• Jan 2nd 2008 at 11:08AM
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There was a time when cheap cars weren't fun. They were nothing more than mobile penalty boxes that advertised the fact that their drivers couldn't afford something better.

Today, there are many inexpensive cars that you'd actually want to drive for reasons beyond their low price. These cars are so good that they no longer carry that "cheap car" stigma. Solid proof of this is Ford's 2008 Focus. Available at dealers now, this affordable, fuel efficient, almost all-new car is worth a look for several reasons, including the fact that it debuts the powerful voice activated communications and entertainment system known as SYNC, a slick system developed in collaboration between Ford and Microsoft.

Before we dive into the details on the new Focus, let's start by looking at what's not new on the 2008 model. Much of what you don't see on the new Focus is actually carried over from the 2007 model. That's not necessarily a bad thing. To many enthusiasts (including your humble author), the 2000-2007 Focus epitomized all that was good about small cars in terms of performance. The older Focus's chassis, suspension, and engine exhibited impressive road manners with a level of refinement that reached well beyond the typical economy car. This means the car handled well, accelerated briskly and stopped with predictable control. In an effort to keep costs down, many unseen parts ride beneath the 2008 Focus as they did in 2007, or with modest revisions.

What's new on the 2008 Focus is just about everything but the chassis, suspension and engine. Ford gave the Focus a totally new look and simplified the model line that now only offers a traditional sedan and two-door coupe. Gone are the 3-door and 5-door hatchbacks and the traditional wagon. Trim levels include the bare-bones S, the mid-line SE and the well-equipped SES. The new shape is certainly welcome, as the old was, well ... seven years old. While we're OK with the overall shape, we're not too keen on the for-show-only fender vents.

With Ford's popular Fusion representing the company's current design idiom, it's clear that stylists wanted to give the Focus cues that linked it to the rest of the family. The bold horizontal chrome grille does just that. The shape flowing rearward from the grill is handsome and the execution is tidy. It's also significantly quieter, thanks to over 100 hours in the wind tunnel. These hours helped refine the exterior's shape, including smoothing out the noisy airflow around the exterior mirrors.

Another change that quiets the interior is the windshield. It is what engineers call a significant "acoustical barrier." To regular folks, this means that it includes an additional layer that helps block out road noise. After no fewer than six hours behind the wheel, the new Focus proved to be impressively quiet, and qualitatively on par with more expensive sedans we've driven recently.

Inside, the styling changes are even more dramatic. Gone is the cheap, plain feel of the previous Focus. (In the least expensive trim, the interior of the old Focus reminded us of plastic cutlery.) The new look is more substantial and dimensional, and is clearly visible in the detailing like the sculpted rings surrounding the instrumentation. Safety is also addressed with the addition of standard side and side-curtain air bags for those up front. Even though the hatchback is gone, the new body styles provide good cargo-carrying capabilities thanks to the folding rear seat backs. When lowered, they provide a large opening that adds to the car's generous 13.8 cubic feet of cargo volume.

The interior is where you'll find SYNC, a voice-activated, hands-free communications interface that links the car to phones, PDAs, MP3 players and portable storage devices. Developed with Microsoft, this $395 option delivers unparalleled device integration. Focus is the first vehicle to launch with SYNC, and it works pretty darn well.

First and foremost, SYNC is designed to simplify taking phones and music players on the road. The USB port at the bottom of the center stack makes it easy to plug in our previous-generation iPod. In a matter of moments, the linking of our iPod to the car (technically referred to as "pairing") was automatically handled. Only a few more steps were necessary to pair our older Samsung Bluetooth-enabled phone. With the devices linked into the Focus's audio and interface systems, we put SYNC's powerful voice recognition engine to work. Using the buttons on the steering wheel plus straightforward voice commands, SYNC found song after song, answered incoming phone calls, read incoming text messages, and let us make voice-initiated outgoing calls. After the linking, we never had to touch our iPod or phone to accomplish any of these tasks -- truly a progressive step toward reducing driver distractions.

After a few hours of use, it is our inclination that those over 30 may find the verbal interface somewhat awkward. However, the process gets easier over time as you learn the cadence of specific commands and get over the "weirdness" of talking to your car. Teenagers should feel immediately comfortable.

