Ford Focus Zetec S 1.0 Ecoboost

"Go on" we asked, "guess how big the engine is" we continued with an annoyingly knowing grin on our face that probably gave the game away. "I don't know came the answer, 1.6-litre?". "HAHA, NO! A million times NO!" we roared back. And then, with joy in our voices we whisper: "it's only a 1-litre engine," and we wait for the reaction.

Even in the UK, a 1-litre engine in a car like the Focus is pretty much unheard of. It's a big car, and engines that small are reserved for the likes of the Fiesta, Polo and Honda Jazz. Really, you'd probably expect a 1.4 or 1.6-litre petrol engine, or a 2-litre diesel here. Anything less would be arduous in the extreme.

So when Ford offered us the Ecoboost with its small engine, we were incredibly keen. This, we thought, will either be a massive disaster, or a laugh a minute.

Design

The current Focus is a good-looking car, there’s little arguing about that. Ford has always managed to make the Focus a decent rival to the VWs and Vauxhalls of this world without ever needing to copy the style of the Golf or Astra. At the back, the light clusters have lost their slightly odd-looking design from the first generation - which caused quite a stir at the time - and have morphed in to a more traditional style, but one which is pulled forward so that they encroach on the rear side panels. Written down, it sounds ghastly. In reality, it looks terrific.

The front of the car is similarly snappy to look at. There’s a bodykit fitted, which gives the front an aggressive, but very cool look. It certainly makes this car look like its brother, the ST, even though the engines powering them are pretty different. Of course, the price of the two is startlingly similar, which might give some people pause, and to ask why they might opt for the ecoboost. But we’ll come to that later.

Internally, things are a little less impressive. We don’t, for example, love the centre column which is festooned with an unsightly number of buttons. We also don’t really love how these buttons operate, they don’t feel very premium and there are times when they don’t do the thing you asked, or do it, but don’t provide enough tactile feedback to let you know your push was a success. This makes things harder to use, and the technology in here is solid, but the clunky controls spoil it a little.

There are also two controllers on the wheel for moving through menus, and buttons for controlling the stereo and Bluetooth phone system. If you have cruise control, the waters become even more muddy, and what you’re looking at is a steering wheel that is covered with controls. And like on every car, you can’t use them when the wheel is off straight, so you may still end up reaching for the dash.

There is also a central armrest that we found to be bothersome. At motorway cruising speeds, it was helpful, but when you're trying to change gear quickly, it becomes a real chore to work around. Unlike the VW/Audi armrests, which are also awful, the one in the Focus can't be pushed away to keep it out of your way. 

Technology

Our Focus was supplied with the DAB and satnav option, which is £700. It is, however, good and the satnav holds its own against the other cars in this class. We found it competent, and easy to use once you’ve set it up. On the other hand, the layout of the Focus’s controls mean that getting a postcode in, and starting the navigation, isn’t especially clear. We struggled for a while, and setting up Bluetooth took us 10 minutes of plodding through menus and doing the same on our phone.

You do get an in-dash prompt for navigation too, so you don’t need to look at the map for normal driving, just glance at the speedo, which you’ll be doing constantly anyway, because straying over the limit in the UK is now punishable by death. Or speed camera. One of the two.

There’s the usual MP3 player inputs too, you get line-in for things not made by Apple and a iDevice connector for those which are. We preferred Bluetooth audio though, it’s easier, and of course you get to play music and make calls. If you’ve not got in-car Bluetooth, when you do try it, you’ll fall in love with it.

If you want a better sound system, there’s an optional Sony head-unit available and if you want to step up from air conditioning to climate control, that’s possible too. We liked the air-con though, it felt cooler than the A3 - new eco rules have changed the coolant, meaning cars are never as icy as they used to be - and the simple 4-speed fan clicker is less faff than a daft push button system.

We love the fuel-computer too. You average speed and fuel consumption are provided constantly, along with your range but there are plenty of display options if you want to see different information while you drive. It’s controlled by the two wheel controllers, and takes a lite while to master, but once you’re there it’s a great system.

A single litre goes a long way

There’s an expression, which comes from a US car company executive. He says, “there’s no replacement for displacement”. Displacement being the capacity of the engine, and in the ecoboost there’s just 1-litre of it. It’s interesting that Ford does intend to sell this car in the US too, a country famous for its 5- or even 6-litre engines, we do wonder how that will go down. The ecoboost isn’t new for US cars though, there’s a version of the F150 that has a 3.5-litre engine that uses the same technology, and it’s quite well regarded.

