Test Drive: 2008 Ford Focus SES coupe with five-speed manual transmission

Ottawa, Ontario - It's not hard to feel vulnerable driving a small car these days, what with so many SUVs, crossovers and pickup trucks on the road. Naturally, when you're driving a compact car like my Ford Focus Coupe tester, you get nervous when you're stopped in rush hour traffic and hear the sound of screeching tires behind you.

Luckily for me, there was a Dodge Ram pickup between my car and a skidding Toyota Tercel which careened into the back of the truck at something like 60 km/h. The Tercel, not surprisingly, was a write off, and the truck sustained a fair amount of damage from the impact too (while the two occupants of the Tercel were taken to hospital, the most serious injury was a broken leg).

How does all of this involve me and the Focus? The impact was serious enough to shunt the truck forward into the Focus' rear bumper. One of the most impressive things about the car was how it held up to this not-insignificant rear-end impact. Where the Ram's front bumper was noticeably dented, the Focus suffered little more than a misplaced rear bumper cover, plus a scratch below the license plate. Once I'd shoved the bumper cover back into place, you'd hardly have known the car had been hit as violently as it had.

2008 Ford Focus SES coupe

The first example of this latest Focus I drove was a four-door sedan way back in February. That car was a fully-loaded SES model with an automatic transmission. The red coupe you see here wore the same top-level trim, but was fitted with the five-speed manual transmission.

The SES coupe's base price is the same as the sedan's, at $19,999. Options on my latest tester included a $1,495 Sport Appearance Package (chrome exterior trim, colour-matched side mirrors and door handles, ambient interior lighting, 16-inch wheels and a "high-performance" instrument panel - the price for this group seems steep for a bunch of things I wouldn't have missed), a power sunroof for $1,000, block heater ($75) and a Sony stereo with six-CD changer and subwoofer, which seems like a decent value for $695. All SES-trim Focuses come with the Ford/Microsoft SYNC hands-free entertainment and communications system.

The Focus is a great example of how small cars no longer have to feel that way. The tall roofline creates lots of headroom, and the high seating position allows for great visibility. The downside of these characteristics is that the Focus tends to feel tippy in corners. Despite that, and the soft suspension, which allows a fair amount of body roll, the Focus handles well and is fun to toss into a corner.

The steering is light but reasonably communicative and the brakes are confidence-inspiring in hard stops, with a firm pedal that's easy to modulate.

The manual shifter is about what you'd expect in a budget-mobile. Shift effort is light, while shift feel is so-so, but the tall shifter falls easily to hand and goes where you tell it to. The clutch is vague, but again, this is nothing you won't be used to if you've used the manual transmission in many of the Focus' competitors.

Fuel consumption during the time I was driving the car was impressive. Through gentle driving, the average consumption readout hovered between 7.0 and 8.0 L/100 km (Ford, for some reason, doesn't like decimals, so "7" or "8" is as accurate a read as you'll get from the car). In any event, that's alright, as the Focus' EnerGuide ratings are 8.5 L/100 km (city) and 5.7 L/100 km (highway). Despite my success in keeping the Focus' thirst down, this exact car only achieved an average of 6.7 L/100 km in the 2008 CanadianDriver 50-litre Challenge. I expected the Focus to fare much better than that on the event's highway route.

As previously alluded to, interior space and comfort are definite Focus strong points. Those looking for maximum front-seat headroom might want to avoid ordering the sunroof, but there's decent space even with it. Leg room is excellent, and the front seats are very comfortable, even if they offer little lateral support.

The Focus coupe rides on the same 2,613 mm (102.9 in.) wheelbase as the sedan, so legroom isn't affected by the loss of two doors (though there's only just enough in either model). Ford claims that sedan and coupe models offer the same 973 mm (38.3 in.) of rear-seat headroom, but it feels like slightly less in the coupe. And, I'll ask this question once again: why does Ford feel that back seat occupants don't rate headrests? Had someone been riding back there when my tester was rear-ended, they'd almost certainly have suffered whiplash.

Strange to say, perhaps, but I think the Focus actually benefits from the durable cloth my tester's seats wore, rather than the leather that last winter's sedan had. It offsets the lack of lateral support and looks okay, too.

The dashboard is laid out sensibly enough, but there are more buttons on the centre stack than seems necessary. At least the various panels and pieces all fit together well, though some of the plastics are a bit hard, and the silver-painted plastic that dominates looks a touch cheap in the right (or is that wrong?) light.

The trunk is a useful size, though that usefulness was compromised in my tester by the subwoofer, which takes up a big chunk of real estate on the left side. The opening revealed by the folding rear seat is generous, though.

I don't know exactly who Ford's going after with the Focus coupe, though I suspect it's the same demographic who might shop for a two-door version of the Pontiac G5/Chevrolet Cobalt twins. The only other two-door sedan that comes to mind is the Honda Civic, and that car is the only compact that does the coupe thing right, with its boy-racer looks. Losing two doors to create a car that is otherwise nearly identical to its four-door sibling seems a bit silly to me, especially considering the coupe replaces the hatchback body style in the Focus lineup.

Despite its less-athletic nature, my favourite aspect of this second-gen car is the quiet and composed way it drives. At least they didn't take that away.

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