Car reviews - Ford - Focus - Active
Attractive offering, proficient handling, zesty little engine, high-grade safety package
Room for improvement
Refinement over rough surfaces, auto transmission glitch, uninspiring interior design
Ford expands Focus range with high-riding crossover-style Active hatchback
7 Jun 2019
By TERRY MARTIN
FORD’S new-generation Focus launch range is now complete with the arrival of the Active hatchback, which takes the Blue Oval brand into a potentially lucrative new subsegment – the would-be, could-be crossover class.
Company executives are quick to admit that the Active is far from being a fair-dinkum four-wheel-drive wagon – hell, it’s not a wagon, and there’s no four-wheel drive – but by the same token they are touting the model as one that is “made for adventure”.
This is code for appealing to buyers who love the great outdoors and the idea of more adventurous motoring, and who are therefore looking for higher levels of capability from their vehicle than what is available in a standard passenger car.
For most people, this leads them straight towards the bewildering array of SUVs now available on the market.
But if your off-road requirements aren’t great, then perhaps a sort-of-SUV-type small car is the smarter option?
‘Made for adventure’ is a loaded term and we want to make it clear from the outset that getting too adventurous is risky in a hatchback with only a few modifications that, while sounding quite impressive on paper, can get soon get a driver into trouble.
This was amply demonstrated on the launch of Ford’s attractive new Active hatch, which ran from the Gold Coast down to Byron Bay and back and made just one diversion from bitumen roads – a sandy little turn-in next to the beach that gave us a chance, for just a few seconds, to engage the selectable ‘Trail’ mode and see how things went.
This mode is specifically designed to help maintain momentum on sand, as well as other soft surfaces such as mud and snow.
Ford says it does this by adjusting the anti-lock braking system to allow for greater wheel slip, easing the electronic stability control system and configuring the traction control system to allow for higher wheelspin to clean any sand or other material from the tyres.
With a little bit of momentum up, the Active comfortably ploughed through a section of soft sand without issue. But this was, perhaps, with the benefit of experience – and hindsight – as the driver before us had crept into the sand, braked and became firmly bogged as the front wheels simply sank.
A Ranger ute and a snatch strap soon extricated the Active from the sandpit, but, not for the first time with vehicles such as this, we were struck by how easy it is to gain a false sense of confidence about its off-road ability and how quickly this can get a driver, particularly a novice, into trouble.
With no dirt or gravel roads on the launch drive, the Active’s ‘Slippery’ drive mode was not engaged and we were unable to test Ford’s claim that this other extra handling device – designed to reduce ‘straight-ahead’ wheelspin and provide a more passive throttle response – improves dynamic performance and confidence levels on loose surfaces.
‘Confidence’ was a word that came to mind, though, on smooth, fast-flowing snaking roads and an occasional tighter section where the handling proficiency inherent in the Focus hatch – the first one we have driven with a multi-link rear suspension set-up – was on parade.
The raised ride height, higher-profile tyres and unique suspension tuning (for the springs, dampers, stabiliser bars and front and rear knuckle geometries) should give an enthusiastic driver pause for thought when it comes to choosing the Active over the ST-Line hatch, despite the latter using a less sophisticated torsion beam axle at the rear.
He or she is probably waiting for the ST, anyway, which is sure to have the SLA rear end.
But the higher-riding hatch holds its composure when pushing into tighter turns, maintaining excellent control and providing plenty of grip on the optional 18-inch Hankook tyres.
As much as we also like the well-weighted and direct electric-assist steering, the braking performance and other aspects of the Active drive, it’s not the perfect package.
Not long after marvelling at the quietness in the cabin while on the freeway, we were soon left wondering how such a back-road-biased model such as this one could allow so much noise into the cabin when hitting broken bitumen and other road irregularities at speed.
It’s not harshness per se, but it is loud and an unwelcome intrusion.
This might come down to the unique 18-inch wheel and tyre spec, the revised suspension tuning or a combination of both, as we have not noted this on the regular Focus, which has a quieter and more accomplished ride.
There was one other blemish, which came in the form of hesitation in the eight-speed automatic transmission and a thump into first gear when reversing out of a carpark and turning the dare-to-be-different rotary ‘E-Shifter’ dial from R to D.
In all other respects, as we have found in other Focus variants, the transmission worked smoothly and seamlessly with the super-refined and peppy little 182kW/240Nm 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo-petrol engine, which is sporty, responsive and even a little bit rorty.
This doesn’t exactly encourage economical driving – mashing the right foot to elicit a musical note – but across our back-road stretch down to Byron Bay we averaged 7.7 litres per 100km.
The cabin itself is a welcoming environment, though hardly inspiring in terms of interior design and surface detailing.
The unique upholstery on the nicely bolstered Active seats is a neat touch, and the driver has plenty of manual adjustment for both seat and steering wheel to ensure an optimum position is found.
The Sync3 infotainment system with 8.0-inch touchscreen is a highlight, but the instrument panel less so with a somewhat old-school layout which incorporates a relatively small LCD screen within two backlit tacho and speedo dials and low-mounted fuel and temperature gauges.
The speed-sign recognition system is accurate and, in general, the high level of driver-assist safety technology is simply outstanding.
Most of the bases are covered in terms of general comfort, facilities, ease of use and spaciousness, although rear seat occupants miss out on things like air vents and plug-in points – other than a single 12-volt outlet.
The Active is sure to be more appealing than Ford’s own bona fide small SUV, the unloved EcoSport, and stands as an interesting alternative to a regular Focus.
‘Made for adventure’ is a matter of interpretation, of course, but there are a few shortcomings found on our first drive that leave us wondering whether it strikes just the right balance for even mild adventure-seekers.
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Model release date: 1 June 2019
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