2012 Ford Focus SFE Road Test

The 2012 Ford Focus SFE promises to save fuel and money, but doesn't do well at either.

What It Is/Who It's For
A budget-minded fuel-sipper for budget minders.
Best Thing
Well-tuned suspension and lively steering.
Worst Thing
Infuriating SYNC, indelible cheapness
Snap Judgment
Cheap without the cheer -- or even the cheapness, for that matter.

It's been a little under half a year since Ford dropped the Titanium version of its popular Focus off at our doorstep. Here's what we said about the Focus the first time around: "A worthy, but compromised step from the top of the compact heap." Ford said, "hey, take that back." So they sent us another one. Only this one, unlike the sticker-shocking $24,000 Titanium we played with last time, is the SFE, a fuel-economy special that's barely removed from the nearly-base SE model, but at a still-shocking price.

The SFE is Ford's rebuttal to the new wave of fuel-sipping versions of already fuel-efficient cars, such as the Chevrolet Cruze Eco. In a world where even our compact cars can be equipped with heated leather seats, navigation systems and "mood lighting," some of these fuel-economy editions answer the efficiency challenge in the most brutally simple way possible: By ditching everything and keeping the price down. In a way, they're keeping that cheapness tradition alive.

That wasn't exactly the case with the Focus SFE though. It came with power windows and door locks, Ford's Sync voice-activated technology, MyFord entertainment system, and numerous other features. But there were some key absences, ones that at first sound like whining, but in reality help a car's fuel economy.

But it wasn't a lack of this or that feature that ultimately lost the Focus SFE fans. It was how the whole car came together, from how the driver sits behind the wheel, to the lack of interior storage, to the mail-slot trunk opening. If you love the looks of the Focus -- and we admit it looks good -- then it's hard to resist its allure. But if you're looking for a practical, livable car that's also a fuel sipper, the Focus here is soft.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

What We Drove

The Focus SFE takes its bones from the SE model, which is one model up from the base S model. It starts at $17,400, and that's before we pile on the $495 Super Fuel Economy package, which adds aero-efficient solid hubcaps and a rear spoiler, low-resistance tires and -- of course -- the de rigueur green-proselyting SFE badges. An $875 Sync package -- with the MyFord system and voice activation -- was also included. Getting the automatic transmission over the manual is $1,095. Add it all up, and our Sterling Grey Metallic Focus came to $20,660, which isn't an insignificant amount of money for something that bills itself as a "compact."

The Focus comes fairly well equipped at the SE level: power windows and locks, dual-stage front airbags with side curtain airbags in both rows, tire-pressure monitoring, a sound system that includes aux and USB inputs, and fog lights. Still, we were surprised that the SFE didn't include a couple of fuel-saving devices. First, there's no automatic climate control, which would go towards minimizing air conditioning use. But more importantly, cruise control is part of a separate $495 Convenience Package that wasn't on our car; as any hypermiler will tell you, cruise is essential to getting good highway fuel economy.

The Commute

The Focus seemingly conspires against the act of driving. It's near-impossible to find a good, comfortable position: the seats don't offer enough adjustment; the steering wheel doesn't come far forward enough; and the pedals are mounted embarrassingly to the right, with the brake pedal a good inch and a half forward of the gas, as if hiding the latter from being found. Is that Ford's definition of fuel sipping -- if you can't find the gas pedal, you won't use it?

The cloth seats are firm and firmly bolstered, but have a texture that feels like sandpaper inset with slightly grittier sandpaper. Adjusting the seatback involves pushing down on a U-shaped handle in the corner, an exercise in forearm strength. The steering wheel isn't directly in front of the driver, and steeply raked windshield throws off glare from the intricately sculpted dashboard, meaning that you're constantly driving into what looks like the Nazca lines.

And all of this before you even turn on the radio.

Ford's Sync rears its head from a fist-sized screen that seems perfect for punching. It's crisp and easy to read, but absolutely confounding to use, exacerbated by the button-heavy center console that's designed like the pattern on a 1990s Nike sneaker. Buttons are unresponsive; menus are convoluted. Trying to play music via Bluetooth involves hitting the ambiguously-marked button that correlates to "END," then pressing back to get to the Sync Media screen, then down to get to "Playback mode," then OK to confirm, then forward, OK, up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, select, start, and by then you've unlocked all the power-ups in Gradius III but still haven't figured out how to play a podcast. Sync, by the way, couldn't understand my slow, deliberate enunciations of "PLAY-BLOO-TOOF," rendering my increasingly agitated vocalizations as a cause for concern from passing motorists that would possibly result in a police stand-off.

