Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Driven - Ford Focus 1.6

The Ford Focus has a good chassis. Everyone knows that, right? It's a monumental victory - they've made a utilitarian mass-market car that handles, bringing driving joy to the masses.


This was true of the mkI Focus. It handled in a sublime manner - chuckable yet predictable, playful yet planted, with an eager range of powerplants from the little 1600 Zetec through the diesels and up to the top-of-the-line performance models. So the mkII should be more of the same. But it really isn't.

I'll ruin the ending for you right now: there is no twist. This story doesn't end well. The new Ford Focus 1.6 is a fundamentally bad car. So bad, in fact, that when cruising on the motorway it's entirely possible to forget that you're driving it at all. I felt a strong temptation to take my hands off the wheel and grab a magazine from my bag, just for something to do - I didn't feel like I was driving the thing. Thankfully, the thrashy little engine makes a colossal noise at anything above 60mph, so there's no danger of falling asleep.
It's as if every individual element of the driving experience has been pinpointed by Ford and systematically blunted, one by one, to ensure that this is a car that caters specifically for people that have no interest in driving. The steering has a dead-spot an inch and a half wide in the centre, making it genuinely possible to wiggle the wheel from side to side like you're driving the Playbus, with absolutely no reaction from the front wheels. The finesse and poise of the mkI are totally absent - you don't so much corner in this car as waft... and not in the way that you might in a Bentley. You waft in a manner that suggests the spring cups have been stuffed with marshmallows. It's like they've deliberately tried to make it unpleasant and uninvolving. Actually no, unpleasant is too emotive a word. There's just nothing to the way the Focus handles. It's bland. It's beige.

The process of changing gear is agonisingly torturous - a snatchy clutch that seems angry at you for bothering it, mated to a floppy gearbox that has such a comically long throw that changing from third to fourth involves moving the knob a good six or seven inches - and, sadly, you need to do it irritatingly frequently. Why? Because Ford's engineers have inexplicably seen fit to scoop out the innards of the 1.6-litre engine and replace it with something spinny and pointy bearing a Moulinex plaque. And everyone knows that blenders have a stupidly narrow torque band.

The interior is a depressing and bleak place to be. On the plus side, it's hugely spacious, the aircon's pretty good and the stereo is, well, not bad. But there are about thirty different kinds of plastic in there, ranging from the sort you'd find in a tin of biscuits to something you'd expect to have 'Aerobie' emblazoned upon it. It feels like a first-time design study by a group of enthusiastic but misguided sixth-formers on a tight budget, rather than the sort of thing you'd expect to receive in return for 14,000 of your hard-earned pounds. The benefit of this, of course, is that it suitably lowers your expectations - you already know, before turning the key, that the whole experience is going to be a big let-down.

It was a vicious bastard too. The fiddly passenger seatbelt clasp took a sizeable chunk out of my wife's arm (seriously, she's got a scar), while I walked away with a bruised leg from the aggravatingly intrusive driver-door armrest. It clearly hated us as much as we hated it. Still, at least we'd only borrowed the wretched thing - imagine how those poor sods who've actually bought one must feel...

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