British sports cars of the 1950s and 60s are some of the most well-loved cars of all time but they are not without their downsides. Sure, they are fun to drive because they handle very well and are very high on the driver involvement scale. Unfortunately, they are also notoriously unreliable with ergonomics that clearly demonstrate how far the automobile has come in the last half century.
And so I would argue that my 2013 Ford Focus hatchback is the modern equivalent of the classic British roadster. No really, stick with me here.
I bought this car used in 2015 with 41,000 miles on it. It’s a Titanium edition, meaning that it has all of the options except for automatic parallel parking. It even has remote starting, which it only took me about a year of ownership to realize. My Focus also has the handling package, which means it rolls on 18” wheels part of the time. Since the previous owner had mounted snow tires, I bought a second set of wheels (Assetto Garas in white wearing all-season Pirelli rubber). I believe the official name for this color is Blue Candy, but I like to call it BLUE!
Unfortunately, it also has the Ford PowerShift dual-clutch automatic transmission instead of the 6-speed manual, but more on that later.
Anyway, there are of course some key differences between the Focus and the classic British roadsters of the 1950s and 60s: front vs rear wheel drive, fixed vs convertible roof, automatic vs manual transmission. The Focus is also much safer, with airbags and crumple zones. In a British roadster, the only crumple zone you got was your own face. Maintenance is also much easier and less frequent in the Focus, with 10,000-mile oil change intervals.
Despite these differences, they also share some very important characteristics, namely modest power coupled with good handling. Neither will set your hair on fire with tire-roasting torque, but both will move you down the road at what was considered a reasonable pace by contemporary standards. They also are both perfectly at home on winding roads, changing directions with lightness and ease.
But where they really overlap is in how they engage their drivers, and this can tell us a lot about the progress that we’ve made with the automobile since the 1950s. You see, the classic British roadster was riddled with problems, some big and some minor, that drivers were willing to forgive because they were such a blast to drive. Of course, modern drivers would never stand for the inconveniences that came with these cars: wiring harnesses that burned, starters that needed to be whacked with a hammer, lights that quit on dark country roads, etc. But in its own way, the Focus is full of little annoyances too, which we forgive because it’s so much fun to drive for a daily commuter.
To begin with, the interior space of the Focus is not used very efficiently at all. I like to compare it with my 2011 Honda Fit, which is smaller in every dimension but somehow seems to accommodate passengers with more space. The rear seats fold down, but they will not fold flat unless you take off the headrests (and even then they have slight upward angle). Rear legroom is shameful if you have anyone sitting in the front. In the trunk, the subwoofer sticks out too far and takes up too much storage space.
There are other facets of the interior that could generously called “quirks.” The front seats are very comfortable (leather in the Titanium edition), but they rub against the plastic center console when the outside air temperature gets above about 70 degrees and make an annoying squeaking sound. Also, they include seat heaters that, when set to anything higher than “1” will leave grill marks on your bottom, but at the same time the area covered is not large enough and therefore you are stuck leaning against cold leather at about your shoulder blades. The sharp demarcation between toasty warm and ice cold reminds me of a badly cooked fish stick.
No discussion of the Focus could be considered complete without mentioning Ford MyTouch/SYNC. Specifically because they should have named it Ford TERRIBLE. SYNC has navigation built-in, but it’s the worst navigation system I’ve ever used. It often can’t figure out where you are and will show you next to streets rather than on them. Yes, you can connect your phone with bluetooth, but the streaming sometimes cuts out or stops-and-starts. Also, the system often refuses to pair with any phone at all and so you have to reset it by pulling out the fuse (which is located in the passenger footwell). Unfortunately this also erases everything in the address book and so I mostly just use Google Maps or Waze for navigation.
Just below the screen for SYNC (which, to be fair, is a very high-quality and easy-to-read screen), the ergonomics of the dashboard are a bit wonky. There’s a huge volume knob for the stereo, which is great, but why is there so much wasted space on either side of it? There’s all this space up there but then the climate controls are way at the bottom of the stack where you have to snake your hand around the gearshift to reach them.
Next to all of that action is the steering wheel, which has paddles on it, but instead of changing gears in the dual clutch transmission, they operate the cruise control (left side) and voice command (right side). You can manually shift gears, but you have to use two buttons located on the side of the gear shift. I can only assume Ford’s market research indicated that you needed to include this function to sell a car in this segment, but no one actually shifts their automatic transmission manually so they stuck the shifter buttons in the cheapest place possible.
Speaking of the transmission, the Ford PowerShift DCT is the weakest link in this chain. Seriously. It’s the subject of many threads on internet forums in which users either discuss how it’s broken or wonder if it’s going to break soon. Even when it’s working as designed, the DCT is slow to shift and often can’t decide what gear to be in. I’ve never owned a car with a turbo, but now I know what turbo lag feels like. You plant your foot and count, “1, 2, 3,” and then the transmission completes its shift and you accelerate. The only saving grace is that Ford has extended the warranty on the transmission to 100,000 miles. They’ve also updated several mechanical components and the software. To their credit, Ford has apparently learned a lot from the failures of the first generation of DCT and the new models are supposed to be excellent.
You see, I know all about the foibles of the PowerShift because mine packed up on me just shy of 42,000 miles. A closer look at that number reveals that it was right after I bought the car, the second week in fact. My local Ford dealer fixed it at no charge (new transmission control unit) and it’s been trouble-free ever since, but it was certainly a rocky start to our relationship.
Other quirks? The Focus has massive ¾ blind spots. Really, they are huge, on par with my Miata when the top is up. There is a backup camera, which is helpful. And the door mirrors each have an additional curved mirror inset that technically does show you what is in your blind spot, but it’s difficult to train yourself to check it when changing lanes after years of driving with just three mirrors instead of five. I’ll admit that it took a near-miss or two before I really got in the habit of using them. But it does mean that the procedure for changing lanes on the highway is: signal-check mirror-check other mirror-turn head just in case-check both mirrors again-change lanes-hope for the best.
Even the engine compartment has some funny ergonomics. Why is the airbox cover bolted shut? On literally every other car I’ve owned, you can access the air filter by unclipping the airbox, no tools required. You need a socket set for the Focus.
But that’s enough griping. What does all this have to do with much-loved British sports cars from the 1950s and 60s? You see, just as all of the little (and big) failures of the British roadster never stopped people from loving them, none of these little (and big) Ford foibles can stop me from loving my Focus. Except for that pesky transmission thing, everything wrong with the Focus is just a little annoyance and they go away when you start driving.
I’ve never driven a car that was this comfortable in any driving environment. Cruising on the highway? No problem, the ride is nice and the noise level is not too high. City streets? Sure, no problem. There just might be a little jerkiness from the transmission, which is totally normal for a DCT. Back country road? Forget about it. You can carve it up if you want. It even gets good mileage!
Do you want to listen to some music? The stereo is excellent. Do you just want to look at a pretty car in your driveway? Sure, just look at this thing:
Our standards for what we expect from our cars has changed in the last 50 or so years. 21st-century drivers would never put up with all of the faults of a classic British roadster just to have a car that we love to drive, but the little nuances of the Ford Focus are as close as we come. If you’re in the market for a used car, the Focus just might be the one. But make sure you get the manual transmission.