Review: 2009 Ford Focus

The Ford Focus is Detroit's best compact car, but it still trails the Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic in quality and sales

Editor's Rating:

The Good: Fuel economy, price, crisp handling

The Bad: Cheesy interior, mediocre fit and finish

The Bottom Line: The best compact car Detroit has to offer

Up Front

What's the best compact car Detroit makes these days? It's a question much on the mind of the Obama Administration as it bails out the domestic auto industry. The Obama folks believe Detroit can't become competitive without more and better high-mileage models. They have a point.

I'd argue that the Ford (F) Focus, the perennial No. 3 behind the Toyota Corolla and Honda (HMC) Civic, is Detroit's best compact car. In a way, that's an indictment of the Detroit Three because the Focus hasn't been redesigned since its launch nine years ago, though it got a significant freshening up in 2008. (It's also ironic because Ford is the only one of the three that hasn't taken government bailout money.) An updated version of the Focus is sold in Europe, but it won't come out in the U.S. until next year. On May 6, Ford announced a $550 million investment to revamp a Michigan truck factory to produce the new Focus, including a planned electric version of the car due out in 2011.

But you have to wonder: If Ford takes small cars seriously, why didn't it do more sooner to keep the Focus competitive? And why haven't General Motors (GM) and Chrysler taken advantage of the situation by building a compact that's clearly superior to the Focus?

I recently test-drove the '09 Ford Focus coupe, and it's a fun-to-drive little car, especially with a stick shift. Superior handling and the facelift Ford did on the Focus give it an edge over the Chevy Cobalt, its main domestic rival. But the Focus' fit and finish and the quality of its interior just aren't up to standards set by Honda and Toyota (TM). My top choice in this category would be the Civic, followed by the Mazda3 (Ford used to control Mazda but sold its stake last year), and VW Rabbit (soon to be renamed the Golf, again). And if all you want is a cheap, efficient compact, you can't beat the bland but ultra-reliable Corolla.

Ford's Rebate is a Big Help

Despite its shortcomings, the '09 Focus deserves consideration, especially if you want to support a domestic automaker. The entry-level Focus S sedan starts at just $16,215, rising to $18,960 for the top-of-the-line SEL sedan. The sporty coupe, the version I like, starts at $17,095. And through June 1, Ford is offering $2,000 cash rebates on the Focus. Plus, if Congress gets around to passing proposed "cash for clunkers" legislation (which would give rebates of up to $4,500 to shoppers who trade in gas guzzlers for more fuel-efficient models), inexpensive compacts such as the Focus could become incredible bargains.

The Focus' fuel economy is excellent. With a stick shift, the car is rated to get 24 miles per gallon in the city and 35 on the highway (highway mileage falls to 33 mpg with the automatic transmission). In 512 miles of hard driving, I got 28.7 mpg.

Numerous optional features also keep the Focus from being just another boring econobox, including heated front seats and the Sync system, which lets you control a cell phone and MP3 player via voice commands and will even read back text messages.

The Focus really rocks when the Sync is augmented with an upgraded audio system (part of a $1,270 Moon-and-Tune package that includes a moonroof) and Sirius XM satellite radio.

For now the Focus comes in only two body styles, a four-door sedan or two-door coupe. With the 2008 redesign, the company ditched the hatchback and station wagon versions of the car. The sedan comes in four trim levels, the S, SE, SES, and SEL, while the coupe is available only in the SE and SES trim. There's just one choice of engine, a 2.0-liter inline four-banger rated at 140 horsepower. A five-speed stick shift is standard, and a four-speed automatic is available as an $815 option.

The Focus earned four- and five-star ratings in most categories in government crash tests, as well as the top "Good" rating in frontal crashes from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Six airbags come standard, but stability control and antilock brakes are a $745 option.

Like just about every other model on the market, the Focus isn't selling well. In the first four months of this year, sales fell 42.7%, to 41,747. Then again, such once hot-selling economy cars as the Toyota Yaris (sales down 43.9%) and Prius (down 49%) aren't doing any better. During the same period, the Mazda3's sales fell by 14.5%, to 31,083; the Corolla's by 20.7%, to 78,132; the Hyundai Elantra's by 21.8%, to 26,479; the Civic's by 30.6%, to 76,782; and the Chevy Cobalt's by 51.9% to 32,065.

The only compact model I could find with rising sales is the Saturn Astra, which had an increase of 24.4%, to 2,968.

Behind the Wheel

The most practical version of the Focus, obviously, is the four-door sedan. That's because getting adults (and even kids) in and out of the two-door coupe's cramped rear seat is a struggle. But the coupe is a lot more fun to drive. The SES coupe comes with 17-inch wheels (other versions of the Focus come with 15- or 16-inchers) and a sporty exhaust system that gives the engine a bit more growl. For '09, Ford also redesigned the front and rear fascia so the coupe looks less dorky than it did last year.

In some configurations the Focus coupe's engine even has an extra three horsepower, giving it a tiny bit more zip than the sedan. The car still isn't fast: In accelerating from 0 to 60, I timed the coupe at 9.6 seconds. But it feels quicker than that. The steering is responsive, and the car is surprisingly nimble. The larger tires bite the pavement during hard cornering. The stick shift is relatively tight for an economy car, and Ford rejiggered the shift ratios in the automatic transmission to make the '09 coupe a tad more responsive than the '08.

The big negative about the Focus is its cheesy cabin. My test car had leather seats, but they felt cheap, and their looks were marred by tacky white stitching. The dash was clad in down-market black vinyl with an unattractive grainy texture. And I really could have done without the ambient lighting system that allowed me to program the lights in the cupholders and footwells in seven different colors, including purple, green and yellow.

On the plus side, the Focus' 13.8 cu. ft. trunk is as capacious as the trunk in many midsize sedans.

Buy it or Bag It?

After the $2,000 rebate, the '09 Focus coupe sells for an average of $15,303, according to the Power Information Network (PIN). That makes it nearly two grand cheaper than the average compact coupe and nearly three grand less than the average compact sedan, PIN figures.

In comparison, the average price of the '09 Civic Coupe is $18,893, the Mazda3 sedan $16,637, and the Corolla sedan $16,516. Korean carmakers have made great progress in recent years, but you won't save much by going with one of their compacts. The '09 Hyundai Elantra sedan sells for an average of $15,764, and the Kia Spectra sedan costs $14,413, according to PIN. (PIN, like BusinessWeek, is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Companies.)

The other strong domestic small cars are the Dodge Caliber and the Saturn Astra. But the Caliber is a wagon that's bigger and more expensive than the Focus, and isn't as fuel-efficient. The made-in-Europe Astra is a niche model that GM plans to phase out.

So if you're shopping for a compact car from a domestic company, the head-to-head competition is between the Focus and the Chevy Cobalt. Their average cost is about the same, according to PIN, and in my opinion the Focus has a slight edge over the Cobalt.

Click here to see more of the 2009 Ford Focus.