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2013 Ford Focus SE Sedan

Car enthusiasts know all about the Ford Focus ST. It is the quintessential hot hatch, dropping 264 horses of fun through the front tires. It has a stiff suspension, hard ride, aggressively bolstered seats, and a pleasing manual transmission. The Ford Focus SE Sedan is almost exactly unlike this in every possible way.

Instead, the SE sedan is a compact car for fighting the daily commute. It costs a lot less, and it doesn’t have the power of the ST hatchback. Which means it’s a lot saner. You can still get nice leather seats, and tons of ways to hook up and listen to your mobile devices, without worrying about inadvertently sending yourself backwards into a telephone pole from an excess of power.

On the face of it, it sounds like it should be a very logical choice for a nice, yet economical commuter car.

How it looks

2013 Ford Focus SEThe Focus SE sedan is fairly attractive, incorporating Ford’s new, more angular design language. The wheels look quite sporty, and the body shape gives the impression that the Focus is hunched forward, and eager to lunge into traffic. The headlights are a bit squinty, and the grill looks like the car is in an angry, pouting mood.

Inside, while there is noticeable hard plastic here and there on the center console and doors, the dash is mainly covered in soft-touch materials. It doesn’t come standard with sat-nav, but you still get a 3” color screen in the center console. The driver also gets a similarly sized screen between the easily readable analog tach and speed gauges.

Like both the Fiesta and Fusion, the European-designed interior of the Focus is eye-catching and pleasing. Despite the small size, the center screen is easy to read, and is recessed deeply enough into the dash that it doesn’t get washed out in bright daylight. All of the entertainment and technology functions are accessed through the center screen via a toggle located on the dash or on the right side of the leather-covered and fully adjustable steering wheel. It’s a pretty good interior for a car with a starting MSRP of $18,950. When you toss in the $3,000 customer cash incentive Ford is currently offering, the value proposition for the Focus SE starts to look pretty good, indeed.

Leather seating is available, and, though they don’t heat or cool you, the front seats have electrical adjustment. It’s a small car, but the Focus sedan doesn’t feel excessively cramped, at least up front. Seating in back is only just acceptable in terms of head and legroom, being about the tightest in its class. Put four adults in the Focus and things are quite…snug.

2013 Ford Focus SE InteriorOne of the Focus’ main…er…focuses is the use of technology. Sadly, this is where it all begins to go terribly, terribly wrong. Ford has partnered with Microsoft to implement something called “Sync” to handle all the cool technology bits. Now, I am not a Microsoft basher. I happen to think that Microsoft has dome some amazing things to advance the spread of computer technology. Sync is not one of these things. Sync is so not one of these things that the people responsible for it should be pulled naked and screaming from their offices for a good tar and feathering.

For instance, here’s something I like to do: I like to listen to on-demand SiriusXM shows through my phone. Initially, I was giddy with delight at how I could listen to them through Sync via Bluetooth. Then I turned the engine off when I stopped for gas. Sync promptly forgot that I wanted to use the Bluetooth input for audio. So, I reset it. Every time I turned the car off, I had to set up Bluetooth again. And again, and again.

To do this, by the way, you have to delve through a stupidly confusing set of menus and submenus via a four-way toggle switch placed far too high in the dash to be comfortable to use. Since Sync cannot remember anything you have ever asked it to do in the past, or indeed, even remember the very last thing you asked it to do, this soon became enraging.

Equally enraging were the five-way thumb toggles on each side of the steering wheel. They aren’t marked with anything but direction arrows and an “OK” in the center. Touch the one on the left, and it ruins whatever you were displaying in the driver’s color instrument screen. Touch the one on the right, which controls the Sync system, and it ruins whatever settings you had Sync set to do. This means you will have to stop the car and completely reprogram the Sync system again, because it will, naturally, have forgotten whatever it was supposed to be doing before you accidentally touched the steering wheel toggle switch.

The cruise control switches also poke out from the underside of the steering wheel on the left side. They are marked rather arcanely. I can’t tell you how they work. I just stabbed at them with a forefinger until the Focus stopped slowing down when I took my foot off the accelerator.

It seems odd to introduce sophisticated technology into a car for the sole purpose of making you despise and fear technology. But, as nearly as I can tell, that’s precisely what Ford has done.

Oh, also, the electric window switches are housed in these odd detents that make them more difficult to use. They’re stupid, too.

Having said all that, though, the design of the interior is stylish and attractive. It looks quite nice inside, and the failures are in the implementation of details, not in any sense a failure of design.

