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Review: 2014 Ford Focus SE sedan (ninth place)

The 2014 Ford Focus SE is a cleanly styled economy sedan with few styling flourishes besides its front bumper.
The 2014 Ford Focus SE is a cleanly styled economy sedan with few styling flourishes besides its front bumper.
Brady Holt

This review is part of an eleven-car comparison of compact sedans. The Focus is ranked in ninth place of eleven.

The 2014 Ford Focus is affordable and fun to drive, but not as roomy or fancy as most competitors.
Brady Holt

For a vehicle that's one of the world's best-selling cars – No. 1, in fact, depending on who's counting – the Ford Focus is a surprisingly flawed vehicle. Passenger space trails the competition. The transmission can be clunky. The interior is more fussy than fancy, and increasingly common features like advanced infotainment options and a backup camera aren't widely available.

That's not to say that the Focus is a terrible car. Transmission aside, it has pleasant and almost sporty driving dynamics, with responsive handling and decent pep. Passengers will be cramped, but the driver is comfortable. And though the current Focus is now nearly three years old, its crash-test results and fuel economy beat several newer vehicles.

The biggest advantage to the Focus, though, is a low price, at least after you haggle it down by a projected $3,500. Dealers have been flexible on the price due to the car's issues – which are also a reason to consider paying a little bit extra for a stronger competitor.

Sometimes premium

For the cheapest car in this comparison, the Focus drives quite nicely. Rather, there's a certain sophistication to its driving dynamics – a taut, controlled ride and agile handling. It doesn't aspire for isolation, but it's one of the more fun cars in the class. The light steering isn't the crispest, but overall the Focus is livelier than most of its competitors.

The engine is peppy, decently quiet, and competitively fuel-efficient – the Focus is rated for 31 mpg in mixed driving, on par for the class if not outstanding – but the transmission is a weak point. In this dual-clutch automatic, the computer is operating clutches to change gears, which improves efficiency compared to a conventional automatic. Shifts are smoother than when the car first came to the market but still not as slick as most competitors' regular transmissions. The car also found itself in the wrong gear a few times during the test drive.

The Focus doesn't have a very upscale interior, though, especially given recent progress in the class. When it came out in 2012, the Focus stood out for its wide array of luxury options – but the same can now be found on many competitors, and this mid-level SE model doesn't impress for cabin quality or feature availability.

Most materials are nice – except on the center console – and there's a diversity of colors, but many panels fit poorly. The center stack is dominated by a messy sea of buttons and topped by a small radio screen. High-end Focuses offer a sophisticated infotainment system called MyFord Touch that cleans up the appearance of the dashboard, but the system isn't terribly user-friendly and has suffered from reliability bugs across the Ford lineup. But most Focuses lack the bright touchscreen displays available on many competitors, leaving the center stack as mostly gray buttons, especially because the screen is high up on the dash as it is.

Another design foible: The Focus lacks physical lock buttons on its doors, instead settling for an electronic-only design that relies on buttons on the instrument panel and keyfob.

For many prospective buyers, interior space will be a bigger issue than the dashboard design. The firm front seats are nicely shaped but narrow; the driver has plenty of legroom, but the front passenger is crowded by a wide instrument panel and center console – a rare issue. The rear seat has a comfortable cushion for two adults, but there's very little leg space and it's tough to wriggle in and out. Some prospective buyers might write off this issue as inherent to small cars, but the competition is roomier. And unlike some other models, forget about carrying a fifth passenger except a little child. The glovebox is quite small, too.

The Focus has some user-friendly qualities – good visibility and decent trunk space. The interior of the trunk lid is bare metal with exposed wires. The Focus is also available as a versatile five-door hatchback.

Bargain price

When comparably equipped with the other cars in this comparison – with an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen – the Focus has a sticker price of $20,560. Expect to haggle that down to a comparison-leading $17,124.

Note, though, that many competitors have more sophisticated infotainment systems and a backup camera. You'd have to spend $4,000 more to get these in MyFord Touch, which is bundled with such items as leather seats and a sunroof. The Sync system standard on the Focus SE – voice-activated Bluetooth and radio controls – was sophisticated when it debuted in 2008, but it's no longer a class standout and doesn't offer anything that brightens up the dash.

Overall

The Focus is affordable, fuel-efficient, and fun to drive. But there's a wide variety of affordable, fuel-efficient small cars with more space, higher-quality and more user-friendly interiors, and less-clunky transmissions.

Shop the Focus is a low price is important to you – especially if you value agile handling – but don't buy it without full awareness of its many limitations.

Overall grade: B-

More from this comparison:
- Next review: 2014 Chevrolet Cruze 1LT (8th place)
- Previous review: 2015 Kia Forte LX (10th place)
- Rating the eleven compact sedans
- Ranking the eleven compact sedans
- Introduction to this comparison

More about the 2014 Ford Focus SE:
- Photo gallery
- Report card -- how does it compare in different ways, such as comfort, performance, and fuel economy?
- Report card -- how does it stack up for different types of buyers?

Vehicle tested: 2014 Ford Focus
Vehicle base price (MSRP): $16,810
Version tested: SE
Version base price (MSRP): $18,125
Vehicle price as tested (MSRP): $20,045
Vehicle price as comparable (MSRP): $20,560
Estimated transaction price as comparable: $17,124
Test vehicle provided by: Sheehy Ford; Marlow Heights, Md.

Key specifications:
Length: 178.5 inches
Width: 71.8 inches
Height: 57.7 inches
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches
Weight: 2,988 pounds
Trunk volume: 13.2 cubic feet
Turning circle: 36.0 feet
Engine (as tested): 2.0-liter I4 with 160 horsepower
Transmission (as tested): 6-speed automatic
EPA city mileage: 27 miles per gallon
EPA highway mileage: 37 miles per gallon
EPA combined mileage: 31 miles per gallon
Assembly location: Michigan
For more information: Ford website

See also:
Review: 2013 Ford Escape SEL
Review: 2012 Ford Fiesta SE
Review: 2013 Ford Fusion SE

* Prices as comparable reflect vehicles equipped with the same features, when possible: an automatic transmission; power windows, locks and mirrors; alloy wheels; Bluetooth connectivity; and an infotainment screen.
** Estimated transaction prices are based on data from Truecar.com and dealer quotes.