MT Business Travel: On The Road

The new Ford Focus Zetec rides like a bigger car yet has lost none of the wieldiness of the original.

by Richard Bremner
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Never mind the badge - feel the quality. Sit yourself upfront and squeeze the top half of this Ford's dashboard. It's soft and malleable, its surface stippled with a high-quality texture. This may seem an odd way to gauge a car's finish, but shiny, unyielding fascias are clues of automotive cost-cutting.

The dashboard is one of a car's pricier parts - hence the temptation to save on it - but it's also very visible. That's why Audi, BMW and Mercedes craft so hard in this area, and why Ford, intent on vesting its cars with that same classy feel, has spent money on a fascia moulding worthy of the German marques. And now that there are Focus competi- tors from each of them, Ford must fight even harder to keep its market share.

Which is considerable: the Focus has been the nation's bestseller for the past four years. Its ubiquity may have made the car seem less special than it is, yet the outgoing Focus remains an exceptional car - the most enjoyable drive of its type, and a rounded product despite its age. When new, it surprised not only with its capability but its startling appearance as well.

We're used to it now, but at first the Focus looked like something fished from the lightless depths of the Pacific's Mariana Trench, the gape of its grille rendered all the more odd by its staring headlights. Huge scalloped wheel arches, triangular tail-lamps and a flat rump completed the effect.

The Focus sold slowly at first, but its qualities have won it deserved popularity.

So Ford has had a tough job replacing it. Although some areas needed obvious improvement, the challenge with others, such as its handling and precise steering, has been to preserve the original's qualities intact, a task not eased by the new version's greater bulk.

But as soon as you drive it, it's clear that this Focus is vastly more sophisticated. It's bigger, quieter and its cabin is fashioned from materials so obviously superior that even the cheapest version exudes subtle luxury.

It rides like a bigger car, yet it has lost none of the wieldiness of the original, and though it's heavier, the 1.6 engine that we tested is up to the job, being tied to an easily manipulated gearbox. The motor spins sweetly, and with its variable valve timing - the cumbersome Ti-VCT of the car's name - it pulls more strongly without sacrificing economy.

There's little to fault- the car goes, stops and corners well; it's relaxing, roomy, comfortable, efficient and well finished - better than any European Ford before. You could mark it down for an occasionally choppy ride, the trade-off for its entertaining agility, and a little too much engine noise at a motorway cruise. But that's it.

Except, that is, for the thing that marked out the original - styling.

This new iteration looks tidy enough, and it's clearly a Focus, but unlike the first, it doesn't look like tomorrow's car; it's blandly contemporary.

A shame. With knockout styling, Ford could have lured drivers from their German brands. As it is, the buyers it is most likely to attract are already driving a Focus.

SPECIFICATION

Price £13,495

Max power 113 bhp

Max torque 114 lb ft

Max speed 118 mph

0-62 mph 10.8 sec

Fuel consumption 44.1 mpg

CO2 emissions 155 g/km

RIVALS

BMW 116i £15,690

More desirable than the Ford, but a dull engine and cramped rear seat

make it less practical.

VW Golf 1.6 FSI S 5dr £14,205

A better car, but you pay for it. More comfortable, too, but a less

entertaining drive

ROOM SERVICE WHERE SIMON FRANKS STAYS...

FOR BUSINESS I spend about seven weeks a year in Los Angeles, and I always stay at the Hotel Bel-Air. When I tell people that this is where I stay, they laugh and say it's naff, and ask why I don't stay in trendier hotels like the Chateau Marmont. But I love the Bel-Air. You don't feel like you're in a hotel. Instead of one big hotel, there are one- or two-storey Spanish villa-style buildings dotted around the grounds. It's quiet and calming, the grounds are beautiful, the sound of running water surrounds you, and you can smell the woodsmoke from the log fires in the rooms. I've met some very interesting people there. I've sat next to Lauren Bacall and Barbra Streisand. There's a certain type of person who stays at the Bel-Air - not the cool set. I used to stay at the Four Seasons, where the bar is the place to see and be seen. But I prefer the Bel-Air bar; it's empty almost every night.

It feels like the most unstressful place in all of California.

FOR PLEASURE Last year, I spent four days at the Udai Villas at Udaipur, India. It has a wonderful zen feeling of space, calm and serenity, even though it's only 10 minutes' drive from the hustle and bustle of Udaipur.

The hotel is in the colonial style, with views of the famous City Palace on the Pichola Lake. Our room wasn't huge, but it was beautifully decorated, with its own plunge pool that led to the hotel's swimming pool. Again, there is no main hotel building, but the rooms are spread out around the grounds. It's not a place you go to meet people - the whole time we were there we didn't speak to another guest. It was nice to be able to visit Udaipur in the morning and then relax at the hotel in the afternoon. I really enjoyed my stay there. When choosing my favourite hotel, I was torn between the Udai Villas and another hotel I've enjoyed, the Amanpuri, which is one of the Aman resorts in Phuket, Thailand. It is wonderful, and is somewhere I would definitely visit again.

Simon Franks is founder and CEO of Redbus, the media and entertainment group.

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