Every Focus since 1998 has been a piece of sorcery, a car that gives a huge number of people all the practicality they need at a price they can afford, while mixing in a driving finesse that's often missing in cars selling for multiples of its price. So this road test looked like being a dead cert.
But it didn't happen.
Perplexed, I drove and drove, on all sorts of roads and in two versions. For most of the way, I convinced myself that, because Ford couldn't possibly make a Focus that was anything other than brilliant, then it must have been my fault for failing to find that brilliance. But sorry, Mr Focus. It's not me, it's you.
Now, I'm not slagging it off. The new Focus is designed for a gigantic world audience: Europe, the US, China, Asia, Russia: stick a pin at random into the globe and you'll find an identical Focus. And it's a car that's probably wonderfully appropriate for allthese people. It's refined, comfortable, quick, economical, safe, high-tech and visually distinctive.
Like all Fords, it passes the 50-yard test whether you're an interested driver or not. You get in and drive it 50 yards and you love it, even if you can't say why. The reason why is that every single control, from door-handles to indicator stalk to clutch and gearlever, is well placed, operates nicely, and its weight and action is perfectly matched to all the others. Nothing grates or snags. Which sounds simple, but few cars achieve it.
Very well, what's wrong?
Two things. And they happen to be critical to the way I - and you too, or you wouldn't be holding this magazine in your hands - engage with cars.
First, handling. Is it fair to make a song and dance about the tyre-squealing handling in a family hatchback? Yes, because Ford has always done just that, telling anyone who'd listen that the one thing really separating Focuses from the opposition was the handling. And the new Focus has abandoned that separation. It's joined the horde of Golfs and Astras.
Which means the handling and steering are utterly benign, but lack the spark of inspiration. The steering's accurate and nicely weighted, and there's loads of traction and grip. Roll and understeer are kept at bay too. You can carve neatly through any series of turns, open or tight. But that's about it. Ford says it has managed to shift from hydraulic to electric steering without losing feel. I don't agree. It's almost gone. And so has much of the lovely sense, with the old Focus, that you could use the throttle - a little lift, a bit more pressure - to subtly trim the car through a bend. No longer do you feel the car is pivoting around you. Instead, you instruct the front end with the steering, and the rest of the car passively follows. The Focus feels very much like the new C-Max, which is a very good MPV, but y'know, you want more from an actual car. On which subject, I recently drove an old C-Max in knackered rentacar form: its steering was just delightful.
This is symptomatic of the way the new Focus feels designed for the uninterested driver and doesn't bother to involve us obsessives. There are more examples. To switch off the traction control, you don't just press a button, you have to do six prods of the menu system. It's nearly impossible to heel-and-toe the manual gearchanges in the LHD versions I drove, and the gearlever's travel is too long from second to third. And in the twin-clutch Powershift auto, there's nosuch thing as full over-ride, either inthe up or down direction: there's aplus/minus rocker, but the car ignores it at its discretion. Apparently that's what they want in America. Aaargh.
My second issue is the styling. To my eyes, there's too much of it, frankly. The basics of proportion and stance are just fine, but they couldn't leave it there. The nose has too many grilles - mostly blank - and strange little winglets, and the bonnet looks like it's hanging half-open. (Strangely, the ST is far neater in both respects.) The zig-zag crease along the side soon starts to jar, and the tailgate has a messy, convoluted shutline above the lights. Of course, style is a personal thing, so you're fully entitled to disagree here.
Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play? Rather a lot.
Not least because I had a crack at the 1.6-litre EcoBoost petrol, excellent at 150bhp in the C-Max, and all the more so at 182bhp in the Focus. Unfortunately this power rating hasn't been confirmed for the UK, but it'll almost certainly come. They don't have any lower-power petrols for us to test yet, but actually the torque and economy ratings of the two are the same, so the 150 doesn't lag much. Most admirably, the Focus hasn't put on any weight for the all-new model, so the wide and strong torque spread never has any trouble hauling serious backside, at least until you engage the very long (and hence economical) cruising sixth gear. In the lower gears, it chases keenly to the red line and is a real performer.
The diesels are revised, and the top 2.0-litre gets 163bhp with fair (though if I'm not mistaken not quite Golf-ish) refinement. But, compared to the manual petrol, I never felt in control, stymied as I was by the bigger lag and that unruly twin-clutch 'box. The 1.6 diesel has 105bhp, which isn't puny, and helped by standard idle-stop, it does just 109g/km of CO2.
The ride's a huge asset. The primary springing isn't especially soft, but the secondary small-bump absorption and the absence of float are properly impressive. The suspension avoids transmitting much audible thumping and clanging, which all adds to the impression you're driving a high-quality piece. It's a great car for city potholes or long-distance cruising, and its fluency means it isn't upset when it hits bumps halfway round a corner.
Taking a look around the indoors, the design is just as hectic as the outside, but this time it all seems to be for a reason. And there's a reassuring sense of craftsmanship. Much attention has been given to the illumination, surfaces and metallic finishes. The basics, like seat comfort are taken care of, and space is decent, if not enormous: if you want more, buy a five-seat C-Max. The interfaces for the electronics are superb, which is just as well, given the panoply of optional technologies. Ford decided it would be building so many Focuses worldwide, it could justify developing a bewildering array of these systems in the hope that economy of scale would keep the prices reasonable.
It's new territory for so many driver-assist systems to be so affordable. But whether they're necessary or even desirable is another question. Some of them look like they just give permission for inattention. But maybe if you're weaving among the chaos of Beijing, you need all the help you can get. There you are: hints of Luddism, snobbishness and national prejudice in one neat paragraph.
A forward-facing camera feeds a package of driver aids: motorway lane-keeping support via nudges to the steering wheel; drowsiness-warning if you persistently drift out of your lane; speed-limit sign recognition with a readout on the dash; and auto switching between high and low beam. The speed-limit thing is a bit flaky, but the rest work pretty well. If that computer-vision package isn't enough, there's a laser-based system that brakes the car if you don't, in the hope of reducing rear-end urban shunts. The vision and laser systems are £750 combined. They'd be thousands in an Audi. You can also get a radar-based active cruise control, and side radar for blind spots. And an ultrasound-based self-parking system.
See, Ford has put a massive effort, and the kitchen sink, into the new Focus. But I can't ever remember driving such a great car that left me feeling quite so let down.
We like: Great ride at all speeds
We don't like: Loss of trademark handling vivacity
TopGear verdict: Excellent in most ways, but proves that you can't please all of the people all of the time.
Performance: 0-62mph in 7.9secs, max 130mph, 47.1mpg
Tech: 1596cc, 4cyl, FWD, 182bhp, 199lb ft, 1333kg, 139g/km
Tick this on the options list: Nav, USB and DAB, together £550
And avoid this: Berry or lager-colour paint £745