2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Michael Clark
2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge
Competitors
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Chevrolet Cobalt
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Honda Civic
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Hyundai Elantra
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Kia Spectra
Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mazda3

Manufacturer’s web site
Ford Motor Company of Canada

By Haney Louka
Discuss this story in the forum at CarTalkCanada

Photo Gallery:
2008 Ford Focus

Winnipeg, Manitoba – Few cars have made as strong a first impression on me as the 2008 Ford Focus.

Within 30 seconds of picking up my press car, I was accelerating in third gear at about 70 km/h, and shifted into… second. Lest you think that I do silly things like that for thrills, let me make it crystal clear that the intended gear was number four. It just so happened that our green test car (actually the car was blue, but its engine was green), with but 150 km on the clock, was suffering from a misaligned gearbox. I don’t know what the technical term is for the problem – the car is still in the shop as I write this – but basically the shift gates were guiding the stick into not quite the right places.

From the neutral position, the shift lever found its way more easily into second than fourth, and selecting reverse gear required several pounds of pressure to the right to avoid inadvertently going into fourth.

2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Michael Clark
2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge

While Ford isn’t known for producing snick-snick gearboxes that would challenge a Honda, I was pretty sure that something wasn’t right here: this was easily the worst stick I’d tried in almost eight years of testing cars. So I headed to the same Ford dealership that delivered my press car and drove two other manual-equipped Focus sedans, neither of which suffered the same gearbox maladies.

But it’s true what they say about first impressions: I couldn’t overcome that initial disappointment even after spending a week with the car.

For starters, it wasn’t just the gearbox that I had issues with. The engine hangs on to revs between shifts and the clutch has a high engagement point. Steering response is lively, but along with quick transitions comes too much body roll. This is certainly a cushier animal than its award-winning predecessor – a generation that began way back in 2000. The upshot to this, thankfully, is that the Focus possesses a ride quality normally associated with larger, more expensive cars.

2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Haney Louka
2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Greg Wilson
2008 Ford Focus SES. Top photo by Haney Louka; bottom photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The drive was also helped by the Focus’s refined 2.0-litre four banger, which is a Mazda-supplied carryover from last year. Generating 140 hp at 6,000 rpm and 136 lb-ft at 4,250 rpm, it needs revs to provide real thrust, but remains quiet and composed enough throughout its rev range such that accessing that sweet spot isn’t a chore. And despite my displeasure with the manny tranny, it’s still preferable over the four-speed slushbox as a way to squeeze the most performance out of the engine. And that recommendation holds true for virtually any small car with modest power, since automatics have power-sapping torque converters and typically fewer gear ratio options than manuals.

The passenger compartment of my loaded SES tester earned high points for appearance with its white-stitched leather seats. Unfortunately after taking a seat one notices that the front seats are kind of flat and the leather is, well, econo-grade. That particular comment can be leveled against virtually any car in the sub-$30K club and a good number of those less than $45K as well. My take? Good quality cloth beats cheap leather any day. The only downside to that is that cloth seats normally don’t come with heat as an option, so make your choice.

That said, there were a few nice touches inside. The one-touch sunroof switch and presence of a trip computer were unexpected surprises, as were the backlit switches for the door locks and windows. Even the steering wheel buttons were lit.

2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Haney Louka
2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Michael Clark
2008 Ford Focus SES. Top photo by Haney Louka; bottom photo by Michael Clark. Click image to enlarge

What I didn’t appreciate was the driver-selectable colour for the footwell lighting. Somebody fill me in here, because I just don’t get it. If everything else on the car were passable this would just seem like an unnecessary gimmick. But in this application it’s clear that development dollars were spent in the wrong place.

Imagine, for example, if the money spent on frivolous interior lighting had been used to bolster exterior styling efforts? Maybe then we wouldn’t have the tack-on ornamental side vents. Or the uninspired shape.

But it seems that none of this stuff matters at Ford, because now they have Sync. This is Ford’s new communication and multimedia system found on many of its new models. Developed by Microsoft, it gives users the ability to play external audio devices, download music to the system’s hard drive, and make use of Bluetooth connectivity with compatible wireless phones. It’s a cinch to download your entire address book from your phone in a matter of seconds. It’ll even read music from a USB memory device plugged into the dash. Ford also says that the Sync’s software can be updated to add compatibility with media players and phones that aren’t made yet – a good move since wireless and media player technologies evolve at such a rapid pace.

2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Greg Wilson
2008 Ford Focus SES; photo by Greg Wilson. Click image to enlarge

The slickest part about Sync is that these functions can be activated via voice commands or wheel-mounted buttons, allowing drivers to keep both hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. There is a large contingent of naysayers who contend that it’s more about the mental distraction than the physical one, so systems like Sync actually make driving more dangerous because it’s just so darn easy to distract yourself.

I’m more inclined to applaud systems like Sync because owners of cars so equipped will never be fumbling for a ringing phone or holding one up to their ear thereby blocking their peripheral vision, which happens to be essential to safe lane changing.

But I digress. Sync is great and everything, but the Focus is not. This is just too competitive a class for Ford to be resting on its laurels, and it did the same thing with last year’s Escape redesign. There just wasn’t enough good engineering put into the vehicle to keep it current. Keen observers will note that the Escape is getting an entirely new powertrain just one year into its redesign, and it just might have something to do with the realization (albeit a late one) that the product needs to stay current to stay on top.

Let’s see what happens with the Focus.

Pricing: 2008 Ford Focus SES sedan

Base price:$19,999
Options: $ 3,365 ($1,495 Sport Group, $1,000 Luxury Group, $75 engine block heater, $695 audio upgrade)

A/C tax: $100
Freight: $ 1,150
Price as tested: $24,514
Click here for options, dealer invoice prices and factory incentives

Specifications
  • Specifications: 2008 Ford Focus

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    Competitors
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  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Hyundai Elantra
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Kia Spectra
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mazda3
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Mitsubishi Lancer
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Nissan Sentra
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Pontiac G5
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Suzuki SX4
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Saturn Astra
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Toyota Corolla
  • Buyer’s Guide: 2008 Volkswagen City Golf

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