By Jeremy Sinek
Long before the Civic, before even the Cavalier before that, the best-selling car in Canada was the Ford Tempo compact. Two decades later, Ford is the leading automaker in Canada, and its current compact offering, the “world car” Focus is the best-selling nameplate on the planet. Yet in Canada, where it competes in the most popular car category, the Focus is… nowhere.
The best year in Canada for Ford’s 1999 European Car of the Year was right out of the box. It placed second in passenger-car sales behind the Civic in 2000, its first full year. But it faded to fourth in 2001, sixth in 2002, and since then has never ranked higher than fifth (in 2004) while sinking as low as ninth in 2008.
With a refresh just coming on stream for 2015, you have to wonder how the world’s most popular car has been such a relative dud in Canada?
You can’t blame the design or the performance. The automotive press love it – at least, they loved the first generation (2000-2007) and the current one.
“In some ways it was a very special car,” says George Iny, director of the Automobile Protection Association. “The interior, body design, some of the attention to detail; you can see they spent extra money. And the handling was terrific.”
But even the initially well-reviewed first generation Focus had problems in the market.
“It was a brilliant car, but it turned out not to age well,” recalls Iny. The first years were plagued with reliability issues and the Focus set some kind of record for the number of recalls on a new car.
After a superficial refresh for 2005, quality was vastly improved, but by then the basic architecture was six years old (the rest of the world got a more substantially re-engineered second generation Focus for 2005). And even when Ford North America finally introduced its own updated Focus for 2008, it still was based on the first generation underpinnings.
At the same time, Ford made the odd decision to axe the popular wagon and hatchback variants and add a two-door coupe.
The 2008 Focus was also one of the first Fords to get SYNC, its Microsoft-based user interface technology. For a car targeted at young buyers in the age of social media, the many teething troubles with SYNC and its subsequent evolution, MyFord Touch, was like a fast track to a bad rap.
Ford has steadily improved the interface over the years, but with the launch of the third generation Focus for 2012, the automaker arguably shot itself in the foot once more. The car was lovely to drive and ride in (though rear-seat knee room is at a premium), but the optional Powershift dual-clutch automatic had issues.
At best, customers used to conventional automatics had a hard time adjusting to the DCT’s different driving characteristics; at worst, customers experienced rough, hesitant shifting.
Ford has freshened the Focus for 2015 including tweaks to the Powershift that company officials say will allow an “easier transition for customers coming out of conventional automatics.”
At the same time, Ford improved the aerodynamics, reduced cabin noise, redesigned the cockpit amenities (including the SYNC interface), and finessed the suspension and steering. New driver-assist features include a standard rear-view camera and available blind-spot warning and lane-keeping assist systems.
The 2015 model is easily recognisable by its revised front end that adopts the same family “face” as Fiesta and Fusion.
One 2015 novelty that’s unlikely to transform Focus sales is the new 1.0-litre EcoBoost option. The three-cylinder engine first seen in Fiesta can reduce fuel consumption by 13 per cent, but it comes only with manual transmission and its price will deter price-sensitive shoppers. It’s only offered on the sedan and with mid-level SE trim; and it’s bundled with cosmetic features that push the price of the option to $1,600.
With the ST remaining a fringe product that leaves it down to the mainstream 2.0 to turn things around for the Focus.
Ford reps declined to offer a sales goal for 2015 when asked, but Stewart Harris, assistant sales manager at Ridgehill Ford Sales in Cambridge, Ont., says he’s expecting a 20-per cent sales gain for Focus this year.
“I think it’s a car people need to look at and drive to see the true value and performance,” he says.
Peter McLean, president of Circuit Ford Lincoln in Montreal, echoes that.
“This should be the year for the Focus. Ford put as much content in the car as they can and are giving customers the value they were looking for. We just have to make sure we get people to try it. It’s like the slogan 30 years ago, “Have you driven a Ford lately?”