The 2011 Ford Focus, seen in hatchback form. A sedan is also available. (Los Angeles Times )
When Ford Motor Co. set out to redesign its Focus, it did so with a laserlike intensity. Improved fuel economy was the No. 1 priority in replacing its 12-year-old compact -- a car that is Ford's global bestseller, even if its U.S. popularity has been on the wane.
Overhauled for the 2012 model year and available this spring, the Focus, like Ford itself, is staging a comeback.
With a sportier body shape and what Ford estimates will be an EPA fuel economy rating of as much as 40 miles per gallon on the highway, depending on the version, the Focus is aimed at value-conscious consumers hoping to avoid the pocketbook pummeling of volatile fuel prices that are now creeping well above $3 a gallon.
Forty miles per gallon seems to be Ford's fuel-economy holy grail, though it's attainable in only one trim. Its Fiesta, introduced last year, also hits that target for its Super Fuel Efficient, or SFE, version, but it's a subcompact powered with a smaller, 1.6-liter engine.
The all-new Focus, with its 2.0-liter engine and increased interior space, targets a slightly older, more affluent buyer. In other words, it's for twentysomethings who've managed to land jobs after graduating from college.
Recognizing that there's a spectrum of low-paying post-graduation employment these days, the Focus comes in four trims, the most basic of which is the S sedan, starting at $16,270.
I tested the most deluxe version -- the $22,270 Titanium sedan equipped with a $1,390 handling package that beefs up the stock 17-inch wheels to more substantial 18-inchers; it also stiffens the suspension. For the money, it's more than a worthwhile upgrade. The bargain-basement, entry-level Focus is outfitted with scooter-esque 15-inch wheels.
The user interface mimics the look of an iPod. The car's HD Radio can also tag songs and add the titles to an iPod connected through the car's USB port; when the iPod is plugged into a computer, the tagged songs can then be purchased through iTunes.
More technologically significant for a car of this size and price point, Ford has incorporated an active park assist feature that steers the car to parallel park by itself. Drivers just need to press the gas and brake pedals. Ford's decision to incorporate this feature is based on an MIT study that found parallel parking was the most stressful of all driving activities.
It's a trippy feeling to stop the car outside an open parallel parking space, take your hands off the wheel and let the car do the work. At the press of a button, the car's ultrasonic sensors respond to the obstacles around it and maneuver the Focus into place.
A car that drives itself can't be too far off in the future. Until then, the Ford Focus is a solid addition to the growing fleet of compacts and subcompacts coming on the market. It's an inspired update that offers a lot for the money.
Three of the four Focus trims are also available as hatchbacks, with either a five-speed manual or six-speed automatic transmission. EPA emissions tests haven't been finalized, but the manual is likely to get one to two mpg less than the automatic.
During a daylong drive event through the Malibu canyons, I sampled the five-speed manual along with the six-speed automatic version I was testing. I was surprised to find the manual transmission so lifeless.
Although the automatic isn't sporty, it is more fuel efficient and easy to operate. It's also more satisfying to drive and technologically cutting edge.
Borrowing the dual-clutch PowerShift system launched on the Fiesta, the automatic works in conjunction with the direct injection system on the new Focus to shut off fuel to the engine when the car decelerates aggressively. And it does so imperceptibly.
Working with those under-the-hood upgrades is the car's most significant aerodynamic improvement -- a new active-grille shutter system that opens and closes a set of louvers behind the front grille depending on the car's speed and engine temperature.
The louvers open when the car is idling or moving at slow speeds to allow air flow to the engine when it's more likely to be hot. They close when the car is cruising at speed -- pushing the air out and around the car to reduce aerodynamic drag and increase fuel economy.
This louvered-grille technology was pioneered by Volkswagen in the 1970s but has seen little use in the decades since then as cars grew and gas guzzling became the norm.
It's intriguing that Chevrolet is also using this technology on its Focus competitor, the Cruze Eco, which boasts 42 mpg on the highway -- the highest fuel economy of any traditional gas-powered car on the market. The Cruze Eco, however, is available only with a six-speed manual transmission, which I've also tested and found far more responsive and fun to drive than the manual Focus.