I had one question before I stepped into Ford's all-new Focus family compact: Would it be as just good as its older sister Fusion, a compact sedan I consider the best in its class?
The answer? We'll come to that, but first an look over the makeover Blue Oval gave its Focus, a great success in Europe but a model that failed in the past to set alight the U.S. market in the same way.
For starters - and you've no doubt seen the commercials - it comes with Ford's advanced iSync audio system, an iPod or Zune-compatible voice-recognition wonder that allows you, according to the ads, to select Korn on your player without pushing a button on the dash or Mp3 player.
I have one outstanding gripe about this: Why would you play Korn?
Advantages: As well as convenience, you eliminate an all-too-common safety hazard as the device allows you to - as the late Jim Morrison advocated in "Road House" - keep your eyes on the road and your hands upon the wheel.
(Interestingly, the Doors may be one of the only groups that appeals both to vintage 60s-ites, young parents and troubled and indeed troublesome 13-year-olds, which just about make up Ford's target market for the Focus.)
Trick to the voice recognition system is to enunciate your request clearly and without, and this is just a passing example, your wife or child loudly objecting to your choice of tunes, which understandably throws the system for a loop. It works well without background noise once you've got the hang of the preceding commands, and providing the menu system in your Mp3 player is relatively orderly.
It has difficulty with acronyms, like M.I.A., but otherwise it found tunes without a problem. You can always request the album name if you run into unconventional artist names, like Mr. Lif.
Other noticeable improvements for '08: It's quicker than its predecessor and feels much more sprightly, but that I mean in terms of road reaction and steering feel, which is light. It feels fun to drive, as compact fastbacks should, which also means it will appeal to teens and young professionals. Put the foot down and you'll feel a substantial dunt, just as it should. Brakes and suspension have also been upgraded for 2008.
Power is through Ford's trusty 2.0-liter four-cylinder Duratec, though also upgraded to offer increased air intake and an improved cooling system. Horsepower is good for its class at 140 at 6,000 rpm. Fuel economy is good at 24 and 35 town and freeway respectively. Mine came with a silky five-speed manual transmission that brought me back to driving the Euro-variant Focus many moons ago.
Biggest differences are of course exterior and interior styling. Both more than pass muster: The outside on both the two-door coupe and four-door sedan takes Ford away from its typically robust styling into dramatically curvy territory -- and by curvy I mean Eva Mendez, not Homer Simpson (as Ford execs somewhat ingloriously described the current Ford Five Hundred, er, I mean Taurus).
Headlights have a devilish kink to them and the grille is shallower, giving it a wider, leaner look, aping Honda's territory on its new range. The side panelling and hood are full of airflow indents and the wheel arches have been flared, and the back-end looks great with large Focus lettering embossed across the full width; side vents at the front three-quarter complete the resculpted design.
Four words can sell the interior of any car for me: The wife loved it. Seriously. Unfortunately the dog was banned from it by the good people at Ford, but the wife grabbed it for a couple days tryout and sang the praises of the leather-wrapped interior on the Special Edition and the reworked ergonomics of the dash and central console. It's also roomier than you might imagine, with front headroom at a shade over 39 inches, and shoulder and hip room at 54 and 48 in the back.
MSRP is good at between $14,300 for the basic, stretching to $17,000 for the special editions, which'll get you interior dibbings including leather, chrome accents and a shiny metallic finish on your dash dials.
So you should have plenty of room to twist about to your favorite tunes. Just remember to keep your eyes on the road, and your hands upon the wheel.