ASSOCIATE EDITOR GRAHAM KOZAK: If you've been paying attention to these review notes, you're undoubtedly aware that there's never been a better time to be in the market for a new compact sedan. B-segments, city cars, subcompacts -- whatever you call the really tiny cars they're selling here now, they're still sort of coming into their own. But there's a bountiful supply of compacts out there.
The Ford Focus, in both hatch and sedan form, just happens to be one of the better ones.
Not that this Focus SE was loaded. In fact, it was a pretty basic package -- but one I feel I could live with quite contentedly. Heated seats without the expense of leather were a nice touch, and some folks seem to be allergic to MyFord Touch. The lack of an infotainment system is probably a blessing to them. I see younger buyers ignoring sunroofs and flashier wheels, maybe even the $995 SE sport package we see here, in favor of the $1,495 Sony/MyFord Touch tech upgrade. Either way, it holds its own against its rivals.
Take the Volkswagen Jetta. It's competitively priced, but doesn't feel quite as planted on the road as the relatively roll-free Ford offering. Plus, VWs have this light, delicate feel that rubs off on everything from the steering wheel to the gearbox -- like a watch that'll explode if you wind it too tightly. None of that with the good ole naturally aspirated 2.0-liter here (why we don't get the globally available EcoBoosts, I'm not sure). Peak horsepower comes at 6,500 rpm and the engine is happy enough to be prodded there.
The transmission could probably use an extra gear. Six-speed Focuses do exist -- the 1.0-liter three-cylinder models the Europeans get to flog are so equipped. Whatever the rationale for sticking to a Subaru-like five-speed is, it's not the worst thing Ford could have done. The gearbox feels pretty tidy, and once you get used to being in higher gears all the time (even in city/suburban driving), it's easy enough to live with.
Maybe some innate hatred of hatchbacks is the only thing keeping you out of a Focus. Well, here's the answer to your prayers. Likewise, if you're just looking for a solidly constructed entry-level compact sedan, here you go. As built, this Focus SE sedan didn't leave me with much more than a generally positive feeling -- not the worst impression a car can give, especially if that car is at the bottom of a very versatile model range.
If you want affordable basic transportation but need something bigger than a city car, this is a good choice, but I expect the basic 2.0-liter Mazda 3 manual will be as well. If you want something a little more powerful and don't mind losing the manual, go with the 2.5-liter Mazda 3.
ASSOCIATE EDITOR JAKE LINGEMAN: I think if you're a buyer looking at a small sedan like this, you may as well get the hatchback. They're usually similarly priced, look better and are more utilitarian.
That being said, I'm glad they left the five-speed manual in this car. Like the small Kias and Hyundais, fewer gears make the car feel just a little bit quicker. And a little bit is all you really need at 160 hp. The econoboxes of my day were hovering in the 100 range. We were pumped if we were able to modify it up to 125 hp.
I was a fan of the Volkswagen family at this price point for a long time, but Ford is making inroads in every arena from driving feel to cabin insulation. I always felt the VWs were put together better, but I now think Ford is right up there at the top. Sure, we only test these cars for a few weeks, but if we get a car with 5,000-6,000 miles on it, we can rest assured it's been rode hard and put away wet. So, if it's in good shape, that's a good omen.
Unlike the young people today, I probably would take this car as-is -- heated cloth seats, sport package and no MyFord Touch -- as long as it had a place to plug in my iPod.
Like Graham said, as for competitors, you're looking at the basic Jetta, Mazda 3 (which we love), Dodge Dart and a few others. This Focus is probably a mild favorite against most of those. And if your buying habits include only American brands, it has to be the way to go.
2014 Ford Focus SE sedan
Base Price: $19,310
As-Tested Price: $20,660
Drivetrain: 2.0-liter I4; FWD, five-speed manual
Output: 160 hp @ 6,500 rpm, 146 lb-ft @ 4,450 rpm
Curb Weight: 2,907 lb
Fuel Economy (EPA City/Highway/Combined): 26/36/30 mpg
AW Observed Fuel Economy: 24.2 mpg
Options: SE sport package including 16-inch alloy wheels, rear spoiler, leather steering wheel, fog lamps ($995); winter package including heated seats, power/heated mirrors, all-weather floor mats ($495); reverse sensing system ($255); SE sport package discount (-$395)
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