- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2008

The road to recovery begins with the giant first step of admitting a mistake.

With the launch of the 2008 Focus, the Ford Motor Co. is in just such a circumstance. For years, Ford chased the holy grail of high-profit big trucks and SUVs, while giving short shrift to its automobiles.

Now it finds itself in a situation where one of its chief rivals—Toyota of Japan—has six entry-level automobiles. They are the Yaris, Corolla and Matrix, and the Scion tC, xB and xD.

Ford has just one—the Focus, until now an undistinguished candidate.

Entry-level cars, as Ford is belatedly realizing, are extremely important beyond their profit margins because they are the portal. They bring customers, especially younger ones, to the brand.

More often than not, they stick around and move up the model ladder to better performing, more expensive and, of course, more profitable models.

As this realization dawned in the ranks, with impetus from new Ford Chief Allan Mullaly, Ford found itself with only the Focus.

It fully intends to buttress the lineup with other new products, but for now the Focus is it.

What to do? Obviously, a redesign was in order to make the car more appealing. But Ford is strapped right now, so its chief designer, Peter Horbury, was tasked to come up with a new car that fit into the skin of the old one so it could be built on the same production line, with the same robots.

That’s exactly what he and the other Ford stylists did. They designed a 2008 Ford Focus that has a different, even handsome, presence, with an interior several notches up from entry level.

In keeping with American preferences, the new Focus is offered only as a two-door or four-door sedan. The hatchbacks and station wagon have been dropped.

The engine and running gear are largely carried over. The 2-liter four-cylinder engine delivers 140 horsepower to the front wheels through either a five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic transmission.

It’s not a particularly potent combination. You won’t win many stoplight drag races, but the automatic shifts smoothly and without much hunting.

The Focus has other virtues. It handles capably, with a solid steering feel, and it’s quiet inside, with little wind noise and modest amounts of road noise.

The seats up front are comfortable and supportive, with a height adjustment. The steering wheel tilts but does not telescope and the sun visors do not slide on their support rods to block the sun from the side. There are no assist handles.

Out back, accommodations are tight, with minimal knee and head room, and there’s not much room for the feet getting in and out. The center-rear position is impossible.

People who buy entry-level cars aren’t looking for sizzling performance. They want value and fuel economy, which the Focus delivers.

The price for the stick-shift Focus S starts at $14,695, which includes side air bags, side-curtain air bags, tire-pressure monitoring, air conditioning, and an audio system with CD player and MP3 capability.

The test car was a top-line SES model. It had a base price of $16,995, which included a unique item that Ford believes will be a sales clincher, especially among young buyers.

It’s called Sync, developed by Ford with computer software giant Microsoft. The built-in system integrates a media player, such as an IPod or Zune, and mobile phones into the audio system of the Focus.

With a voice command, the driver can call up any song from a media player, or tell the cell phone to make a call. All of this is triggered by two small buttons on the steering wheel.

The system connects to the media player through a standard computer USB port. It works easily even for non-geeks. In addition to IPods and the like, it also can handle music downloaded to a standard USB flash drive.

With the cell phone, the Sync system automatically synchronizes with the phone’s address book, so the driver simply says, “Call,” followed by the person’s name. It works the same with the media player. The driver says, “Play,” followed by the song title or artist’s name.

Music and other content can be streamed into the Sync system wirelessly from Bluetooth-enabled devices. For families, the system can handle multiple phones, and it also can be set for different languages.

Standard on the SES, the Sync system is a $395 option on other Focus models. It’s also available on other Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles.

The test car had another item designed to appeal to younger customers: ambient lighting in seven different colors. A driver can toggle to whatever color suits the mood.

With that, and other options that included traction control, anti-lock brakes, leather upholstery, heated front seats and Sirius satellite radio, the test car had a suggested sticker price of $19,970.

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