LOS ANGELES – How many small, affordable cars can parallel park themselves? Just one, the ’12 Ford Focus.

This alone should have fresh customers kicking tires in Ford Motor Co. showrooms. But the new compact also is available with a ton of other new features you would not expect to see in the Ward’s Upper Small segment, which includes the Honda Civic, Chevy Cruze and Hyundai Elantra.

Besides Active Park Assist, which identifies a suitably sized space, then steers the car into it while you manage throttle and brakes, the long list of available features include a rear-view camera; Wi-Fi access (when parked); and HD Radio with iTunes tagging.

Also standard is a torque-vectoring system for the front wheels that achieves the effect of a limited-slip differential. All-wheel drive is not available on the new Focus.

When accelerating through a tight corner, the system ¬ working in tandem with electronic stability control ¬ applies an imperceptible degree of braking to the inside front wheel, so more engine torque goes to the outside wheel, providing additional traction and better grip.

Sync voice control with traffic information and directions similar to General Motors Co.’s OnStar “Turn-by-Turn” also is available.

The exterior design of the Focus is striking and sportier looking than its compact rivals, even Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.’s expressively styled new Elantra.

Both 5-door hatchback and 4-door sedan versions are crisply sculpted with powerful faces, a dramatic rising beltline and a broad-shouldered athletic stance. These are all part of Ford’s “kinetic design” vocabulary, and they add up to a strong and distinctive styling statement.

The sedan’s drag coefficient is a slick 0.295, which reduces wind noise and boosts highway fuel efficiency. Active grille shutters further reduce aerodynamic drag by blocking airflow through the cooling system when it’s not needed.

Boldly sculpted shapes in the cockpit-style cabin complement the expressive exterior, and the fit, finish, materials and overall craftsmanship in the test cars we drove are excellent.

In MyFordTouch-equipped models, what isn’t controlled by a v-shaped button array on the center console is managed through LCD color screens and a pair of 5-way (up/down/left/right/select) buttons on the 4-spoke steering wheel’s horizontal spokes.

One LCD screen sits between the large speedometer and tachometer. The other is a touch screen situated high on the console.

Some critics have called MyFordTouch too distracting. Having spent a good amount of time in other Ford vehicles equipped with the user interface, we have mixed feelings about its operation.

It can be convenient and fairly intuitive, yet it is slow, has some quirks and requires a learning curve.

’12 Ford Focus
Vehicle type Front-engine, front-wheel drive, 4-door sedan
Engine 2.0L DOHC direct-injection 4-cyl. with aluminum block, head.
Power (SAE net) 160 hp @ 6,500 rpm
Torque 146 lb. ft. (198 Nm) @ 4,450 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual
Wheelbase 104.3 ins. (265 cm)
Overall length 178.5 (453 cm)
Overall width 71.8 (182 cm)
Overall height 57.8 (147 cm)
Curb weight (preliminary) 2,918 lbs. (1324 kg)
Base price $16,270
Fuel economy (awaiting final EPA verification)
Competition Chevy Cruze, Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra
Pros Cons
Exterior and interior design Base 5-speed manual
Performance and fuel-economy MyFordTouch not for everyone
Ride/handling balance A little pricey

Luckily, MyFord & Sync (without the “Touch”) also is available in the Focus at a lower price. On the down side, Ford’s Sync voice command – although better than most voice-activated systems – still requires exact words said in specific order.

Despite these quibbles, the Focus shines on the road, any road. Its new 2.0L all-aluminum DOHC 16-valve I-4 uses gasoline direct-fuel injection and twin independent variable-cam timing (Ti-VCT) to spin out an eager 160 hp and 146 lb.-ft. (198 Nm) of torque.

That’s significantly better than the 140 hp and 136 lb.-ft. (185 Nm) offered in the outgoing Focus.

It also compares favorably with the 138 hp and 148 lb ft. (201 Nm) in the ’11 Cruze; 148 hp and 131-lb.-ft. (178 Nm) in the new Elantra and 140 hp and 128 lb.-ft. (174 Nm) in the Honda Civic.

Yet, Ford predicts the new engine will deliver “up to” 40 mpg (5.9 L/100 km) on the highway coupled with either the base 5-speed manual or Ford’s new 6-speed dual dry-clutch PowerShift automatic.

A more powerful EcoBoost GDI turbocharged I-4 and a 6-speed manual will follow in a performance ST model next year.

The previous U.S. Focus was known for spirited character and agile handling, and this new U.S. version of Ford’s global design enhances that reputation.

Thanks to strong midrange torque, the GDI 4-cyl. pulls strongly from any speed with either transmission. The PowerShift dual-clutch gearbox offers manual shift control in up-level models, which is great for rpm management in and out of curves and passing slower traffic on twisty two-lanes.

Our test SEL model’s cabin is surprisingly roomy and pleasingly quiet. Only at high rpm during wide-open throttle does the engine get a little raucous.

We also sample an SE with its slightly ratio-challenged 5-speed manual, and don’t miss a sixth gear all that much.

Both the SEL and SE versions make good use of the new car’s 30% stiffer body structure, electronic power-assisted steering and 16-in. tires and wheels to hang tight to the asphalt through all kinds of curves at slow and fast speeds. (Base model is equipped with 15-in. wheels)

Ultimately, there is much to like and little to belittle about this new Focus. It offers style, comfort, features and an excellent balance of performance, efficiency, ride and handling.

Our only reservation is the Focus is a little pricey for what still is considered an entry-level segment. The base S sedan starts at $16,270, but add a grand for the SE trim level and another $3,000 for the SEL version.

The top-line Titanium model stickers for $22,270. And for 5-door hatchback style and convenience, Ford tacks on another $795.

Clearly, Ford (like cross-town rival Chevy and others) is counting on American buyers to recognize greater small-car value and be willing to pay for it. That’s probably a smart bet. But so much in this fickle segment, as always, depends on the price of gas.