Is the Ford Focus Titanium Still Gold?

The third generation of Ford’s landmark hatchback gets the Prolechariot up-down.

byJonathan Schultz|
Ford Reviews photo

Prolechariot is a series about vehicular value. It's about slapping your needs and wants on a wall, grabbing a fistful of darts, cocking your arm back and trying to strike as many of your targets as possible. In other words, it’s about making the second-largest purchase decision most Americans face, and making it right. Prolechariots are cars for the rest of us, and Jonathan Schultz is driving them.

Check your wallet, America. Is there $33,865 in there? Hey, congrats! That will net 8,466 used copies of Now That’s What I Call Music 2, 169 new, in-the-box Sony PlayStations, 24 autographed Oops I Did It Again CD displays, or a new car at the nationwide average price. That tidy wad will also buy you a 2016 Ford Focus Titanium, a direct descendent of the humble little conveyance that upended the car industry in 1999. The first-generation Focus proved many things, not least of which that an American automaker could crush it on a global stage.

Indeed, the Focus was among the first truly global cars, with Ford design and engineering teams in Europe and Michigan harnessing wondrous tools like servers, email, and the World Wide Web to collaborate across the Atlantic—all in the service of creating a world-beating compact car. You wouldn’t have to be a rally-racing extraterrestrial like Colin McRae, with his Focus ZX3’s brake rotors glowing red in the Welsh muck, to know the spirit of this machine. Uncommon levels of ride quality, driving involvement, and versatility would be there for all motorists, of all abilities, to experience.

(Full disclosure: Prolechariot’s second car was a 2000 Focus ZX3. Bias? We’ll own up to it.)

Having fallen behind on its DSL bills in 2004, though, Ford lost touch with the Europeans. The brand's German and British studios soldiered on, creating a worthy successor to the first-gen Focus, while the Americans served up a castrated, neutered, spayed, and smallpox-scarred abomination only offered in two- and four-door sedan configurations. Of course it sold in droves. And yet the stateside Focus faithful knew a brighter day would come. They heard company brass espouse a “One Ford” strategy, where product lines would be harmonized across all territories. One Focus to rule them, again.

Dammit, dude, the short-tempered Focus Mk1 fanboy snarls, Faygo dribbling down his Korn Family Values t-shirt.You’re just setting up the third-gen car, which has been around since 2011. He’s right—especially on the 2011 point.

Here are the five things you need to know about the 2016 Ford Focus Titanium.

1. Older Doesn’t Mean Inferior

Have you heard about the world’s greatest hot hatch? Apparently it’s a thing. The Focus RS may roll off the production line in Saarlouis, Germany, with a fancy Drift mode and 190 more horsepower than our humble Prolechariot, but Ford wouldn’t have based its brand-new halo hatch on third-gen architecture if it didn’t have utter and complete faith in the plain-vanilla Focus.

Not to suggest our Titanium model is all that plain. Riding on optional 18-inch alloys (a wholly reasonable $625 option) and kitted with heated leather front seats, an eight-way adjustable power driver’s seat, blind spot- and lane-departure warning systems, dual-zone climate control, and a vastly improved Sync multimedia interface, the Focus Titanium hatch is a quantum leap removed from the Mk1 Focus...

2. ...But So Are All of Its Competitors

It’s not just certain features now common on higher-spec mainstream compacts—adaptive cruise control chief among them—that this $28,045-as-tested Focus Titanium lacks. Desirable consumer goods, cars included, have a certain execution about them in 2016 that the Focus simply doesn’t bring to the table. Prolechariot rented a Focus in 2011, and that car’s interior is pretty much what you’ll still find in the Ford showroom.

The analog fuel and engine-temperature gauges are redolent of 1986 Taurus. Our tester model wore a nasty panel gap between the passenger-side A-pillar and the base of the windshield. Seat leathers were as supple as a pair of knockoff Jordans. Though soft-touch dash materials are applied generously, flimsy plastic buttresses connect the gear-selector tunnel to the instrument panel. These may have been overlooked five years ago, but in 2016 they’re canker sores: You want to look away, but can’t.

3. It Still Rides Like a Champ

One of the first-gen Focus’s hallmarks was its chuckability. Throw it into a bend, and as long as you weren’t expecting miracles, it clung and clung some more. The 2016 Focus Titanium feels more matter-of-fact about its labor, more grown up. There’s composure to spare on the rutted, Mordor-like descent of Manhattan’s Harlem River Drive, a piece of tarmac known to swallow Tercels and Echoes whole. Stay off the brake, weave around the left-lane hogs, and let the six-speed dual-clutch suss out the particulars.

A word about that transmission. It was an absolute dog in 2011—slow to process throttle inputs, prone to near-stalls—to the point that Ford, without issuing a recall, owned up to quality issues and set about remedying these through a series of technical service bulletins—the equivalent of Band-Aids on a 12-inch gash. While not as polished as some 'boxes in its segment, the PowerShift dual-clutch has been wholly redeemed, holding gears when the shift lever is pulled to “S” and otherwise keeping revs low to maintain fuel economy. Just keep that brake pedal depressed on hill stops, lest your rear-view camera get a lens full ‘o bumper.

4. One Thing Hasn’t Aged Much

To Prolechariot’s eye, the third-gen Focus hatchback looks as fresh as it did in 2010 when it debuted at the Detroit Auto Show. The biggest aesthetic evolution in the intervening six years is found on the nose, which now bears a squashed hexagonal grille spun off from the Evos concept of 2011. This familial maw looks correct on a Taurus SHO, a Mustang, a Fusion, and a Focus—a more rectilinear take on Aston Martin’s gob.

And while competitors appear determined to make their cabins feel open and collaborative, the Focus Titanium seems to pinch itself around the driver, its every vent, button and knob within easy reach.

5. The Focus is of No Immediate Concern to Ford

The Blue Oval earned $2.5 billion after taxes in the first quarter, doubling its Q1 figure from 2015. Focuses didn’t account for much of that success, but surely you know what did. Hint: Its name also begins with “F,” but it returns 16 mpg at the job site.

Competitors have swarmed. The redesigned Honda Civic is a moon ship sent from a higher plane of mechanical existence, but that shouldn’t trouble Ford—at least not in the near term. Honda relies on its cars to earn money, whereas Ford can lean on its big rigs to keep shareholders happy. A Focus mule has been spotted undergoing cold-weather testing somewhere icy, and if spy shots are to be believed the Mk4 car will be longer and wider than the Mk3.

Bloat, however, is not the concern it once was. The new Chevy Cruze is appreciably more spacious than its previous incarnation, and yet it weighs 250 pounds less. The Jenny Craig mentality will surely be brought to bear on the next Focus, and though the car may grow more refined, more leathery, and more intelligent, fanboys shouldn’t cry crocodile tears for what’s been lost. Ford makes an ST. It makes an RS. If these are priced too dear, wait a couple years and grab one hot off the repo lot.

Verdict: The Focus Titanium is not sufficiently complete to compete. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t had a good run.

2016 Ford Focus Titanium

PRICE (as tested): $28,045

POWERTRAIN: 2-liter four-cylinder engine, 160 hp, 146 lb-ft torque; six-speed dual-clutch PowerShift automatic transmission; front-wheel drive

MPG: 26 city / 38 highway

SONY CD PLAYER: Ready to gobble some Korn