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Winner: Small Car - Ford Focus Trend

Ford's Focus retained its title as the best car in the booming small car segment, thanks to great handling and impressive refinement.

PT3M50S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2adjw 620 349

Contenders

Ford Focus Trend (winner)
Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport

Hyundai i30 Active 


The Ford Focus is back – proving too good to beat in the competitive small-car class at Drive Car of the Year.

The carryover champ was dearest in the line-up: at $24,590 the Focus Trend auto was pitched against the new Toyota Corolla Ascent Sport auto and Hyundai's second-generation i30 Active auto, each priced at $22,990 (all three candidates get fixed-price servicing).

But although two of the three finalists earned votes, none could surpass the Ford's class-leading dynamics, ride comfort and sporty handling.

Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year. Click for more photos

2012 Best Small Car of the Year

Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.

  • Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.
  • Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.
  • Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.
  • Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.
  • Ford Focus Trend is the Drive Best Small Car of the Year.

"The Focus really does have a dash of sport about it for an affordable small car," said one judge. "It doesn't look like a car built to a price."

At $3300 cheaper than last year's Focus, all agreed it offers solid value, though it still misses out on a reversing camera and full-size spare wheel. Minimal differences were noted between the European-built model tested in 2011 and this year's Thai-built version.

The 2.0-litre, four-cylinder engine is powerful enough (125kW), yet could do with more torque than the 202Nm available. Judges said the six-speed dual-clutch auto was smoother than some other similar gearboxes fitted to rivals, but found it still tended to hunt for the right gear in hilly terrain or around town. Fuel consumption of 6.6 litres/100 kilometres (claimed) makes it economical to run.

Comfortable, contoured seats are a strong point, especially up front. Width across the rear bench is tight for three passengers, but headroom is adequate and boot space is workable.

Judges weren't as impressed by the busy interior design, mediocre storage options and fussy, high- tech look of the Ford's dashboard. "If it's intuitive to use, then who cares?" said one judge. "That's the point: it's not," countered another. "It's difficult to read on the run."

Thankfully it doesn't detract from the fun drive: it corners well, feels surefooted on the highway, and boasts an accomplished ride/handling balance.

Hyundai has taken another step forward with the second-edition i30. The biggest drawcard for the Korean car, though, is its compelling price-equipment story, with a five-year unlimited-kilometre warranty that is unmatched here.

The petrol-powered entry-level model chosen included cruise control, a five-inch touch screen, rear parking sensors, an auto-dimming rear-view mirror, Bluetooth with wireless audio streaming, fog-lights, seven airbags and even a chillable glovebox. (One judge did point out punters might instead prefer a reversing camera, or alloy wheels.)

Fuel consumption of 6.9L/100km (claimed) is just a smidge higher than the two rivals.

The i30 still lacks a little in performance, though. The noisy 1.8-litre engine makes only 110kW and 178Nm. Together with the six-speed auto, it feels more than adequate around town, although the gearbox tends to be slow to kick down.

When it comes to driving dynamics, the i30 still seems a little underdone. In particular, the steering lacks feel, while the 16-inch Hankook tyres offer disappointing grip in the wet and only adequate performance on dry roads. Several judges noted that the i30 took longest in the brake test.

But the Hyundai was praised for its pleasant-looking, functional interior. "The seats are comfy enough," said a judge, "and the i30 has the most spacious back seat." Also commended were the ample storage options, deep boot (with 12-volt socket) and the inclusion of a full-size spare tyre. Still, one judge was frustrated with the digital clock in the central display screen not being visible in certain settings. Another detected plastic creaks about the cabin.

Perhaps the most divisive small-car finalist was the all-new Corolla model, just launched in Australia with a new look, sportier handling, more aggressive pricing and more standard equipment.

"It's a pretty adventurous Corolla," said a judge. "It's more refined than the Hyundai. And when you consider what it's stood for all these years – safe, conservative, easy-to-understand – the car maker has gone a bit radical here."

The Corolla on test, the second-tier Ascent Sport, represented a $1500 cut on the prior model and improves on interior space. But its interior design split the judging, with the women appreciating the aesthetic and the men less than impressed.

"I love the hard, Star Wars lines of the dashboard," said one judge. "It looks like Toyota ran out of money," said another.

The instruments are laid out clearly, although Toyota has positioned the Corolla's in-dash display screen too far away from the driver (and switch-blanks are all-too-obvious).

The Corolla's carryover 1.8-litre, four-cylinder petrol engine (with outputs of 103kW and 173Nm) was deemed more than adequate, if not "scintillating", while low fuel consumption of 6.6L/100km (claimed) drew praise. The continuously variable transmission (CVT) with seven-speed manual shift mode wasn't thought to be a significant advance on the previous model. And some found the CVT drone annoying.

Toyota has made good on its promise to improve dynamics. Despite the fact the car feels bigger, the steering is light and direct, making the Corolla easy to live with in urban conditions. Rear legroom comes up a tad short, but there's plenty of headroom for taller passengers and seat comfort is first-rate for the money. Judges liked the inclusion of a full-size spare wheel, reversing camera and a colour touch-screen. "In what other $20K car do you get that?" one judge remarked.

It was enough to secure three votes for the new Corolla, seen as a strong bid from Toyota to reclaim small-car market leadership.

But the impressive Focus won more hearts – and votes – with its fun driving dynamics and sophistication.

Comment

It's one of the fiercest zones in the new-car market, where economy, functionality and aesthetics are key selling points. It says much for how capable the Focus is that the little Ford returns as carryover-champ - perhaps especially now the competition includes the latest edition of the world's best-selling car, the Toyota Corolla. A whopping quarter-of-a-million Corollas are sold each year in the States. 

Locally, the Corolla has lost its small-car sales crown to the Mazda3, and you have to wonder whether it can storm back with so many high-quality rivals – like the Focus – in the fray? Even setting aside the Corolla’s auto-transmission drone, the Corolla’s so-called “sporty” look (inside and out) sure divided the judges … What do you think?