Stealing the limelight for Ford
By gum Ford dealers had a frantic June. The new Falcon went on sale, so did the Falcon ute, the Mondeo diesel, the Mondeo XR5 - and the new, larger Focus.
Until recently the Falcon would have been the big news. It's certainly the biggest of the cars Ford is launching, but with rising fuel prices have come falling large-car sales.
So the Focus is now the focus of Ford's efforts. Its compact segment now makes up around 20 per cent of the new vehicle market including heavy trucks, Ford says.
Last year's top-selling car was the Holden Commodore, but a compact car - the Toyota Corolla - came second. This year, to the end of April, a small car and two compacts are in the top five. The Focus was second in its segment in 2006 and 2007, and Ford is confident it can repeat that this year. It has certainly extended its chances of selling truckloads of Focuses by spreading its bets.
The range now opens with a 1.6-litre petrol engine, mated to a manual transmission and tucked into a hatch or wagon. The smaller engine meant Ford could start $5000 lower in the price range.
There's also a 2.0-litre petrol hatch, a 1.8-litre common rail diesel wagon, and the rip-snorting turbocharged 2.5-litre five-cylinder XR5 hatch - the hero car of the range. Hero car in terms of driving excitement, that is.
But the best of the bunch when factoring in value for money and frugal o-peration is the 1.6. Its 75kW and 150Nm may look uninspiring on paper, but it's a wonderfully perky little unit. The 2.0 actually feels more sluggish despite its 107kW and 185Nm; perhaps it's less well-matched to the four-speed auto on offer. Whatever. the 1.6 picks up well, the Focus' delightful chassis letting you make the most of every kilowatt on offer.
If you enjoy driving, wringing every last ounce from an underpowered but eager engine and a lovely chassis can be more enjoyable than something nominally more powerful, but less well set up. Meanwhile, if you're more interested in using your Focus as a mobile wheelbarrow, you'll appreciate its pleasant cabin, its refinement, and the 6.7 litres/100km fuel economy Ford says the 1.6 manual can achieve.
The 1.8 diesel, at 5.3 litre/100km is, of course, better in thirst terms. Its 85kW/300Nm isn't too shabby either - this engine carries over fro the old model and it's a pleasant enough unit, but the wagon's something you buy because you need to.
The base-spec 2.0-litre hatch will be bought by people who refuse to consider a smaller engine. And as for the XR5... Its 166kW at 6000rpm isn't what makes it such a delight to drive briskly. It's the torque spread which delivers the goods, the 320Nm available from 1600 to 4000rpm.
The outgoing XR5 was a blast, but there was too much torque steer and it tended to corrupt the steering at times when you really needed the front wheels to grip.
The new model offers torque steer too, but it's less intrusive. The front wheels wriggle just enough to remind you you've got a lot of power on tap, and that all of it is going to the front rubber. But not enough to prompt a cold sweat. The same power in a four-wheel drive car can feel almost pedestrian; there's little involvement until you get to silly speeds. But in this set-up you have to really grab this car by the scruff and show it who's boss to get the best out of it. Yet if you want to just cruise, it'll happily do so.
We didn't cruise - and used considerably more than the 9.3 litres/100km fuel consumption Ford quotes.
There's other good news in the new Focus. Even the base cars get six airbags, stability control, and hazard lights that flash if the ABS engages. That's all part of this Focus' five-star Euro NCAP rating for occupant protection. Stuff like the iPod-compatible CD and the air-conditioning with pollen filter are just the icing on the cake.
Okay, so the base cars only have steel wheels - Ford counters with an entry Focus that offers driving refinement, a smart and spacious cabin and a safety-weighted features list at a reasonable price.
Want more, and you can buy the 2.0-litre Zetec spec, with its 17-inch alloys, its cruise control, foglights and heated mirrors.
Demand the full monty and the XR5 adds fripperies like a unique body kit, 18-inch alloy wheels, enhanced brakes and sports suspension, Recaro leather seats and keyless start plus, of course, that engine. Ready to start bargaining? Don't forget there's less room to move. Ford has pitched its retail tag closer to walk-away prices, saying it gives potential buyers a better idea of what they'll spend and protects residual values. Whether the message will sink in to buyers used to more room to move remains to be seen.