SEATTLE – Ford Motor Co. says it will be a few years before the European and North American versions of the Focus small car are combined in an effort to better leverage the auto maker’s global resources.

Until then, U.S. buyers will have to make due with the new ’08 Focus.

Although the new-generation vehicle still rides on the same C170 platform as when it first launched in the U.S. in 1999 as an ’00 model, the car’s underpinnings have been extensively modified for ’08, with about 70% of components either new or refreshed.

There is nothing wrong with the existing platform, although it is long-in-the-tooth by automotive standards. When the Focus first debuted in the U.S., it was heralded for its balance and nimble performance.

For ’08, Ford engineers built on the Focus’ ride and handling, notching it up just enough to go head-to-head with competing models, many of which are underpinned by newer platforms.

Particular attention was paid to the vehicle’s suspension, which has been redesigned and retuned to improve driving dynamics. The ’08 Focus gets MacPherson struts up front and an independent multilink layout in the rear. Dampers, stabilizer bars and bushings are all new, and the spring rates have been dropped.

During a recent test drive here, the tuning enhancements shine through, as the new Focus flies through twisting, hilly roads with aplomb. The suspension upgrades provide a substantial improvement in ride and handling over the previous-generation Focus, which Ford provided for comparison.

The suspension is taut but not unforgiving, helping keep the car planted during abrupt maneuvers. Ford purposely set up the test drive to include varying road surfaces, and the new Focus handles all with ease, providing just enough feedback to create a sense of confidence and security.

The Focus also gets an all-new brake system for ’08, with vented discs up front and an optional antilock system. Unfortunately, Ford decided to stick with drum brakes in the rear, an archaic technology that most competitors have ditched in lieu of discs at all four corners. Ford’s current financial difficulties may be behind the decision to stick with the cheaper alternative.

Power for the ’08 Focus is adequate but by no means overwhelming. A few more ponies under the hood, or at least a performance version, would go a long way in helping the Focus take on the competition.

Engines options are a 2.0L Duratec inline 4-cyl. that produces 140 hp and 136 lb.-ft. (184 Nm) of torque and a 130-hp Duratec 20E engine that qualifies the Focus as a partial zero emissions vehicle in such states as California, New York and Massachusetts.

Ford says the PZEV engine will be available to consumers as a limited option. However, the bulk of Focus sales undoubtedly will be the 2.0L Duratec, which is our test vehicle’s engine. Although the mill performs fine, it is a bit buzzy in the high rpm range and lacks power off the line.

The engine does, however, offer decent fuel economy, which Ford says was achieved by revising the ratios on the Focus’ two available transmissions – a 5-speed manual and 4-speed automatic.

On the 5-speed manual we tested, our onboard computer registered fuel economy of about 30 mpg (7.8 L/100 km). The manual gearbox – only available on Focus models equipped with 16-in. wheels – allowed for nice short throws and no gear hunting. Kudos to Ford for keeping a manual transmission available on the Focus, as losing the gearbox would have been an easy choice given Ford’s streamlining of the Focus lineup. The auto maker axed the 3-door and wagon variants.

In addition to tweaking the Focus’ ride and handling characteristics, engineers went to considerable lengths to reduce noise, vibration and harshness levels. Measures included the addition of a new acoustic windshield, thicker side glass, closed-cell foam in the dashboard, liberal use of sound-deadening material and a stiffened front air dam. Ford also redesigned the side mirrors to make them more aerodynamic.

The result is a remarkably quiet ride for its class. With a starting price of just under $15,000, the ’08 Focus is the best-handling (with the exception of the ’02 SVT Focus), quietest and cleanest Focus yet.

Inside, the Focus is significantly upgraded from its predecessor, a sign Ford’s promise to emphasize interiors is paying off.

Quality materials are found throughout, especially in a side-by-side comparison with the ’07 Focus, which is chocked full of cheap-looking plastic and drab cloth materials.

’08 Ford Focus
Vehicle type front-engine, front-drive, 5-passenger sedan/coupe
Engine 2.0L inline 4-cyl.
Power (SAE net) 140 hp @ 6,000 rpm
Torque 136 lb.-ft (184 Nm) @ 4,250 rpm
Compression ratio 10.0:1
Transmission 5-speed speed manual
Wheelbase 102.9 ins. (261 cm)
Overall length 175 ins. (445 cm)
Overall width 67.9 (173 cm)
Overall height 58.6 (149 cm)
Curb Weight 2,588 lbs./ 1,174 kg
Base price range $14,695-$16,995
Fuel economy 24/35 mpg (10/7 L/100 km)
Competition Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Chevrolet Cobalt
Pros Cons
New suspension Old platform
Burns regular Needs more horses
ABS available Drum brakes in rear

The ’08 Focus’ interior brings the car into the present, with plenty of faux-chrome and matte-finish dark plastics.

New seats also help the cab feel inviting. Ford says it improved the contours of its seats to provide more lateral and lumbar support, and it shows. The leather seats, which get contrast stitching, are especially nice.

Gauges and controls are laid out in a traditional pattern, which most drivers probably prefer. But there’s something to be said for the staggered pattern of the original Focus’ instrument panel, which added personality to the car. Ford must have figured it was too much for the typical American consumer, as it phased out the funky arrangement a few years after the Focus bowed.

While the interior is an improvement, the same can’t be said for the vehicle’s bland exterior. If you looked up “me-too styling” in the dictionary, you’d find a picture of the ’08 Focus, which somewhat resembles the now-defunct (and with good reason) Saturn Ion. The coupe and sedan models only are distinguishable by the number of doors.

Ford says the new body styling evokes a sense of motion, with its “muscular stance” and “sharp character” lines. But it appears more like a committee of designers tried to jam every styling cue into the car they think customers want. The result is a watered-down design, not as striking as the curvaceous ’00 Focus.

Uncertain is whether the various enhancements are enough to keep the U.S. Focus afloat in the small-car segment until help arrives from Europe.

bpope@wardsauto.com