Although fuel economy and price are the main drivers of compact car sales, technology is becoming increasingly important, especially to young car buyers, many of whom would need to check into rehab if forced to part with their cellphones and still their text-messaging thumbs.
Ford has a history of introducing cutting-edge technology on its smallest, youth-oriented cars. As with its Fiesta, which introduced Ford's AppLink feature (enabling drivers hands-free access to Pandora Internet radio and spoken Twitter feeds), Ford is building on its SYNC in-car communications and entertainment system for the Focus. SYNC debuted on the second-generation version of the car three years ago.
On the 2012 Focus, SYNC can be operated with steering-wheel controls or with an 8-inch touch screen in the center stack, in addition to voice commands for phone, navigation, climate and audio functions.
And the car, as a whole, can be turned into a Wi-Fi hot spot by plugging a USB mobile broadband card into the car's built-in media hub.
SYNC uses a Microsoft operating system. But the 10-speaker Sony audio system, which comes standard on the Titanium sedan, is taking a bite from Apple.
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.