Review: 2008 Ford Focus SES Coupe

2008 Ford Focus SES Coupe – Click above for high-res image gallery

A car's design is simply a composite of curves, creases and kinks. A good design will elicit an emotion that urges people to buy the car. The affected just have to have it, often blind to any faults the car may exhibit by the way it makes them feel. The design of the 2008 Ford Focus makes us feel an emotion, too. Unfortunately, it's pity.

We honestly feel bad for the latest iteration of Ford's small car. We fear that its strengths will go largely unnoticed on account of a few bad design choices. Of course, we're speaking of the redesigned front end and those fauxest of faux fender vents. It isn't fair to judge a book by its cover alone, or in this case a car by its design, but a bad first impression is difficult to overcome. Ford has made a lot of improvements to the Focus for 2008, but will anyone notice? Follow the jump to find out.

Live photos Copyright ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

Let's start with the exterior design, since it's the first thing most people notice when seeing the 2008 Ford Focus for the first time. Initial reaction to it last January when the car was introduced at the Detroit Auto Show was not good, so much so in fact that Ford actually tweaked the design before it went into production by removing some chrome trim and replacing the car's rectangular fog lights with round ones. It was an odd move, like trying to fix a broken foot by putting a Band-Aid on your ear. Clearly the most egregious elements of this car's design are an ugly mug and the most superfluous fender events in the history of autodom, but for some reason those weren't among the pre-production tweaks.

The front end of the 2008 Focus features a pair of oddly shaped headlights that creep up the car's face on the outside of the hood. Other cars like the BMW 5-Series feature similarly shaped headlights, and while we don't consider the shape particularly attractive, at least the Bimmer's uses every bit of its housing for the purpose of lighting the road ahead. Look closely at the Focus beams, and you'll see that the part extending up alongside the hood is entirely non-functional, contains no lighting element and appears to be purely a design element. They give the car's face a scowl, "angry eyes" if you will, that's completely at odds with its nature.

The rest of the front end is marked by a wide air intake slotted below the two-bar grille and above the front bumper, as well as a large lower intake that's flanked by those new round fog lamps. The hood features four creases that create a kind of power dome in the center, which again is a bit misleading considering that Ford has dropped the larger 2.3L four-cylinder as an option, leaving the more anemic 140-horsepower 2.0L four-cylinder as the only available engine. More on that powerplant later, though.

We found the new six-spoke aluminum wheels handsome enough in an industrial kind of way, but their proximity to those "fender vents" guarantees that not many will notice. These "vents" are an eyesore that tend to draw stares. Perhaps from 50 yards away someone might be fooled into thinking that they're functional, but close inspection quickly reveals them to be imitation double-decker vents with the 'Focus' name emblazoned on a crossbar of the mirror-finished plastic. In fact, we were tempted to pry one off with a fingernail. All things being equal, we suspect the new Focus would simply look better without them.

As for the rest of the car, we're split on the design of the rear, with some Autobloggers lumping it in with other aesthetic offenses, and others viewing the caboose as simply anonymous. It does appear that the trunk was designed by a separate committee as the rest of the car, as it features only a single crease that crosses its flat surface to connect the taillights. The trunk does earn points, however, for using gas struts rather than space-robbing hinges. Those brake lights on the back are also surrounded by a frame of brightwork that again is not functional in any way. The body-colored side view mirrors, meanwhile, feature strakes similar to those on the 2008 Taurus' mirrors. Like on Ford's big sedan, these actually are functional, having been designed and tested to reduce wind noise.

Leaving the exterior of the Focus behind, we venture inside to find a completely redesigned interior that's dominated by the dull sheen of a silver plastic. Stretching from door-to-door and extending down the center console, this hard plastic makes a T shape across the dash and does what it can to brighten up the interior. If more color is required, one can order up the ambient lightning option, although be warned: it basically consists of four red lights divided among the cup holders and foot wells.

The top of the dash and other areas are covered in hard black plastic; sorry, no soft-touch material here. The HVAC and radio controls find themselves swimming in a sea of the silver stuff, though we appreciate that they don't appear to be borrowed from the Ford parts bin. Other touch points, like the floor-mounted gear shift for the four-speed automatic and redundant controls on the steering wheel feel expensive and offer good feedback for the fingers. The chairs in this coupe were covered in the optional leather for $695, which also felt more expensive than what belongs in car at this price. The front seats are fashioned more for comfort than holding you close in the turns, but as a daily driver that's just fine. The rear seats in this coupe, meanwhile, have decent leg room thanks to the scooped-out backs of the front seats, but headroom is compromised a bit by two curious bulges on the ceiling.