Also, the trunk is, surprisingly, big enough to hold the bodies of two hookers. Or, so I’m told. Folding down the seats also gives you a full pass-through into the passenger cabin, making the Focus SE almost as much practicality as a hatchback.

How it drives

The first thing you notice about the SE-spec Focus sedan is that it is nowhere nearly as powerful as the Focus ST.

Wait. That’s not true. The first thing you notice is that the way the gearshift lever works is annoying. It has a little trigger-style locking level in front. So far so good. Most automatic shifters have similar controls. Nothing wrong so far.

Then you move the lever, and sometimes the trigger lock lets you slip it into “D” and sometimes into “S” for sport mode. And sometimes it allows you to shift into reverse. Or not. This begins your wonderful journey into trying to shift the transmission into the proper drive mode. You will while away the hours moving the lever back and forth, trying to find the gear you want. Good luck.

When do you press the trigger thingy to unlock the gearshift? I dunno. What drive mode will it go into when you move the lever? I dunno. Eventually, you’ll get it into drive or reverse, or sport, and really, you’re not so busy that you can’t spend a few minutes every day finding the right gear.

2013 Ford Focus SEThe transmission is also manually shiftable, but after finally getting it in gear, the last thing you’ll want to do is touch the gear lever again. If you do, though, shifting manually is accomplished by pressing one of the two buttons on the side of the knob. It works OK, but since the automatic transmission works perfectly fine, I didn’t really see any need to manually shift it.

Once you’ve got it going forward, the Focus is reasonably nice to drive. Powered by Ford’s Ti-VCT GDI I4 motor, with 160 HP and 146 torques, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the ST-spec version, but it’s relatively powerful for its class, though a bit behind the 178 HP available in the Dodge Dart. With the lower torque, it seems sluggish starting off the line, but once you get the RPMs up, it gets noticeably quicker. The Focus will hit 60 MPH in 7.6 seconds, and a quarter mile passes in the 16-second range at 89 MPH.

Ride quality is good for a compact car. Ford has done a deft job at tuning the suspension to soak up road imperfections, and the stiff chassis keeps the Focus feeling firm and planted. Toss it into a corner, and body roll is barely noticeable.

And you will want to toss it into corners. The handling is sharp and responsive, and the Focus seems to turn on a dime. The electric steering is utterly lacking in any feel, of course, and even at speed, you don’t really get much resistance from the wheel. But it responds very quickly to steering inputs, and it does have a noticeable fun factor when you start tossing it around. Shifting the Focus into “S” mode, and the transmission will let the engine rev up a bit more between shifts, eking out a little more performance and fun.

The SE will pull 0.89g on the skidpad, which is about average for a compact car. Of course, it’s amazing that compact cars can pull a lateral 0.89g at all.

Overall, the Focus SE’s suspension and handling have a very European feel, being both taut and responsive, with a reasonable dollop of performance thrown in. Ford’s strategy of building cars that they can sell anywhere, rather than building market-specific models, really pays off here for American drivers. That means we get cars with European-style handling, at an American car’s price.

Braking is good, if not particularly impressive. The brakes haul the Focus to a stop from 70 MPH in 178 feet, which is just average for its class. But the ABS works well, and hard braking is smooth and undramatic.

What’s good about it

The Focus SE is fun to drive, with a great suspension, and fun handling. The engine is relatively powerful for its class, with most competitors being down 20-30 HP. It’s relatively nice inside, with an attractive design and materials. The trunk is huge, making it very practical for a compact sedan. Ford’s cash incentives bring the price down below $16,000, making it an extremely competitive value for the money.

What’s bad about it

The Microsoft Sync system is very bad, being both extremely confusing and frustrating. The passenger cabin is about the most cramped in its class. The gear shifter has the most annoying tendency not to stop in the drive mode you’re searching for.

Conclusion

It’s really a shame that what is an otherwise fine and fun drive car is ruined by a horrible technology package and a balky gear shifter. After two days or so of dealing with the Microsoft Sync system, you’ll find yourself in a deep moral quandary: Do you stab everyone in Redmond, Washington first, or everyone in Flat Rock, Michigan?

The Focus SE checks all the right boxes in the “fun to drive” category. This is a car that you really want to love, and then you deal with the Sync system, or the gear shifter when you’re trying to do a quick K turn, and you just can’t love it at all. I’m naturally predisposed to love Ford’s “world car” models, and I find the Focus SE a huge disappointment. It’s a great car to drive, but is horrible to live with.

Honestly, I’d rather be followed by a crowd of little people constantly tapping on my kneecaps with tiny, golden hammers than own a Ford Focus SE.

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