The Grocery Run

Most of the gripes with the Focus SFE carry over from the regular Focus. The trunk, for example, is utterly massive but still has a small opening. The center vents are shaped like knife blades and operated by meaty dials that resemble tractor tires, yet somehow still can't direct air accurately. And the dashboard is still bolted together from acres of hard petrochemicals, with visible, sharp seams on the doors.

Don't expect to stash anything in the Focus. It's way too stingy about its nooks and crannies. There's a vestigial cubby that stems from next to the shifter, appendix-like, that looks like it could fit a phone but is too narrow and angled for anything other than spare change. (On the Titanium, this space is taken up by an emergency brake handle the shape and girth of a railroad spike.) For some reason, the center armrest opens up to a phone-swallowing space that's deep but narrow, shaped like a DVD box set. What little utility is mostly taken up by inputs for the audio system.

Fortunately, the rest of the Focus is like the TARDIS in Doctor Who: it's surprisingly larger on the inside than it looks. Even though we've been on record lambasting the Focus's narrow backseat, we fit five fully-grown human beings in it without triggering a human rights investigation. At that crowded juncture legroom took a dive, but nobody had any complaints about the headliner closing in on their hair.

A Few Photos of this Vehicle

Click thumbnails for detailed view

The Weekend Fun

The Ford Focus has 160 horsepower on tap, though the car's 3,000 pounds makes that tap feel more like a rusty spigot. Every beleaguered horse is called to perform at Triple Crown levels, and the gas pedal is reluctant to be pushed down for city driving, perhaps a sly reminder of its eco-minded attributes. Yet power is adequate when accelerating at higher speeds -- when merging onto an on-ramp, for example -- and the Focus SFE even managed to feel more powerful than the Titanium we tested, as if this one's been put on a diet.

A longtime Focus gem, the SFE's suspension was compliant and comfortable with a surprising lack of body roll. It's probably the best in the class. It's a quiet car, too. Its low-resistance, eco-friendly tires didn't even squeal during the sudden lane changes required to navigate the realm of Los Angeles drivers.

The problem is, between its ungainly seating position, awkward pedals, and overall tallness, the Focus felt slightly odd to drive, with seats that sit higher than the Civic or the Cruze. It's certainly less solid feeling than those two.

In a mixture of around-town and freeway roads, we were split on Ford's dual-clutch automatic transmission. Some of us thought it was quiet, and shifted without jerkiness. Other editors thought that it hesitated and felt clunky, which is a common gripe. A select-your-own-gear system to downshift for extra passing power would have been helpful, but not included in the SFE; it's replaced instead by a hill descent control button that one can't help but inadvertently press.

Which brings us to this car's raison d'etre: fuel economy. In a mix of city and freeway driving we netted a mileage figure of -- are you ready for this -- 28 miles per gallon. By comparison, the Chevrolet Cruze Eco got nearly 34 mpg, and it's not like we drove the Chevy downhill the whole time. It's not anywhere near the 33 mpg combined fuel economy the SFE package promises. Super Fuel Economy? More like Middling Fuel Economy.

At least the Focus still looks good. Still, those awful daisy-sculpted hubcaps serve as ill-fated nostalgia to the worst of the econoboxes your slacker friends owned in high school, almost as if it should be sold with a Domino's placard on the roof.


The Focus may drive well and look good, but in this segment it's outclassed by almost everything around it. The Civic is roomier. The Accent is a better value. The Mazda3 drives even better. The Cruze Eco gets better fuel efficiency and still ticks the patriotic check box. And so on, and so forth.

In the end, do you really want a car with mismatched seat covers and daisy hubcaps that look pre-shattered? With little charm and more compromise, Ford -- you could say -- loses its focus with the Focus SFE.

Spec Box

Price-as-tested: $20,660
Fuel Economy
EPA City: 28 mpg
EPA Highway: 40 mpg
EPA Combined: 33 mpg
Estimated Combined Range: 409.2
Cost of Ownership: Average

Notebook Quotes

"Evaluating it on the merits of a $17,000 car, I probably wouldn't complain too loudly. But, to me, this thing didn't live up to its promise of a legitimate 40-mpg car. And at more than $20k, it's a lot of money to look cheap." -Jacob Brown, Associate Editor
"So, what was the point of this car again? This is the special-fuel-economy edition of the Focus. It's supposed to get really good fuel economy. But, it doesn't, at least, it hasn't so far in the fuel economy computer that I was looking at. Not feeling it for this car. I'd rather have the Cruze Eco." -Keith Buglewicz, News Director

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