Vehicle has a few rough edges, but still arguably leads its class

Last week we had the privilege of taking the 2012 Ford Focus "5-door" hatchback (four passenger doors and a back hatch/door) for a spin.  We came away generally impressed by the vehicle itself, but pretty disappointed in the second generation SYNC system (but not necessarily for the same reasons others have stated).

Read on to find out what it's like to drive Ford Motor Company's (F) newest compact.

I. Looks, Feel, and Price

The 2012 Focus has a starting MSRP of $16,720 for a 4-door sedan or $18,065 for a 5-door hatchback sedan.  There are seven different price grades -- four four-door sedan trim levels, and three hatchback trim levels.

We received the 5-door Titanium trim model to test -- which happens to be the priciest base model at $22,765 MSRP.

How you feel about the vehicle's looks depends largely on how you feel about European design versus a more traditional American sedan styling.  Like the Ford Fiesta, the European styling is readily apparent with sweeping, aggressive curves.

We liked the look of the exterior, especially the front grill region and subtle side curves to the door panel.  It also looks pretty good from the back.

Inside, the doors, sports-style seats, and front console all looked and felt great.  The molding on the front console was superb.  The one weak point, we felt was the center stack, whose molding looked and felt somewhat like cheap plastic.

Our favorite part of the interior design was the steering wheel itself.  The turn signal and wiper blades stalks curve upwards and then down on subtle slope in the shape somewhat akin to a bird in flight. Combined with the design of the wheel itself the results are not only attractive, but offer easy hand access to the controls.

The driver and passenger's front seats were both spacious with an acceptable, but not overabundant amount of cargo room in the door compartments, center compartment, and glove box.  Additional front panel storage in the center section would be a nice touch, but for this class the storage seemed sufficient.

The rear was also relatively spacious for a compact, but the center console (which as we said, we weren't much of a fan of in the first place) rears its ugly head again, intruding in the rear passengers' legroom.  The effect seems subtle at first, but on long rides -- especially with adult passengers -- it's definitely noticeable.

Overall: A-

II. How Does it Drive?

I took the Ford Focus on several excursions including a highway trip where I tested speeds, a groceries trip, and a road trip out into the countryside.  In all cases the car performed admirably.

On the highway I briefly tested the Select Shift.  Basically Select Shift is an automated manual technology (which many carmakers have) that electronically shifts gears without user interaction from a clutch pedal.  The electronic clutching system is designed to give users a bit more of a "sporty" feel than they would in a traditional automatic, by giving them control of the electronic gear shifting.

Testing the system, it indeed seemed to give me more torque when revving the engine after shifting down to "fourth".  Throwing fuel efficiency to the wind I found that the car was more than capable of strongly accelerating if you play with it a bit via the select shifter.  

The SelectShift is definitely a welcome feature.  Aside from offering improved acceleration it also could come in handy when climbing steep slopes (shift down to a lower gear).  The only disappointment here is that Ford chose to implement it with flimsy seeming plastic buttons on the center stick, rather than paddles like some of its other models.

When ignoring the semi-manual capabilities, acceleration is a bit on the weak side, but the general power of 2.0 liter I-4 engine is sufficient given the lighter vehicle weight.

Handling is one of the car's real strengths.  It felt great rounding corners.  Ford uses a technology called "torque vectoring control" that changes the wheel speeds individually to optimally handle cornering.  Again, this technology isn't exactly brand new, but Ford does a solid job implementing it here in a mass-market vehicle.

The car also showed its colors in offering great dampening to noise, vibration, and harshness (NVH).  As opposed to the Fiesta, which I tested last year, the NVH has been scaled down even more.  The result is that the car feels a little less sporty as you feel less of the road.  But it's hard to complain about a silky smooth ride.  Ford deserves a lot of credit for making a silent cabin and a strong suspension that can offer a relatively smooth trek down even the most pothole-laden city streets and dirt country roads.

Gas mileage is generally quite good.  It hits its sweet spot at around 50-60 mph.  Trying to stick largely to that speed band, we managed to average 31.2 mpg over the week.  This is nicely in line with the EPA rating of ratings of 27 mpg city/37 mpg highway, so no major surprises positive or negative here.

The strong mileage is owed in part to several high-tech features.  The car closes its grille on the highway to improve its aerodynamics.  And the engine itself is equipped with direct injection technology.  Together, these and several other technologies mean that you'll get surprisingly far on a tank, considering your driving a vehicle with a pure gas engine.

