. The white-faced gauges are hard to read. Finally, many of the interior materials simply aren't up to snuff. Fit and finish is fine, but overall quality is a few steps behind what's available from class leaders.

Who Should Buy This Vehicle

Ford's tagline for the 2008 Focus is "Where MP3s meet MPGs." And guess what? Sync really does work. If you live your life one MP3 at a time and score big with pricing incentives, maybe the 2008 Ford Focus is for you. But to us, this is an underachieving small car more fitting of the following tagline: "Good enough for government work."

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