The first-generation Ford Focus that hit the global market in 1998 was an instant hit, with a design that struck a chord with most tastes.

Aside from the edgy design, it went upstream in quality compared to its Escort predecessor. One of its fortes was its fun-to-drive factor that continued in its last two successors, including some of the best suspension damping in the segment.

We got to experience the fourth-generation Focus at its international launch and it was clear that those Eurocentric design elements we previously mentioned seem to come together in a more cohesive way than pictures suggest.

Yes, there are hints of BMW’s 1 Series with that elongated bonnet, rearward cabin position and the hofmeister kink-mimicking C-pillar. The front end reminded me of the new Audi A5, particularly the swept-back headlights and bonnet creases. That aside, the new Focus is an agreeable package with a more mature design than the outgoing model.

Built at the company’s Saarlouis plant in Germany, the new Focus is the first vehicle globally to be based on the brand’s new C2 platform which, among other things, is designed to enhance crash performance, deliver more interior space without negatively impacting exterior dimensions and support improved aerodynamics for better fuel efficiency.

The interior features more technology and more space thanks to an increase in wheelbase. Picture: FORD
The interior features more technology and more space thanks to an increase in wheelbase. Picture: FORD

Dimensionally, it is said to have improved over its forbear in key areas like knee clearance, which has increased by more than 50mm — largely by moving the A-pillar and dashboard further forward — while shoulder room has increased by more than 60mm.

Serife Celebi, Ford colour and materials design manager, who has worked on all Focus generations, says one of the customers’ requests was to have a roomier cabin, without necessarily having a longer car. Hence, the model is the same length as the outgoing generation with relatively short overhangs although with a 50mm longer wheelbase than its predecessor.

Cabin appointments are similar to those in the new Fiesta with a similar architecture, highlighted by the Sync 3 infotainment screen and a fairly clean and clutter-free layout. The model has some 50 fewer buttons than the previous version, which makes a welcome change, something that was also prudent in the latest Fiesta.

Perceived quality is good, but the feel of some of the materials, particularly on the doors and the bottom half of the dashboard, is slightly cheap compared with an equivalent Golf.

Luggage space is good and there is a 60:40 split folding rear seat. Picture: FORD
Luggage space is good and there is a 60:40 split folding rear seat. Picture: FORD

For South African-bound models, two engines will be offered in the form of the familiar but reworked 1.0l three-cylinder Ecoboost and the 1.5l three-cylinder Ecoboost powerplants. The former delivers 92kW and 175Nm, while the latter will likely be the 134kW and 240Nm variant. Both engines are paired with either a six-speed manual or a new eight-speed automatic. The 1.0l has a new six-speed gearbox, which is good but not as slick as that of the outgoing model, while the latter has an improved and slicker six-speed manual.

I spent a fair bit of time at the wheel of the 1.0l and while the engine comes into its stride once past 3,000r/min, it struggles to get going before that twilight zone, while inclines required a shift as low as second gear to keep the engine on the boil. The 1.5l is the better proposition of the two engines as it has a fatter seam of torque that should make it more capable of coping with daily traffic vagaries.

Trim levels include the base Ambiente, Trend, the more comprehensive Titanium and the sporty ST Line pictured here. Unfortunately, the latter is not yet on the cards for our market, but I reckon it would do well as it has a slightly sportier look and feel, accentuated by a 10mm lower ride height, than the standard models. There are electric semi-leather pews up front and red accent stitching on the leather bound steering wheel, while the metal foot pedals round off the sporty theme.

Technology includes lane keeping assist, park assist and a host of connectivity solutions. Picture: FORD
Technology includes lane keeping assist, park assist and a host of connectivity solutions. Picture: FORD

Where the new model shines is in the ride quality as the engineers have struck a fine balance between a comfortable and refined disposition and a rewarding chassis once you start pressing on.

According to Guy Mathot, driving dynamics manager, the team that has worked on the current model has also worked on the three previous Focus generations, so they are familiar with the brief of how the model should feel and drive, all the while improving the refinement factor that supersedes the outgoing model. The entire suspension has been redone with the independent rear suspension now featuring an isolated subframe for the SLA (short long arm), which is said to meld the comfort and driver enjoyment we mentioned earlier.

Driving through some narrow roads of Nice in the south of France during inclement weather, the new model feels composed and relatively quiet with minimal NVH (noise, vibration and harshness), thanks in part to the 20% rigidity improvements over the previous model. The steering is light in its operation, but fairly direct and with little road vibrations coming through the steering column when driving over rutted roads.

Technologically, the model brings some new items to the Ford fold in the form of a perspex glass based HUD (head-up display), while the Active Parking Assist 2 makes parking even easier through fully-automated manoeuvres for both parallel and alley-dock parking spaces at the push of a button. Enabled by the shift-by-wire capability of Ford’s new eight-speed automatic gearbox, the system identifies suitable parking spaces and the driver can simply control the vehicle’s motion by selecting neutral and holding down a centre console- mounted button – no hand or feet co-ordination is required.

The model is scheduled to arrive in SA early in 2019 when pricing and full model derivatives will be announced. For now, you can look forward to a more refined and matured Ford Focus than before.