Ford Focus and Sync system is music to our ears

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

SEATTLE — The press introduction of the 2008 Ford Focus here was actually two introductions in one.

At the same time the compact car was revealed to journalists, Ford introduced an innovative wireless communication system called Sync, which launched in the Focus and has since begun to filter into the rest of the Ford-Mercury-Lincoln lineup.

What was interesting was that Ford officials spent more time talking to auto writers about the Microsoft-developed Sync system than they did the car. Events included an in-depth round-table press conference devoted primarily to Sync with Ford designers and engineers, and a visit to the Microsoft campus outside Seattle to hear computer wonks explain the new system.

If the new Ford Focus, an attractive restyling of their award-winning small car that hasn’t received a significant platform upgrade since it was introduced in 1999, seemed to get short shrift, it was because Ford thinks the Sync is the car’s biggest asset.

The Focus, which comes this time around only in sedan and coupe configurations — the station wagon and hatch have been eliminated — can stand on its own. We liked the new design, the performance generated from the fuel-efficient 140-horsepower 4-cylinder engine, the driving dynamics and the interior space.

But we were enthralled, like Ford hopes prospective buyers will be, with the new wireless technology that brings 21st Century communications into a car like never before.

Ford decided to showcase the Sync system on its entry-level product because officials expected younger buyers to embrace the technology. They apparently figure first-time new-car shoppers will opt for the Focus because of Sync.

And they may be right. Last month (January 08) Focus sales jumped 44-percent year over year.

Sync is a remarkable voice recognition system that allows for hands-free use of cell phones and portable music players. We received an on-the-road demonstration when one of our passengers, who had a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone, hooked up to the system, which automatically downloaded his phone book. From that point making a call was as simple as pressing the phone button on the steering wheel controls and telling the system to dial one of his numbers simply by using his address book “tag” such as, “home” or “Sam.”

There was more than one listing for “Sam” so the pleasant female Sync voice asked, “do you want Sam cell, Sam work or Sam home?”

The system is also capable of receiving and text messages, which can be read by the Sync voice.

When you take your phone out of the car, no one can use your number or access your address book. Your cell information disappears. Once the phone is back in the car, the system automatically recognizes it. And it can connect up to six phones.

Likewise, simple voice commands will call up anything you have on your iPod, your Microsoft Zune or a USB storage device. It will retrieve your playlist in a variety of ways including artist name, song name, genre, album title or playlist.

We listened to a variety of music from one of our passengers’ USB storage device. The system treated it the same way as a Zune or iPod as far as retrieving songs through voice command. But the best thing about the system is that it doesn’t need voice recognition training. It responds to any voice right off the bat and it responds to any pattern of speech.

Sync comes standard on some models and as an inexpensive $395 option on others and can be easily updated as new electronic devices come to market. Microsoft officials said that as new software becomes available, it can be downloaded into the system. For example a new airbag deployment – 911 system and a “vehicle health” analysis system will be added to Sync later this year.

We found Sync virtually flawless, an amazing system particularly when you consider it comes in a car with a base price of under 15 grand.

Even if you opt for a new Focus without Sync in mind, we recommend you fork over the extra cash to have the system on hand.  You might not use it now, but you will eventually.

Sync has already made its debut in 12 additional Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products; however, expect the same technology to start showing up in competitor’s 2009 or 2010 products. Ford has exclusive rights to the technology through November 2008 – by then almost all Ford products will have Sync available. Then Microsoft intends to sell it to other automakers.

The Sync name, however, will remain exclusive to Ford Motor Company products.

So what about the car that’s wrapped around the Sync system?

While the newest Focus doesn’t completely get new underpinnings (we in the automotive media craved an update to the European platform like the one on the Volvo S40 – now promised on the next iteration as a global platform) it receives new and more up-to-date styling inside and out that many prospective customers should find appealing. And the Focus has not lost its award-winning drivability.

While we were impressed with the overall package, we were disappointed with the loss of the hatchback and station wagon body styles. Ford officials say they didn’t sell in big enough quantities to warrant return. What we do have is a comely looking sedan and a surprisingly spacious coupe starting at $14,075.

The new Focus comes in three trim levels — S, SE and SES — and with one engine option, the Duratec 2.0-liter inline four generating 140 horsepower and 136 pound-feet of torque. That’s a modest four-horsepower improvement over the 2007 Focus.

Before you let loose with the big yawn, we want to tell you that the little engine is adequately energetic and mated to either the five-speed manual or four-speed automatic and can produce some measurable driving excitement.

But the really good news with the carryover Duratec is its 2008 EPA rating of 24 mpg city and 33 highway with the manual and 24/35 for the four-speed automatic on regular gas. Anyone who has to pay for their own $3-a-gallon fuel will see the beauty in the little four-banger. For those who are wrapped up in environmental concerns, the engine will be sold in California and other states that adhere to California emissions as a Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) but with slightly less horsepower. But smell that clean air.

The Focus has always been entertaining on the back-road twists and turns, and little has changed. The car's excellent driving dynamics are still in place although we noticed that suspension settings may have been skewered to the softer side.

The Focus is now tied into the Ford family of cars and crossovers with the trademark chrome bar grille — only two bars in the Focus because its little nose didn’t allow for a third. The tall, narrow look of the previous Focus has been abandoned for a wider stance with flared wheel arches. A character line arching up from a front fender appliqué (we aren’t yet quite sold on that piece of “reverse seven” art) to the rear deck gives the Focus sweeping lines.

The cabin is quiet for a car in this class and the interior restyling is spot on with a read-out display at the top of the dash over the center stack, generous use of a matte-silver-metallic finish on the dashboard and center stack and a storage tray below the audio system capable of holding music devices and a cell phone for the Sync system.

The front seats proved comfortable and rear-seat legroom is decent and will allow for long journeys for four adults. The 13.8 cubic-foot trunk is designed to swallow up an array of suitcases or at least two golf bags.

As noted prices begin at just over 14 grand for the base coupe and climb modestly to $16,375 for the top trim SES sedan. We drove a well-equipped top-of-the-line model around Seattle that stickered out at $20,475.

With the Sync system as a key selling point, the new Focus deserves to be on your short list if this is the right size vehicle for you.

There’s a lot of value — and enjoyment — in the new Focus.


Base price: $14,075; as driven, $20,475
Engine: 2.0-liter inline

Horsepower: 140 @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 136 pound-feet @ 4,250 rpm

Transmission: 4-speed automatic

Drive: front wheel

Seating: 2/3

Wheelbase: 102.9 inches

Length: 175 inches

Curb weight: 2,617 pounds

Turning circle: 34.2 feet

Luggage capacity: 13.8 cubic feet

Fuel capacity: 13.5 gallons (regular)

EPA mileage: 35 highway, 24 city
0-60: 9 seconds (estimated)

Also consider: Honda Civic, Hyundai Elantra, Chevrolet Cobalt

The Good

• Sync voice recognition system as good as it gets at any price

• New clean styling inside and out

• Stellar gas mileage

The Bad

• Many carryover pieces from previous Focus including engine and transmissions

The Ugly

• We love hatchback utility. Ford has taken it away.