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LIKE David Hasselhoff’s musical career, Germany’s Ford Focus has never quite hit the big time in Australia. The bold 1998 original – with game-changing dynamic sophistication – was underpowered and over-priced when it launched here four years later; the second-gen of 2005 flirted with success but lived in the shadow of its popular Mazda 3 cousin; and the less said about this decade’s capable but Powershift problematic gen-3 the better.
Willkommen, then, to Focus gen-4. Hailing from the land of the Golf, nothing bar the badge and a few bolts carry over, in a wider, lower, roomier, quieter and stronger small car, which is also up to 88kg lighter than before.
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Not everybody will be pleased that four cylinders have been superseded by three, or that the manual is no more. Beancounters be damned! Additionally, all but the ST-Line wagon versions (for now) ditch the old multi-link independent rear-end layout that helped forge the Focus’s reputation as a great steer, for a cheaper, simpler and less bulky torsion-beam arrangement – a move the Blue Oval claims is more than offset by a longer wheelbase, stronger steels, far better insulation measures, and advanced new driver-assist tech. And much of the latter is standard.
So, the big question is, has the Focus relinquished its dynamic mantle? Not if the $25,990 base Trend hatch is any guide. Muted at idle, the effervescent 1.5-litre three-pot turbo leaps into action and just keeps boldly bounding along, only betraying its diminutive capacity at proving-ground speeds well above the legal limit. The auto shuffles through its ratios with slick authority, and the whole drivetrain feels fighting fit. No qualms there, then.
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Better still, the sparkling chassis is a revelation, with beautifully interactive handling. The front end’s lightness of touch is terrific, backed up by a poised and planted rear end that almost feels like it can be controlled from the seat of your pants. Factor in a hushed, cushy, yet controlled ride, and it is clear the latest Focus’s dynamic fluency is transcendental, regardless of the less-sophisticated suspension lurking out back. Mission accomplished.
Yet while the Focus soars on the move, it stumbles in the showroom. As fine as the cabin space, dashboard workings and seat comfort are, it seems dated and a little downmarket for the (Golf) money asked. The rear is especially drab with no centre armrest, never mind knee-level air vents, even in the $31K ST-Line wagon, which offers truly useful load-carrying practicality, by the way. And the Trend misses out on keyless entry/start. There simply isn’t enough allure inside.
With Peugeot 308 alacrity and Golf refinement, but a sub-Hyundai i30 interior … and trailing key competitors for equipment, the Focus is a fabulous small car that is hamstrung by specification and pricing misfires. Just as with earlier iterations, it’s another case of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.