In all the Ford Focus is a very comfortable drive.  It toes the line of being a bit sporty.  The new technologies it brings to the table (torque vectoring, SelectShift, etc.) offer the chance to have a bit more fun with the vehicle when you're in an experimental mood.  And when it comes to fuel economy -- an important concern in today's market of $4 gas, the Focus is a strong performer, hitting north of 30 mpg for the average driver.

Overall: A

III. Controls and Sync Gen 2.0

i. Voice Control?  What Voice Control?

(See the update at the end of this piece for an important clarification.)

I'll try to be brief on what I feel is the Ford Focus's greatest weakness/frustration, MyFord Touch (also known as Ford Sync Gen 2.0).  

I think that a lot of what has been reported about the system by other news agencies (Consumer Reports) is somewhat misleading.  Many have argued that the system is overly complex.  From a touch perspective I respectfully disagree -- the system is relatively intuitive, and everything is a couple clicks away at most.

So what's wrong with Sync Gen 2.0, then?  At the heart of the problem is a noticeably deteriorated voice recognition system.  "Deteriorated?" you ask.  Indeed, the voice recognition is noticeably worse than in the first generation.

The system failed to recognize approximately 40-50 percent of the voice commands that I gave it, in cases when I was giving it exactly the correct command.  I would estimate the failure rate for Sync Gen 1.0 to be closer to 10-20 percent, hence how noticeable this was.

It had an especially hard time dealing with short words.  For example requesting 88.3 (a radio station) took about five or six tries.  Requesting that my synced Bluetooth handset "call mom" simply did not work -- I tried about ten times.  I was only able to get it to call the number by manually punching it in the touch screen, at which point the voice command system announced "calling mom".  I called other people using the "call ___" command so it was clearly the voice recognition system that was flawed.

Along with the voice recognition came frustrating slowdown issues.  A busy signal became an all too familiar site when it was struggling to translate my voice commands.  Sometimes the system seemed to just crash, giving some sort of error about a command failing and no voice cue (the standard cue is to ask "Did you say, "____"?").

To me this slowdown was somewhat baffling.  After all, the Sync Gen 2.0 is equipped with a 600 MHz ARM processor that's 50 percent faster than the Gen 1.0's processor.  And the system has a 2D/3D graphics accelerator to handle the onscreen images, and is equipped with 512 MB of RAM.  In other words, the hardware seems sound.

ii. Our Ford Source Spills the Beans on What Went Wrong

Trying to get to the bottom of from whence the slowdown and voice control issues came, I spoke with one of my sources on the Sync team.  They said that the issues with the system were well known in the group and to bear in mind that the system I received was several updates since the original release so was actually significantly improved.

They told me that at the root of the problem was that Ford decided to largely scrap their own codebase and hire BSQUARE Corp (BSQR) to recode the next generation of Sync.  The move seemingly made sense.  Ford already had a close partnership with Microsoft Corp. and BSQUARE was a company founded by ex-Microsoft employees with close ties to their former employer.

But the results Ford received were poor.  Our source described BSQUARE's coding process as "Guy A sitting in room 1 writing code and guy B sitting in room 2 also writing code, with neither knowing what the other is doing."

Our source said that at the end of the day the resulting app was bloated and inefficient.  

"Who would you say is to blame?" I asked.  They replied, "I'd say 70 percent BSQUARE, but 30 percent Ford for choosing BSQUARE."

So that's the dirty little secret behind MyFord Touch and its issues.

Oh, and according to my source the recent rebooting problems (which I fortunately did not experience) were not nearly as "rare" as Ford's spokesperson described them as.  They said that the recent update did significantly decrease the rate of reboots, but that it still was occurring. 

They also complained that because the updates could only be installed at the dealership, many people were still driving on the road with older versions (and would hence get more reboots).  They argued that it would have been wise to incorporate a 3G modem for over the air updates -- something Ford discussed, but decided was too expensive at present.

They did point out that the reboot issue wasn't entirely new -- Ford Sync Gen 1.0 in earlier versions also sometimes rebooted.  But rather than going black, the screen would simply throw up a message about that it was "re-indexing" files/assets.

iii. Final Thoughts on Sync Including a Bit of Good

So that's not my only gripes about Sync.  Aside from the underlying slowdown/voice recognition issues, I was also frustrated by certain commands that were seemingly missing.  For example you had to hard press the phone button (on the steering wheel) to hang up calls -- there was no voice command to do that (though there were commands to make a call, pause a call, join a call, etc.).  Also there was no way I could find to individually separately tweak the passenger and driver cabin temperatures using voice commands.