As one would expect, the system has limits. Currently, SYNC will read text messages sent to your paired phone, but Ford elected to not allow drivers to respond in kind while moving for liability reasons. Ford's position is understandable, but begs the question, "Won't many drivers who believe themselves to be immune from distraction simply grab their handset and text away?" The manufacturer's measured response is essentially that it could happen, but that then their Focus isn't enabling a potentially hazardous behavior.

Looking past the 2008 model year, according to members of the Microsoft development team, SYNC's hardware and software will possess more capabilities than are currently offered. As the system matures, more features may be added to this updateable system.

Back to the Focus's more traditional hardware; every new model shares the more refined two-liter four-cylinder that produces 140 horsepower, an increase over 2007 thanks to a new cooling system and intake with electronic throttle control. In California trim, the engine makes slightly less power (132 horsepower) but runs clean enough to meet the tough PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) standard. Transmission choices expected include the 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic. Fuel economy comes in at 24 mpg city and 35 mpg highway for the manual, and 24/33 for the automatic.

While SYNC may be a hot new technology, it's important to recognize that the new Focus is more than mobile housing for the latest Microsoft offering. As a car, the Focus offers a healthy dose of great driving. The engine revs smoothly to redline and the chassis is composed. The car really likes being tossed into a corner, and the ride stays smooth. The brakes work well, but it's here that the vehicle's economy car roots show (like its low-priced competitors, the Focus uses front disc and rear drum brakes). To help keep prices low, ABS is still optional on the S and SE equipment levels.

The coupe and sedan body styles are built atop the same 102.9-inch wheelbase, so their interior dimensions are almost identical. The models drive identically, so if you were to consider the new Focus, buy the body style that works best for you -- for instance, if you need access to the rear seats often ... get the sedan.

The overall quality of the Focus models we evaluated at a recent Ford-sponsored press event was high for a sub-$20,000 car. This should not be surprising as Ford recently earned several quality awards from J.D.Power and Associates, providing third-party proof that this domestic manufacturer doesn't build junk anymore. If you're in the market for a Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla, Hyundai Accent, Nissan Versa or Sentra, shop the Focus too. You might like what you find. Prices start under $15,000.

Focus on the Competition: Toyota Corolla

One out of every five new cars sold is a small car like the Ford Focus or Toyota Corolla. Their popularity stems from them offering so much in small, efficient packages. Because the small car class is so popular, there are many choices in the segment. How do you pick? Everybody uses his or her own criteria. Those who value performance over all other things may look to the sporty Mazda 3. If price is paramount, Kia and Hyundai move toward the top of the list. However, many people value reputation as strongly as any other characteristic, and lean toward Toyota.

Toyota products have a lot going for them: reliability, value, quality. The company's current line of small cars includes successes such as the tiny Yaris and the familiar Corolla. The latter is a more direct competitor to the Focus, so we'll consider it here.

Looking at their specifications, the Focus and Corolla square off pretty evenly. Most dimensions measure out within less than an inch of each other in every category. The Focus does hold a slight advantage inside, offering three more cubic feet of interior volume. The new 140-horsepower Focus also has a significant power advantage over the Corolla's122 horsepower. However, high horsepower figures usually cost in terms of fuel economy, and expectedly, the Toyota's EPA mileage figures beat the Focus (28/37 to 24/35) for models equipped with a manual gearbox.

Proving that it's necessary to physically compare vehicles before you make a commitment, the Focus and Corolla feel dramatically different on the road. The Focus is quieter and more responsive -- certainly more of a driver's car. The Corolla rides more softly. We prefered the Ford Focus due to its nicer ride, fresh interior and advanced SYNC option. To our hands, the 2008 Focus made the Corolla feel like a tired rental car. To be fair though, the Corolla has been around since model year 2003 in this guise, so it is a bit old. On the horizon is an all-new version set to debut early next year. We'll have to see how it stacks up to the Focus then, too.

About the author:

Rex Roy is a Detroit-based automotive writer and journalist. His new book, Motor City Dream Garages, will be on shelves in November.

Autoblog accepts vehicle loans from auto manufacturers with a tank of gas and sometimes insurance for the purpose of evaluation and editorial content. Like most of the auto news industry, we also sometimes accept travel, lodging and event access for vehicle drive and news coverage opportunities. Our opinions and criticism remain our own – we do not accept sponsored editorial.

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