I’ll not forget the day Ford changed. It was January 1993 and the first day of the international launch of the Sierra-replacing Mondeo. Until that moment its mainstream products were not poor, they were a disgrace. The Sierra was always overrated in all bar Cosworth guise and was now antediluvian too. And as for the Escort — in all my years doing this job I cannot remember a mainstream car more heavily criticised. Didn’t stop it being a best-seller of course…
But the Mondeo changed all that. I knew it was a good car before I even sat in it: Ford was positively eager for magazines to export rival product from the UK for comparison testing and had brought engineers by the dozen to talk unchaperoned to the journos. You don’t do that if you’ve got a lemon on your hands. And then, five years later and not a nanosecond too soon, came the Focus. If the improvement from Sierra to Mondeo was extraordinary, that visited upon the Escort in its transformation into the Focus was simply staggering.
That was 1998, and all the way until now, through two distinct generations, no other family car has been better to drive. Even in 2010 when it was in its dotage and otherwise outclassed by younger competitors like the Alfa Giulietta and Mk6 VW Golf, for pure driving pleasure the Focus was unapproached. The fluency of the steering and the poise and balance of the chassis of even the lowliest models always provided grounds for people like me to say, ‘if you love driving, drive one of these’.
But I won’t be saying that about the new Ford Focus.
I don’t know whether Ford intended such a big change of character for the most important car it has so far launched this century. Talk to the engineers and while they state proudly that the new Focus is a far more mature and considered car than the old, so too are they adamant that driving dynamics remained top of their priority list during its development. If that really is the case, Ford’s idea of what makes a car good to drive is not just very different to mine, it’s now different to the philosophy that established Ford among mass manufacturers as the undisputed leader of the field ever since that happy introduction to the Mondeo back in 1993.
What has happened? The good news is that Ford has not suddenly returned to the bad old days when such were the prevalence of its dealerships, and without the ability of customers to shop online, it was able to sell even the most mediocre product through marketing. In fact the new Focus is an undeniably good car, one of the very best in the class. It’s just very, very different.
What Ford has decided to do is concentrate its efforts on making the Focus the most civilised car of its type the world has ever seen. And see it the world will: the Focus is now a global car, destined not simply for a predominately European market, but reaching out into the furthest corners of the planet.
Current Focus owners will likely boggle at the sophistication of the new cabin. While the old car offered cheap mouldings and switchgear with the odd luxury piece of trim added like applique according to the relevant spec level, the new interior both looks and feels far more expensive, more overtly designed and stylish.
Nor is this sophistication a veneer that wears thin the moment you start driving. You’ll notice first how quiet the Focus is, particularly the diesel versions that take the art of noise suppression to a new level for the class. You could be in a BMW.
Except that the Focus now rides better than most BMWs of my acquaintance. The Focus was the first car in its class to adopt a multi-link rear axle back in 1998, a design masterpiece that not only provided genuinely independent rear suspension, but was also easy to package without destroying the size and shape of the boot. Most importantly it offered a range of tuning possibilities beyond the imaginings of a conventional torsion beam rear axle. And now, just to show the true versatility of the ‘control blade’ rear end, it has been configured to provide the Focus with undoubtedly the best ride quality in the class.
All of which is laudable and welcome. It may also prove sound strategy for Ford, whose global audience might well find themselves more easily persuaded by the Focus’s newfound civility than put off by its recently departed character. For that is what we have here: a car which is objectively improved in almost every way, yet subjectively has had the charm kicked out of it.
When my sister-in-law was a district nurse she drove a 1.6-litre petrol Focus, and despite having no more interest in cars than I do in needlework, she loved it. Couldn’t really express why, other than to say she loved the way it drove. But she never loved it more than when she changed jobs and was forced into something else. “It just doesn’t feel the same,” she’d say. But nothing does, and certainly not the new Focus.
At whatever speed you drove it, you felt far more of a connection to the old Focus than that provided simply by your backside on the seat and fingers on the wheel: you felt like part of it, and it like part of you. Now that relationship has changed: you’re no longer in it together. Instead you instruct and it executes. And it does so very accurately right up to the moment you’re a little overambitious with your entry speed. In the old car you’d merely back off a bit and feel the nose bite back into the apex, but now it simply wants to understeer like most other cars in the class. When I drove the Focus it was back-to-back with the new Astra, and while the Ford was preferable, it was not by much. In this regard the old Focus used to regard Astras as finger food.
It is important to understand that Ford has not made some dreadful mistake with the Focus, for that would imply some incompetence or omission on its part and I don’t believe that to be the case. Instead what we are looking at are changed priorities, and just because I find the resulting car less engaging, amusing and likeable as a result, doesn’t make it bad. Indeed in those areas of ride and refinement that are so important to everyday life on everyday roads, I believe it now leads the class, something I’d never be tempted to say about its predecessor.