The big selling point inside the 2008 Ford Focus is the optional SYNC system developed in conjunction with Microsoft, which basically coordinates hooking up your car to a number of devices including cell phones via Bluetooth and music players through an auxiliary or USB input. We plan on doing a video review of the SYNC system's full capabilities in the very near future, but we took a dip in the shallow end of this experience and have a few things to report. First, the SYNC system is a $395 option that should be checked for every Focus ordered. It offers this inexpensive economy car functions that some significantly more expensive luxury cars can't replicate, and it's fairly easy to use. We say "fairly" because the interface in the Focus is not ideally suited for operating the SYNC system's many talents. The lack of a large LCD in the dash that's optional on other Blue Oval-mobiles means that navigating menus is done atop the dash in a small blue-on-black text screen. One navigates between the phone and music functions using the tuning knob and MENU button, as well as the MEDIA button on the steering wheel.

The first thing we managed to do was connect our iPhone to the SYNC system via Bluetooth. The pairing of the devices was straightforward, and after the setup is done, anytime you receive a call in the car it automatically gets routed through SYNC and the car's stereo speakers. We were impressed with the sound quality, particularly how clear our voices were to those we were talking to. Calls made and received in the Focus are crystal clear for all parties. The SYNC system can also upload your phone's address book, which can then be sifted through on the dash-top screen. Because of the aforementioned ergonomic troubles, however, we found it easier to use the address book in the iPhone itself rather than messing with the SYNC system's cramped menus. We were also disappointed to learn that the provided cable for the auxiliary input didn't work with our iPhone. It's not Ford's fault since Apple designed the headphone jack/audio output of the iPhone in a weird way, but nevertheless, we imagine that a decent number of SYNC users will own an iPhone. (NOTE: After reading our review, Ford informed us that the iPhone will easily hook up to SYNC using its own USB cable provided by Apple. The same thing holds true for Microsoft's Zune and most other DAPs.) We decided to load some songs from iTunes onto a USB thumb drive instead, and that worked just fine. In fact, assuming your songs contain the proper metadata, you can have a lot of fun pushing the 'MEDIA' button on the steering wheel and calling up a song, artist or album by saying "Play - Artist - The All-American Rejects". Unfortunately, however, the female voice with which you're conversing has a tendency to reply at volume level 11.

Along with the SYNC system, we believe the 2008 Focus' other biggest selling feature is its new demeanor on the road. Whereas driving the previous generation Focus was like lacing up a pair of high-tops, the new car feels like slipping on a pair of well-worn sneakers. It's comfortable, as evident by the softer suspension that soaks up bumps like a Buick. The downside is some extra body roll and vulnerability to cross winds on the highway, but the nicely weighted steering that never feels overly assisted communicates exactly what the wheels are experiencing. A bit of the old Focus and that car's fast reflexes remain, but the edge has been taken off to create a car that's very comfortable for a daily commute.

Some of that dulled edge is due to the car's only engine, the aforementioned 140-hp 2.0L four-cylinder. The four-speed automatic with which it's paired is perfectly adequate, but those looking to rekindle a relationship with the Focus they once knew should opt for the five-speed manual, as this motor doesn't have a lot to offer the lead foot. The latter will be needed to wring out whatever performance the 2.0L has to offer. The engine itself, however, has either gotten smoother or been isolated from the passenger compartment better than before. While it may not press you into the seat like a GT500, it does return 24 mpg in the city and 33 mpg on the highway, according to the EPA. Get the manual tranny and your highway mileage will rise by 2 mpg, as well.

While we may lambast the 2008 Focus for its questionable styling and continue to hassle Ford to bring over the Euro Focus, the fact remains that the average buyer may not share our wavelength. While running our Focus SES Coupe through a car wash, our ears were shocked to overhear the staff comment positively on the car's looks during the towel drying process. The fact is, Ford has succeeded in making the 2008 Focus look like an altogether different car than the one it replaces, so the average consumer doesn't see a redesigned Focus, they see a new Focus. Enthusiasts and those in the know may see an awkward front end and faux fender vents that bring a tear to their eyes, but beauty is in the eye of the key holder. That is, those who do plunk down anywhere from $14,000 to $20,000 for a 2008 Ford Focus (our loaded tester came in at $20,105 with dest. and delivery charges) will find plenty to like about their new car, and that may include how it looks.

Live photos Copyright ©2007 John Neff / Weblogs, Inc.

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