NICE, France – Does the all-new, fourth-generation Ford Focus have the ammunition to outgun Volkswagen's Golf as the king of the C-segment hatchbacks? We travel to France in a bid to find out...

All-new Focus? As in, new platform, styling and powertrains? That's a little unusual. These days, manufacturers tend to carry over a chassis or an engine range from the previous generation.

Nope, this fourth-generation Focus can genuinely lay claim to the title of "all-new". It still offers the familiar three-cylinder 1,0-litre turbopetrol, but along with the fresh styling there's a brand-new 1,5-litre three-cylinder turbopetrol and a box-fresh chassis, too. Dubbed the "C2" platform, it was "clean sheet of paper" stuff, says Ford’s platform director, Michael Blischke, and its aim was fivefold: to be lighter, stiffer, safer, roomier and more fun to drive. The latter, we were told, was the number one priority.

Lofty goals…

Well, they would need to be. You have to remember that while double-cabs and SUVs dominate sales in South Africa, in Europe the Focus (along with its Fiesta sibling) is the Blue Oval's top seller. This is a critical vehicle for the brand and it has thrown the kitchen sink at it. "It is the best car we have ever made," states a confident Herr Blischke.

That's quite a statement. What's in that sink?

Well, I’ve mentioned the engines and chassis – and we’ll get back there when I tell you about what it’s like to drive – but in the meantime let’s talk tech.

Ford’s premier hatch gets the Ford Co-Pilot360 system … which is basically designed to make for a more comfortable, less demanding and safer driving experience. And to do all of that you can call on adaptive cruise control (with a "stop and go" function), speed sign recognition and lane-centring that monitors road markings and gently nudges the Focus back toward its lane should your mind wander.

There’s also the Active Park Assist 2 system that serves up fully automated parking manoeuvres at the prod of a button, Pre-Collision Assist with pedestrian and cyclist detection (pretty self explanatory), and an adaptive front lighting system linked to a camera that sees around bends, monitors the road and road signs, and adjusts headlamp beams before reaching bends, junctions and traffic circles. Its glare-free high-beam will also block light that could dazzle other drivers and cyclists.

My favourite piece of tech, though, is a little rubber lip that emerges hermit crab-like from the inside of the passenger door and wraps itself around the door edge as you open it. Goodbye unintended parking lot dents. This, like the Ford Co-Pilot360 system, is an option on the Euro-spec Focus, but Ford has yet to confirm exactly what sort of specification our SA-bound cars will offer. What the local arm could tell us, though, was that they will be very well specced.

On that point, what derivatives will we be getting?

In a nutshell…

  • Two body types: hatch and sedan. The very handsome and roomy 'wagon is sadly not destined for our shores.
  • Four spec levels: Ambiente, Trendline, Titanium and the new ST-Line
  • Two turbopetrol engines: the 1,0-litre (92 kW/175 N.m) and 1,5-litre (134 kW/240 N.m) three-pots mentioned above.

While I can’ t tell you exactly what Ambiente, Trendline, and Titanium spec includes yet, I can …

I’m really hoping your next words are going to be "… tell you a little more about this new ST-Line".

Well, yes, they were. Introduced on the new Fiesta in Europe, this new trim level will make its debut in South Africa with the Focus. As you can see from the images here, the ST-Line will boast 17-inch alloys, sportier front and rear bumpers, a flat-bottomed steering wheel and alloy pedals. While there are no engine tweaks, they have taken the spanners out for the suspension and it’s been lowered by 10 mm and stiffened a little. And, talking of the suspension, things can get a little complicated under the wheel arches. You may want to grab a pen and some paper for this...

Funny. Go on...

Whereas the front remains an independent Macpherson strut set-up, the rear suspension comes in two iterations: a torsion beam for the 1,0-litre and Ford’s so-called Short Long Arm (SLA) multi-link for the 1,5-litre. Both set-ups can also be specified with an additional layer of tech in Ford’s optional active suspension tech (called Continuously Controlled Damping) that monitors suspension, body, steering and braking inputs every two milliseconds and adjusts the car’s damping responses. The CCD system also supports Drive Mode technology that, for the first time on a Focus, allows one to toggle between normal, sport and eco modes. Like most systems, the modes affect throttle response, steering feel, traction control characteristics, and the mapping on the eight-speed auto (if that’s your chosen transmission).

Okay, that’s a fair amount to think about. Let’s just park that over here. I quite like the exterior design. It’s contemporary and stylish without being too flashy. It’s a resolved and rakishly handsome design. Looks bigger, too.

