2008 Ford Focus SES – Tell Me How You Really Feel

I was tantalized by the Microsoft Sync system. I’m a techie at heart and those similarly afflicted will understand the magpie attraction to glittering circuit boards and voice recognizing silicon. That saw us sign up to review Ford’s 2008 Focus SES, a car that has caused me more consternation than any other I’ve driven.

For the record, you will need to put me into the same gear used to transport Hannibal Lecter to get me in another Focus. For that the Focus would have to be a hatchback, which Ford has discontinued in North America. Likely this is the first time I’ve viewed not having a hatchback in a model range as a redemptive quality.

Admittedly the trunk is deep and capacious, but you can’t beat a hatch for hauling the unwilling.

What rankles me about this car? The marketing that surrounds it primarily, those glossy bullet-points that bludgeon hopeful expectation into a senseless wreckage when you’re delivered sheer automotive mediocrity.

“Bold New Focus.” Well, the 2008 is at best mildly updated.

Underneath it’s essentially the same mechanicals as the outgoing Focus.

An act of disclosure here, we’ve never driven the outgoing model, so the 2008 Focus must stand on it’s own rather than relying on any “most improved” awards.

The 140 horsepower, 2.0 liter Duratec 4 cylinder is “is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Anemic, press the throttle and all this unit offers is noise and the barest minimum of acceleration, as the engine crawls towards its peak torque of 136 lb-ft at 4,250 rpm. At least the engine is smooth and sips gently at the regular (87 octane) fuel with good mileage at 8.4L/100km city and 7.2 L/100km highway as tested.

So the engine “struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more”… If only.

Ford touts a “Quiet ride. Improvements to sealing and sound deadening materials reduce noise, vibration and harshness levels, providing a quiet, comfortable ride.”

What was the focus like before? At least you’ll never miss the noise of the plane once you pick up your rental car; at highways speeds the Focus SES’s drone is pretty much the same as sitting over the wing of a 737 while the “refined interior” offers similar comfort.

The seats are broad flat leather slabs, providing all the lateral support of a bean-bag chair. You get the feeling they were built to accommodate the type of folks you see waddling though Vegas casinos a drink in each hand and a box of Krispy Kreams swaddled under a sweaty arm. Lord knows how they’ll manage to fit more than one XXL child in the rear seats, but so stuffed maybe the road noise would be dampened.

Then there are the materials, which make the leather seats an absolute highlight.

When the representative from Ford said that they were “going for a youth market” I didn’t think that would extend to the interiors plastics. The cabin is festooned in cheap black ABS plastic – the type used to make children’s pistols for dollar store distribution. Everywhere you look it’s fit together with gaps enough to leave you wondering if the car has been taken apart for shipping and reassembled.

At least the steering wheel feels good in hand. It has a perfect weight to it, the turning ratio is well judged and the road feel is adequate. That bringing us to another key point in Ford’s marketing bumph, “Dynamic and Confident.”

According to Ford, “New suspension tuning and chassis refinements improve an already rewarding and dynamic driving experience.” Ford has added all new spring rates, dampers, stabilizer bars and bushings to the mix for 2008. To improve feel and responsiveness the cross-car beam located beneath the instrument panel has been stiffened.

Somewhere between European inspired handling and cushiony American ride lies a balance point of just wrong. Here you will find the Ford Focus SES sitting on 16-inch Pirelli P6’s it has no idea what to do with.

To be fair while we had the Focus we attended the Mini Clubman Drive event, where BMW saw fit to provide a Mazda3s, VW GTI five-door, a Volvo C30 and a suite of Mini “Clubmen” for comparison on a closed track environment. We didn’t bother to take the Focus out – many pylons thank us for their continued existence.

The irony is that the Volvo C30 and Mazda3, both of which acquitted themselves nicely in this unfamiliar territory, are based on the European spec Focus platform. The North American 2008 Ford Focus is not.

It’s own creature the 2008 Focus SES is an eight-year-old chassis slaloming though the world’s corners in a conflict of body roll and nose dive. The Focus is confident when driven at a moderately engaging pace, but never reveals that to its driver. The ride is abysmal, every minor rut and wallow is transmitted through the chassis as if it was a waterbed and a child just belly-flopped on the corner. No mater what corner touches the roads imperfections, all four respond in a wallowing bounce of cheap suspension.

This should come with standard issue motion sickness bags, or just take them from the plane. You’ll be able to spot your rental easily. The Focus will be sitting alone in the corner of the lot, frowning at the world with a face only a mother Transformer could love and festooned in design-work that didn’t know when to stop.

There will be fans of the Focus frothing words like “bang for the buck” and “good value”, and they are entirely correct. Ford has slathered on the options, garnishing the Focus with jus, hollandaise, prawn chips, whipcream and parsley in an attempt to distract from the underlying flavour.

We will keep the Microsoft Sync parsley, because parsley is good for you even if it sticks in your teeth.

The Sync systems voice recognition works very well and unlike other Microsoft products didn’t crash periodically. There are some serious technological failings however. The system doesn’t control the Sirius Satellite radio that our tester was packaged with, so if you want to tune the radio you need to do it manually.

Every time you plug in your iPod, only the world’s most popular MP3 player, the Sync system reindexes the entire thing. With my 32GB iPod touch that took longer than most of my in town runs, then when it’s complete the system informs you that there are files on your MP3 player that couldn’t be indexed, “Please fill out the song, artist and genre metadata for each file…”

“What the hell” , panicked one passenger, “does that mean?” In a Microsoft Windows world we should be used to such messages, but this reveals the Sync system’s deepest failing. The voice recognition could be flawless, but the user interface is a disaster.

In order to navigate your tunes you’d best have a good memory – you need to remember your playlist, album, artist and track names. Here’s a hint to the folks at Ford and Microsoft from a former software developer, Apple posts its user interface guidelines online free to the public – only a quick registration stands between you and the user interface philosophy you seek.

This is not rocket science, because if it were you’d use buttons instead of voice recognition – they are faster. In the real world by the time Captain Picard had coldly intones, “Computer fire on my mark… fire.” The Klingons would have hit a big red button unleashing scorching plasma doom.

The 2008 Focus isn’t all horrible. The gauges are cool, as are the adjustable interior lighting colors. The brakes are unobtrusive and well matched to the car’s handling. There’s only one cup holder in the back, a move that fights child obesity. The automatic transmission is smooth. The seats leather feels like it will last… We’re stretching as well as retching.

You see our problem here, we know Ford can do better, that shines through from the core of every Volvo C30 and Mazda3, and when Ford does we’d like a chance to test that new offering. Sadly, given our experience with Ford’s 2008 Focus SES that seems rather unlikely. To top it all off the folks who handle the Ford press fleet here in Vancouver are some of the nicest people we met in the industry. As I said the 2008 Focus SES has caused me more consternation than any other car I’ve driven.

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