Even so I find it worrying that Ford has taken this turn. Twenty years ago Peugeot made some of the best affordable drivers’ cars the world has ever known, but it turned its back on them to peddle slickly styled mediocrity, and is only now starting to acknowledge that its customers want cars that are decent to drive too. There’s maybe nothing mediocre about the Focus, but the fun has gone and I won’t be alone in wanting it back.
ENGINE: 4-cylinder, 2-litre turbo diesel
TOP SPEED: 135mph PRICE: £22,745
POWER: 160bhp at 3750rpm
FUEL/CO2: 56 5mpg 129g/km
Mercedes-Benz CLS 63
It seems fears about the desertion of large-capacity normally-aspirated engines in favour of smaller-capacity turbocharged units may be unfounded, at least if other manufacturers prove able to build turbos as responsive as that fitted to this AMG version of the new CLS coupe.
Its size has shrunk from 6.2 to 5.5 litres, but not only is power up slightly from 506 to 518bhp (or 549bhp with the optional performance pack), it places up to another 125Ib ft of torque under your foot, and it’s all there at just 1750rpm.
But no bald statistic can convey properly not only the explosive acceleration of this CLS but, more importantly, the phenomenal engine response. I’d bet plenty that most intelligent, experienced, skilled and enthusiastic drivers wouldn’t even know it had forced induction if not for the ‘Biturbo’ decals on its flanks.
Nor would you twig from the noise. Most turbos sound anodyne compared to those that breathe at atmospheric pressure, but not this one: its grumbles and thunders with the best in AMG’s canon. To the guys at AMG this is part of their routine business: building high-performance engines is what they do. What seems to have attracted their attention more is that they’ve done this with an engine that uses 32 per cent less fuel than the last one. And that is impressive, but it’s still odd to hear the engine automatically cut out at traffic lights when you’re driving a car with a twin-turbo with over 500bhp to its name.
Luckily I was introduced to it in California, where on the Mexican border traffic lights are few, the roads excellent and the law has rather more weighty matters to consider than just rigorously enforcing speed limits. Here the CLS is a fabulous GT, swallowing straights without then having to lose all the accrued speed to negotiate the corner at the end: with stiff springs, sharp steering and its exceptional damping its chassis is at least a match for its engine and, with the carbon ceramic option, the brakes even more so.
But there are faults with the car which I expectwill become apparent on UK roads. The ride is only just comfortable enough for Grand Touring, even in its softest setting. The seven-speed semi-automatic ‘box gives you lots of modes, but only works as you’d wish in ‘comfort’. In sport and sport-plus mode it can hang onto old gears for too long, while in manual it sometimes takes two flicks of the paddle before it will upchange. And while those carbon brakes are powerful, the pedal feel could and should be better.
That said I can’t think which GT I’d prefer for the £81,000 the CLS 63 will cost in June. I’d have it over a Porsche Panamera V85 and not just because it looks better: another 100bhp helps. It remains to be seen if the ‘S’ version of Audi’s new A7 (p117) will have what it takes, but judging by the car on which it’s based, it will take nothing less than a total transformation to do it.
ENGINE: 5.5-litre biturbo V8
TOP SPEED: 155mph (limited)
POWER: 518bhp at 5250rpm
FUEL/CO2: 28.5mpg, 232g/km
Audi A7 SportBack
It’s taken Audi a while to compose a convincing answer to the Mercedes CLS but the A7 certainly looks the part, and in a class where looks are perhaps the primary concern it can be expected to be a strong performer in the market.
Based on a brandnew platform that will also underpin the just-announced new A6, the A7 is a four-door coupe in the same vein as the CLS except that its boot is hinged at the roof, opening like a hatch and therefore providing a far easier and more usefully shaped load area even if, ultimately, it’s only slightly more spacious. On board it’s a comfortable four-seater for average-sized adults, or two tall parents and pre-teen children.
However the cabin is slightly disappointing. There’s nothing wrong with its quality or ergonomics, but I think that more of an effort could have libeen made to distinguish this style leader from other, more upright Audis. It all looks a bit too familiar.
And the same is true with the way it drives. I borrowed the top-of-the-range 3-litre diesel model but even fourwheel drive and optional air springs failed to make it dynamically more than moderately pleasant. It’s impressively quick and its seven-speed automatic ‘box works well, but like so many other Audis of the past it’s no more than tolerant of applied driving. You can place it accurately on the road and it will go where you point it up to a commendably high limit, but nothing comes back through either the chassis or steering to suggest any enthusiasm for the task. Instead the focus has been placed on ride quality, and at least with air in the springs, it has been met with considerable success.
I am always suspicious of any car whose most appealing affribute is the way it looks, because that means it is at its best when parked, which rather defeats the point. But even I have to accept that styling is what sells these cars, and with the CLS now more handsome than gorgeous, I expect the A7 will go well in the marketplace. But if it had delivered on the promise of those looks, it could have been a landmark.
ENGINE: 3-litre turbo diesel V6
TOP SPEED: 155mph
POWER: 241bhp at 4-4500rpm
FUEL/CO2: 47 1mpg, 158g/km