2012 Ford Focus: First Drive

Fan-boys begged Ford for the international Focus since 2005, when the world got a new model and we got... a refresh. Now it's 2012 and it can finally be yours. But should you still want it? In a word; no.

For years, America has watched Europeans get the good econoboxes while we got shitboxes. This "shitbox gap" — akin to the Cold War missile gap — was threatening our very way of automotive life. With no automaker was this more apparent than Ford — and with no car more apparent than the dumbed-down Focus they foisted upon us in 2005. Since that year we've been stuck with nothing more than lipstick on a pig. Even a second refresh in 2008 was just a second shellacking of cherry-red lipstick. But thanks to a jump in gas prices that year, even lipstick-bedecked pigs sold well as long as they got decent-or-higher fuel economy numbers.

But now America's getting the same Focus everyone else gets. That means our Focus gets the same sporty "kinetic" design (kinetic, of course, being a word meaning "relating to motion"), platform, techie toy options like active park assist, torque vectoring control and rear view camera that the rest of the world gets.

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It turns out from my limited 55 mile drive outside of Los Angeles, the rest of the world has been driving a fairly capable car the past five years. Sure, the steering might be a bit numb, and when pushed too hard, it'll understeer in a corner. Otherwise, when it comes to the driving experience, the 2012 Ford Focus isn't just the most capable car in its class — it's also wickedly fun to drive.

But only in certain situations. Thanks to the gearing on the touch-underpowered 160 horsepower, 146 lb-ft of torque 2.0-liter four-banger under the hood, downshifting from fourth to third became my new favorite game just to hear the engine whine and the little five-door hatchback burst forward around traffic. But the low gears could use a bit more sporty spunk and the 0-to-60 time could stand to be a bit lower than its estimated 9.0-seconds.

Although we only had a chance to try the manual transmission, we're told the dry- clutch six-speed Ford PowerShift automatic transmission ain't too shabby either.

But, as an enthusiast, we're still more interested in seeing the high-performance EcoBoosted Ford Focus ST we're told to expect next year. So the real story here isn't the engine and suspension — we knew that was going to be a far cry better than what we've had here in the United States — it's actually the exterior and interior design. On the outside, gone is the baseball cap-wearing Focus for Dummies styling, and in its place is a pleasing Billy the wide-mouthed bass front end. The back end is so attractively-styled it's the first time in many years I've wanted to mount the rear end of an econobox. Of course we're talking about the five-door hatchback. We're told there's a four-door sedan, but meh, it looked boring.

2012 Ford Focus: First Drive

The inside is pretty good too. The front bucket seats are a real delight — providing the right mix of side bolstering with ease of egress and ingress plus just enough wideness to fit my fat 'merican ass. Although it really could have used a bit more padding — especially on the "Sport" version I drove.

The rest of the interior? Well, it's really nice seeing Ford dip into the Euro parts bin, but that's a game that's a bit old now that we've seen it implemented on the Fiesta. And while everything's well-situated, and there's all sorts of neato-to-use gizmos like Sync, MyFord Touch and Parking Assist available, the base interior's plastics are pretty chintzy-feeling. Frankly, and I can't believe I'm saying this, but the Chevy Cruze's interior doesn't look more plush — but it does feel it.

2012 Ford Focus: First Drive

Still, despite those few niggling issues, Ford's finally killed the shitbox lipstick-wearing pig and provided America the economy car it deserves. And in that segment, the Ford Focus has gone from zero to here's the very best car you can buy.

But, that said, if you're a car guy, just wait for the ST because the 2.0-liter's just not going to give you that front wheels skittering away like an adorable puppy on a tile floor feeling you're looking for.