New small car with a strange twist
With your cynical hat on, it's easy to dismiss Ford's new Focus Active as a pointless SUV wannabe.
Raise a Focus hatchback a few centimetres, slap on some plastic body protection, make the seats easier to clean mud off, then heave $4000 on the asking price. Bingo.
But why wouldn't you? As car buyers go bonkers for SUVs, anything even masquerading as one is fair game at the showroom.
But scratch the surface and, for some, the Focus Active - a front-driver riding 34mm higher - looks a very smart choice for disparate groups of buyers.
There are those who don't need an SUV's off-road ability and there are shoppers who want a small hatchback but covet the height of an SUV for easy access. Then there are those with dodgy knees buying the funky small SUVs supposedly aimed at twentysomethings.
There's no obvious rival to this 2WD Focus Active.
Subaru's Impreza-based XV is a proper all-wheel drive with lofty 220mm ground clearance. VW's Golf Alltrack wagon is $40K drive-away, a big leap over the Focus Active's $34K on-road bill.
The Active really wants to steal sales from the front-drive Mazda CX-3 and Mitsubishi ASX baby SUVs, neither of which wants to go off-road. The Mazda is comically compromised on space and the ASX is long overdue a comprehensive update.
In the metal, the Focus Active is quite arresting. It gains a few muscles over the recently launched regular Focus, with tougher bumpers and rugged plastic wheel arches.
It's taller than your typical family hatch but not by much. There's certainly less need to bend down to get in - great for creaky lower joints - but don't expect the loftier driving position of most SUVs.
The cabin feels roomy, with decent rear space for two adults and a deep boot containing a space-saver spare.
A rotary dial replaces the conventional gear shifter, leaving ample central storage for phones, keys, glasses and wallet, and its eight-inch touchscreen has excellent functionality and features, including Apple CarPlay/Android Auto.
The seats are supportive but cabin plastics and general ambience - including a headache of buttons on the steering wheel - aren't on par with a Mazda3 or VW Golf, despite the Focus range's similar pricing.
Its autonomous emergency braking picks up pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles. The decent safety suite also includes traffic sign recognition and lane keep assist.
An extra $1250 buys adaptive cruise control, rear cross traffic alert, blind spot warning and lane centring that subtly corrects you away from white lines.
Here's the funny bit. Raise the suspension of a car and handling isn't as sharp. This doesn't matter in the Focus Active. The Focus is for the enthusiastic driver - low, firmly sprung and fitted with low-profile tyres, it's great for fast cornering, less so for day-to-day ride comfort.
The Focus Active finds a happier medium, with that 34mm lift barely compromising cornering ability. It feels composed, the steering remains pleasingly direct and its larger tyres on 17-inch wheels absorb bumps better, making it marginally comfier in town and on the highway.
Its gutsy-enough 1.5-litre three-cylinder turbo and eight-speed auto combine to make the drive experience a joy, the Focus Active proving quietly refined when cruising and lusty when pushed.
You wouldn't ask it to tackle much more than a dirt road but in Trail mode (allowing more wheel spin) it coped admirably through some soft sand. Low ground clearance would put me off trying this too often.
Ford Australia marketing manager Danni Winter reckons the Focus Active is a "lovely middle ground" between a hatch and SUV.
"People into active pursuits such as surfing and hiking will be interested, as will empty nesters who want to get in and out with ease, have higher ride height and visibility, but not to use off-road," she says.
You could make a case for the Focus Active being more relevant as a wagon or with all-wheel drive - but it's compelling as it is. Perhaps it's the Diet Coke of SUVs but it may have just enough extra ride height and rugged styling to make it just-right for some.
Ford Focus Active vitals
Price: From $33,825 drive-away
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/unlimited km, $1196 for 4 years/60,000km
Engine: 1.5-litre 3-cyl turbo, 134kW/240Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, 180-degree rear camera, steering assist, lane keep aid, lane departure warning, post-collision braking, traffic sign recognition
How does the Focus Active differ from a standard Focus hatch? It's $4000 dearer than an entry-level Focus Trend but there's no change to engine or gearbox, which are common to all versions.
The Active has 34mm more ground clearance bringing a higher driving position, unique chunky bumpers with silver skid plates and SUV-like plastic wheel arch guards and sills.
There's exclusive Orange Glow paint and inside the cloth trim feels more hard-wearing and rugged than a typical Focus. There is blue stitching on seats, steering wheel, dash and doors.
Active buyers clearly will be adventurous types so Ford adds Slippery and Trail to its driving modes, joining Normal, Eco and Sport. These new settings alter throttle, ABS, traction and stability control to handle sand, mud or snow.
There are specific springs and dampers, stabiliser bars and deeper sidewall tyres better suited to unsealed roads. Despite the looks, there is no all-wheel drive option. The Active scores independent rear suspension - as in the Focus Wagon ST-Line; the regular versions get a simpler torsion beam - bringing impressive handling and control.