Ford's return to Philippine shores in the 1990s included a return to all markets, including a very competitive compact passenger car (PC) segment. But the first and second generation Ford Lynx compact PCs rarely gained significant market share to put a dent in Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic sales. To make it worse, Mazda brought in its Atenza/Mazda 3, with sales proving to be brisk and catchy. Sensing that the Lynx was no longer competitive, Ford Group Philippines put the cat out to stud last year and bring in its Mk II Focus. Basking in its relative WRC (World Rally Championship) success, Ford was hoping that the C307 (chassis code for the Mk II Focus) will establish a firm tire track or four in the passenger car segment.

The results have been mixed, to say the least. Year-to-date, January-July 2006 CAMPI (Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines, Inc.) sales statistics show that the Focus has a 7.97 per cent market share and a 4.5 percent market share in the compact car segment last month. Pretty good but nowhere near the double digit, one-third or nearly one half market share of Honda and Toyota, respectively, in the same time span and market segment.

Just exactly what makes the public like or dislike the Focus will be shown here in this test drive.

Everything went black

The test unit this writer picked up at Ford Alabang one Friday morning reminded him of Black Flag's "Everything Went Black" album. The exterior color was in black (panther black, to be exact), and the interior too. Well, maybe grayish black, save for the aluminum/silver trim around the radio, aircon and automatic transmission (a/t) controls. Still, it's enough to give observers the impression of stealth, or maybe a compact car alternative to the Batmobile.

Plop into the driver's seat and one will notice that everything is within quick and easy reach of the occupants. Ford bills this as "cockpit feel," the sense that the car is occupant-centered and that everything they want is where they would want to find it. The driver's seat features backrest and forward/backward power adjustment (uncommon in a mass market production car and a big plus), while the leather-wrapped steering wheel has tilt/telescopic adjustment. Interior lights are in abundance within the cabin, with on/off buttons for the vanity mirrors. The dashboard gauges are easy to read, but the menu screen is too small, forcing the driver to squint during readouts of mileage/gear indication/status indication.

Storage is either a like-or-dislike matter. The center console is too small, useful for small items such as one's wallet, iPods or loose change. The door side storage areas are also small, and can only fit small or medium sized items. However, the cupholders (two in front of the center console and two in a hidden armrest within the rear backrest) are big enough to hold one-liter bottles. The trunk area can handle six to seven medium-sized pieces of travel luggage with the tonneau area installed. Also, the rear seats fold flat (but not flush to the trunk floor, unlike the Honda Jazz's rear seats) to handle odd-shaped cargo.

The 2-DIN head unit provides decent sound and ergonomics, but needs help in the bass department. The aircon delivers constant cold blasts of air (even in searing 34-degree heat and humidity), but the "off" button should be closer to the driver's side instead of the shotgun (front passenger) side. The windshield wiper controls can be confusing to use for first-timers, but that can be done away with familiarization.

Arguably the exterior is more hit-or-miss than a surefire attraction. Ford scored a major sales coup with the Mk I Focus due to its radical styling (especially the front end and the eye-level rear lighting clusters), a product of the "New Edge" design philosophy first seen in the Euro-only Ford Ka and Ford Cougar vehicles. In contrast, the Mk II Focus refurbishes the design cues of its predecessor, with a more uniform look and a fluid entry into the midsection. However, in a finicky market where front end looks count a lot, the Focus falls a bit short. To this writer the C307's front is a refined imitation of its predecessor.

One analogy may be the comparison between the front end of the 2001-2005 Civic (better known by the chassis code "EP") and the wildly popular 1996-2000 Civic. When the EK was introduced, the car became an instant cult classic, one of the reasons being its radical front end styling, a fresh departure from the EG (1992-1995). In contrast, the EP Civic merely capitalized on the EK Civic's front looks, which to some looked good but not "new" enough. This was (and still is) the dilemma of the Focus, and in a style-is nearly-everything market, the Focus clearly lags behind.

No hocus pocus here

If the Focus' front end seems ho-hum, then its performance will definitely wow you. The 2.0L DOHC (double overhead camshaft), 16-valve Duratec engine (mated to a four-speed a/t with sequential shifting) puts out 143hp and 185 NMs of torque. Its Twin independent Variable Camshaft Timing (Ti-VCT) is similar to Honda's VTEC (Variable valve Timing and lift Electronic Control) or Toyota's VVT-I (Variable Valve Timing with intelligence) in that electronics play a huge part in determining camshaft timing and valve lift, thus improving airflow within the engine and delivers more torque at low rpm. Overtaking maneuvers and standstill acceleration, for starters, are perhaps the best times to observe the Ti-VCT activate itself (4000 rpm onwards) and help you QUICKLY pass by unsuspecting motorists. Unfortunately the lack of a fifth gear hampers highway driving and the engine tends to over-rev should one downshift to first gear on the freeway. Also, the four-speed tends to display a little shift shock when going to a higher gear and there's a delay in gear transition should one use the Focus' sequential feature.

Handling is at near-go kart levels (with little or no understeer), which is a given considering that most of Ford's WRC technological expertise is in abundance in its production model. The steering is light yet very responsive and full of feedback. Turn-in is extremely sharp, and one can hurl the car at 90-105 kph on hard turns and hairpins thanks to the Goodyear Eagle NCT 5 205/55R16 6.5J tires' amazing grip. Unfortunately, the Control Blade rear suspension may be a bit too firm for some, and stopping requires a little more than just a d abor squeeze on the brake pedal.

Night vision is great for both driver and oncoming motorists, thanks to the Focus' headlamps, rear lights and front/rear foglamps. The light dial (located under the leftmost aircon vent) is typical of European cars (and rarely found in the compact PC segment), but is easy to see and easy to familiarize. Although the Focus' size, light steering and electronic folding mirrors make it great for parking or long backing maneuvers, the wedge-shaped profile of the rear end makes rearward vision difficult, forcing the driver to occasionally get out and check the car's distance form inanimate objects. It also doesn't help that the backing sensor is too sensitive, making noise at 1.5 feet and below.

Ford's great compact car hope is nice, but to dethrone the Altis and the Civic it may take more than just WRC experience, great quality control (of which Ford has in overflowing quantities) and European influence. But if the sales charts are any indication, the Focus in the near future may very well be as hot a commodity as its Mazda 3 platform twin.