Perhaps the best trick Ford has managed to pull, is somehow disguising the engine completely. Our car makes no mention of what’s under the hood, there’s no indication at the back, and when you drive it, you’d be hard-pressed to work out what is delivering the power. And because there’s so much torque, it feels like a far larger engine. As an example, it pulls nearly as well as our Audi 2-litre TDI, now that’s quite a trick.

Ford has also been wise here too. The company clearly feels that engine sizes are no longer the indication of power they once were. When we were just nippers it was so much clearer, in a world where turbochargers were very rare, what car had what power. These days, there’s a turbo on pretty much everything. And why not, because turbochargers are a terrific way of boosting power, without destroying fuel economy. Ford also uses direct injection here, which offers benefits too.

But all of that is just talk, what matters is how the engine works in the car. And we have to say, it’s spectacular. It didn’t win us over straight away though. At first there were some things that bothered us, for a start, at the low end of the rev range, there doesn’t feel like an enormous amount of power. The turbo isn’t the laggiest we’ve experienced, but there is, inevitably, a delay in it boosting the engine. Then there’s the hump that sits to the left of the clutch, while not a performance issue, it did - at least to start with - catch our foot when we we’re changing, leading to lots of juddering changes. Happily, both of these issues fade away when you learn how to drive the car.

And we do really like the setup. The lack of instant power at the start of the rev range is, in some ways, a good thing because it means that if you want to drive economically, you can just be gentle with the accelerator. There’s no huge powerhouse under the bonnet, so you can pootle along in town without the stress of a massive engine wanting to drag you there at the speed of sound.

Once you learn the car, you begin to get to grips with how the power is distributed. Give the car some stick, keep it up the rev range, and it will reward you with some really enjoyable boost. We found that second gear became a firm favourite for us, because at normal speeds, you’d be revving the engine quite hard, which gives you access to a great engine note, and some real acceleration.

Perhaps surprisingly for a 1-litre engine, the ecoboost is great on the motorway too. At 70, there is still plenty of juice for overtaking and at no point did we feel like we were going to look stupid overtaking one of those middle-lane morons that blight this country’s road system. And, unlike the 1.0-litre engine from the Mini Metro your grandmother used to drive, there is no screaming for mercy at higher speeds.

And, we have to say, the engine noise is truly a thing of beauty, especially in low gears and high revs. Push the car in second, for example, and the roar you get in the cabin is incredibly rewarding. We suspect some trickery here, but nothing untoward. We understand that the Ford pipes sound from the engine in to the cabin, and that this is controlled by how you drive. In vicar mode, you’ll not hear from it. In boy-racer mode, it will yell at you like your dad when he finds out you’ve crashed his brand new Ford Focus.

Fuel economy can be pretty amazing too. We'd guess 58mpg isn't out of the question for sensible drivers. We managed 38 but spent most of the time enjoying the tubo boost, so aren't surprised. This car will save you money at the pump, and you'll rival most diesel engines, especially the larger 2-litre ones. 

Price

There is an issue with the price, frankly. There’s nothing in the Ford that worries us, but the interior finish is just no patch on the German competition. So when you learn that this Focus is more than £20,595 as reviewed, you might take a deep breath. That’s Audi A3 territory, or a really nicely set-up Golf. The Focus has more equipment though, ours was supplied with DAB and sat nav, which is an optional extra, but there’s good technology, and adding more is cheaper than in the German cars.

And then, with the ST starting at £21,995 and this car costing £20,595 it’s a hard one to call, and an odd pricing decision. But with that said, we love the car and think it's got more than enough charm to win even the hardest heart over.

Verdict

A week with the Focus, and we're honestly in love. There are some annoyances, some quirks and we do struggle with that on-the-road pricetag. But honestly, this car is just full of surprises and it's a blast on the road.

The pulling power of the engine is just a jaw-on-the-floor surprise. At high-end motorway speeds, there's loads more power there just waiting to pull you ever faster. And this is true all over, give the engine some revs and it's willing to respond with all its heart.

It looks great on the outside too, and the gadgets and technology are all decent. There are some issues with the implementation, the navigation of the stereo and sat nav can be a disaster. It took us 10 minutes to work out how to pair our phone and programming in an address was never our favourite job.

That busy steering wheel and stupid armrest are also minor spoilers, but when you consider this car as a package, it just keeps calling you back for more. A massive disaster this Focus is not, a laugh a minute we can confirm.