Other commands struck me as irritating such as "make it hotter" to increase the temperature.  Why the system could not just be designed to respond to "increase temperature" or "temperature up" for the life of me I don't know.

A final (negative) point to make is that while you could certainly use the steering button controls or touch screen to access most of the missing/problematic voice commands, doing so while driving is very unsafe.  In my experience the distraction of doing so eclipses that of making a call on a handset.  It's approximately as distracting as surfing the internet on a smartphone or texting while driving.

Ford's voice recognition system was designed to cut down on taking the driver’s hands and eyes off the road. However, the voice recognition is so bad that it fails at this mission.

There were a few aspects of Sync Gen 2.0 I liked.  When stopped, I found the new touch interface to be attractive, intuitive, and simple.  Also commands to play music actually seemed to be the one area where voice recognition had remained constant in quality or perhaps improved slightly.  And while the climate controlled had some frustrations (missing/frustratingly worded commands and voice recognition issues), I liked the overall ability to control the cabin climate by voice.

I also liked that the Ford Focus included the "European" style physical audio and climate control panel as a backup to the touch screen.  Once I familiarized myself with it, I regularly circumvented Sync and safely adjusted the radio and cabin climate (e.g. temperature and fan speed) by turning the traditional panel's knobs and pressing its buttons.  Compared to the frustrations/dangers of using the touch screen or voice driven climate control while driving, I came to develop a health appreciation of classic tactile controls.

Ford should definitely include a backup audio and climate controls set like it did with Focus for any model that comes with Sync Gen 2.0.  This was a terrific decision and mitigates the damage from the sloppy Sync Gen 2.0.

To summarize, when Sync Gen 2.0 worked, I really liked it.  But when it failed it drove me crazy.  Based on the perspective I gained from my discussion with one of my Sync Team sources it seems Ford has some internal issues that are derailing the quality of the project.  It seems like Ford sold the horse (voice control) to save the farm (add a pretty touch interface) and at the end of the day the results aren't pretty.  

That said, from what I've heard there's been significant progress from the updates to the system.  So there's still hope that Ford can "fix" the broken core code that BSQUARE delivered to the Sync team for integration.

Until then, I would expect the pickup rate to remain low.  According to a dealership source, the current pickup rate was internally stated to be around 20 percent.  That's much lower than Sync Gen 1.0.  You can get Sync Gen 1.0 in the Focus, according to my source.

Refer to my comments on Sync Gen 1.0 to make your impressions on that.  But to offer you a brief summary, I love Gen 1.0 and thought it offers a truly unprecedented experience.

Overall: C-

IV. Conclusions

For all my complaints about Sync Gen 2.0, it still is well ahead of the competition in what it can do in a single package.  It may be frustrating, but you can adjust to it with time (I had started to by the end of the week) or you can simply opt to go with Ford Sync Gen 1.0.

This single issue is not enough to seriously bring down what is a great car in my professional opinion.

For its class, the vehicle drives great, gets terrific gas mileage, and has a smooth ride.  It also looks great, both inside and out.

It has plenty of nice features like physical climate controls and SelectShift that allow you to do pretty much anything you might want/need to do while driving.

Overall, I would heartily recommend the 2012 Ford Focus.  As a sum of its parts, it's a very likable car and would make the ideal grocery getter-cum-commuting vehicle.

Overall: A-

Updated: Monday May 2, 2011 1:10 p.m.

We just finished talking with Ford's spokesperson about our MyFord Touch difficulties.  He tells us that the vehicle had a pre-production software, which may be the source of some of the voice issues. 

As all the branches of the MyFord Touch code tree are at a bit different stages of updates, it's hard to equate exactly how far "outdated" the in-vehicle code was, but it sounds like it's received substantial tweaks since, which may have improved performance.

An upcoming update will unify all these development trees into a single homogeneous source, but until then it's easiest just to say the tested build was pre-production.

"If you can find a PS3 anywhere in North America that's been on shelves for more than five minutes, I'll give you 1,200 bucks for it." -- SCEA President Jack Tretton

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