Well put. You should consider a career in motoring journalism. I’d agree with your aesthetic assessment and it is indeed a bigger car in every dimension. As I mentioned earlier, improved interior space was one of the key goals and, at 4 378 mm, it’s a relatively sizey 120 mm longer than its arch-rival, the Golf. And that, along with noticeably short front and rear overhangs, equates to excellent interior packaging.

Ford claims a 50 mm increase in rear leg room and I’ve no reason to doubt that assertion. Sitting in the back behind a driver’s seat set to my requirements, I had plenty of legroom – class leading I’d subjectively say. The wider platform means more shoulder room, too, and here Ford claims a 60 mm increase over the previous generation.

In term of load capacity, looking at manufacturer claim vs. manufacturer claim, the Focus’s 375-litre boot is five litres shy of the Golf's, but with the rear seats folded flat, the Ford’s 1 354 litres beats the VW’s 1 270 litres.

And what’s the interior styling and build quality like?

Comfortably as good as the current best in class and here I’d list the Golf, Renault Mégane and Peugeot 308 as the front-runners. In the Titanium and ST-Line press units on this launch, there was plenty of soft-touch plastics on all key contact points, with alloy accents and some neat touches like carpet-lined door bins and padding on the centre console for the driver’s knee. There are some hard plastics, but they are below your line of sight in typically hardwearing areas.

Like all new cars these days, a central screen dominates the facia – there are 6,5- and 8-inch options – and provides the control interface for Ford’s easy-to-use Sync 3 infotainment system and the key driver-assist systems. There may be 50% fewer physical buttons, but happily there are still some tactile switches and dials for the likes of climate control, infotainment mode and volume. I’ve no complaints about the ergonomic layout and perceived build quality is right up there with that of its rivals.

Okay, the big question … let’s hear what it’s like to drive. You did say Ford’s white coats had prioritised 'fun-to-driveness'...

Well, they got that right. They really did. Especially in the case of the 1,5-litre. The flexible little engine has plenty of punch between 3 500 and 5 500 r/min (and will rev to another 1 000 r/min on top of that) and does enough to illustrate just how good this new lighter (by up to 88 kg) and stiffer chassis is.

There are two transmission options and I sampled this engine with both the six-speed manual and eight-speed torque converter. Neither will disappoint and, especially with the optional Driver Mode option that quickens the shifts in the auto, you’re able to hook into the meat of the rev range pretty smartly.

While the torsion-beamed 1,0-litre feels impressively comfortable and supple, the SLA multi-link at the rear of the 1,5 adds a dynamic quality to the mix that’s immediately evident. The steering isn’t razor sharp in in the way the Fiesta ST's is, but it’s as accurate and the rear simply follows where you’re pointing the nose. It was genuinely difficult to elicit much in the way of tyre squeal through the twisting mountain pass of the La Colle-sur-Loup north of Nice.

Dynamically, it's refined and supple with a little body roll through the corners, but never feeling unsettled as you lean on it a little and feed in throttle on exit. You can’t help but drive smoothly in this Focus and I cannot wait to see how this new chassis handles more grunt. And more grunt is certainly on its way. Ford has confirmed that both and ST and RS model are currently under development.

Of course, a car like this is not just about mountain-pass agility; day-to-day transport is its key function and to this end the Focus – even in ST-Line suspension-tweak guise – is impressively comfortable. Four rubber isolation mounts between the sub-frame and body both numb any inherent three-cylinder vibration and filter out road feedback. The suspension’s primary and secondary rides are impressively damped to soften most of the sharp edges a sketchy road surface may offer; and on the highway the steering’s strong self-centring characteristics keep it tracking confidently true. To be honest, I wouldn’t really bother with the optional active suspension – the standard set-up is that accomplished.

Geez. Do I need to cue the violins here?

You can get them to tune up, but I wouldn’t start the Ode To Joy quite yet. Ford has produced an exceptional hatch here and having immersed myself in it for a couple of days I’m tempted to say it’s the best I’ve driven. A Focus vs. Golf comparison in a forthcoming issue of CAR magazine should be a cracker. To the German’s credit, remember that this generation is already six years old (albeit with a facelift), which speaks volumes about how fundamentally well that German is engineered.

Plus, we’ve yet to see pricing and spec for the SA-bound Focus (Ford SA pricing on the Fiesta and Figo hatches is quite robust). I do get a sense that Ford would have liked to offer those two smaller siblings at a more competitive price point here. Given our market, pricing is a key factor in a purchasing decision and to that end Ford has indicated the Focus will be “competitively priced”. Let’s see. As first impressions go though, this Ford could not have made a better one.