Long term test drive: Ford Focus 1.6 Ecoboost
There were a number of reasons for us choosing to run a Focus as a long-term test car. Most obviously, the mark three Focus is brand new and it is likely to become Britain's biggest-selling car, so it is a pretty important model.
However, there are two other reasons for being particularly interested in this car. Firstly, it is Ford's first genuinely global car, designed to be equally appealing in both Michigan and Manchester. Sure Ford has attempted this before, but never with any conviction: the first front-drive Escort (this car's great-great-grandfather), was intended to be global, but hardly any of the panels were actually interchangeable, while the first Mondeo was a basically European car that looked small and expensive to American eyes.
Secondly, this is the Ecoboost 150bhp - Ford's attempt to rehabilitate high-end petrol engines in the face of diesel's current domination. The idea of the turbocharged Ecoboost engine is that it offers the smoothness and linear response of a petrol engine, without the normal fuel consumption penalty.
The first impression is good - the mark three is a lot sleeker and more expensive-looking on the outside than its predecessor. Impressions of the interior were more mixed. The quality of the materials is good, and the dashboard has been designed and sculpted to within an millimetre of its life - but that is the problem.
The radio controls in the Titanium appear to have been scattered from a shotgun across the middle of the dashboard. Previously Ford's audio controls were the most logical in the business, but these are a mess. The Fiesta-alike controls of the lower-spec Zetec are actually far better laid out. Ford boasts about the Titanium having a Sony-branded radio, but most people are more interested in the controls than the badge. One Ford executive we moaned to said we shouldn't worry - when the Sync voice-based interface appears in 2012, people will never have to touch the audio controls again.
As regards driving, the Focus feels like a small luxury car - again for both good and ill. On the plus side, the ride is exemplary, as it motorway refinement. At the legal limit, the engine is spinning near-silently at just under 2,500 rpm: it cruises as smoothly as a 3.0-litre petrol of 10 years ago.
One other feature that really stood out when we drove down to the Goodwood Festival of Speed is how uncannily smooth it is in traffic jams. We spent nearly an hour trickling along at below walking pace (as demonstrated by locals overtaking us on foot) and the Focus never juddered or snatched, no matter how slowly it was driven. The downside is the electric steering. I thought I was getting used to it and had decided it was OK - and then I jumped back into my old Ford Puma. I was shocked at how the Puma felt like it suddenly had the steering of a Lotus.
Ford's line is that soon everything will have electric steering, and the Focus is no different from any equivalent family car. It still feels disappointing, though, from a company that has had the best dynamics of any mainstream manufacturer for the last 15 years.
And what of the other big issue with the Ecoboost engine - does it really offer near-diesel economy? With fewer than 1,000 miles under its tyres, it is too far too early to be definitive, but early signs are that economy is reasonable, but not brilliant. So far it is giving 35 mpg, which is fair for a 150bhp petrol, but nothing revolutionary. We will be taking it down it Italy in the summer, so we'll see how much it improves - but anything much below 40mpg will be a disappointment.