Earlier this week, I came out of my house one morning and climbed into my faithful old BMW. I started the engine and waited a couple of minutes for the heater to warm up and the windscreen to de-mist. Then I set off for another day of fun and games in the classic car milieu.
Except I didn't. Because when I put my foot on the clutch to engage first gear, the pedal flopped down to the floor like my spaniel's tail does after I've caught him eating the biscuits. Again.
It turned out that the hydraulic slave cylinder that operates the clutch had given up the unequal struggle after 22 years of graft. Not bad going really, but as I rolled around on the filthy floor underneath the car, scraping my knuckles and getting clutch fluid in my eye, I suddenly thought to myself; "What the hell am I doing?" I went back inside, picked up the telephone and called a contact at a local dealer. I then instructed him to order me a brand new car.
In the meantime though, I needed another car to use and after another quick phone call, I found myself driving an original Ford Focus for the first time in years. The car was nothing special, a 15-year-old family hatchback with a normal 1.6 litre engine and a normal five-speed gearbox, and do you know what? It was brilliant.
Before the first Focus came along, nobody really expected much in the way of vim and vigour from an ordinary family hatchback. Unless it had 'GTI' stamped on the boot, your average runabout was as about as much fun as a North Korean harvest festival.
The Focus changed all that though. A man called Richard Parry-Jones who is a genius, despite being Welsh, decided that the Focus should have independent rear suspension. I won't bore you with the engineering minutia, but this essentially means that when one back wheel runs over a bump in the road (of which there are about 70 billion in the UK), the one on the other side is unaffected by the jolt. This keeps the car planted and it improves the ride, and what's good for ride is also good for handling - no Audi, I promise it really is.
The upshot is that the first Focus was a genuine game-changer. Here was a normal, practical family car that was affordable, cheap to run and reliable. But it also drove like a dream. It was the sports car for everyone, and it forced all the other mainstream car makers to sit up and take note.
However, since the original died way back in 2004, you can't help but feel that the subsequent two generations of Focus have sort of lost some of that sparkle. They were good cars, but they were missing that final touch of magic that made all the difference. The competition had caught up as well, and rivals were also using suspension trickery to make life harder for the Ford.
Perhaps more of problem though is that in the meantime people have stopped buying ordinary five-door hatchbacks. These days the small SUV is the king of the suburban driveway. We don't want to make do with five seats and an engine. We want chunky wheels, and lofty suspension, and a Kia Sportage with a three-hundred year warranty.
So, to stand any chance at all with what is seemingly a typewriter in a world full of iPad's, Ford will have had to pull out all the stops to make the new fourth-generation Focus you see in the pictures above the best one yet.
New dash layout is less cluttered than the old one. Perhaps a little too like the Hyundai i30 though. Quality is very good
Have they succeeded? Well, starting with the exterior I'm not totally sold. Ford's designers have tried to employ the same tricks they used on the latest Fiesta. They've taken the good basic shape of the old model and tried to add in a bit more flair. In the TV adverts filled with magic butterflies it looks great. But this new Focus seems to be very spec-sensitive. It needs the ST-Line body kit and a nice bright colour to really work. The car I drove, on smaller wheels and in a darker colour was far from ugly, but it is a little bit fussy and derivative. I do like the new rear end though, which is classier and more interesting than before.
On the inside though, things start to get better. The actual design isn't that groundbreaking, it is in fact quite reminiscent of Hyundai's latest i30 with that tablet style screen sprouting from the dash top. But it's the build quality that has really come on in leaps and bounds over the old Focus. It's little things, like the door pockets that are now lined to stop rattles, and the reassuring feel of the heater controls when you twist them. Auto versions also get a Jaguar-style rotary gear selector to save space on the centre console.
The revised infotainment system has been lifted from the new Fiesta too, and is a big improvement over the old version. Although, it has to be said, the VW Golf still has a slicker set-up.
The car I tested was a Titanium model, which used to be the top dog in the Ford range, but has now been supplanted by another model called Vinegar or Vagina or something like that. Either way, the Titanium has pretty much every toy you could wish for fitted as standard. You get keyless entry, LED lights, heated seats, Apple CarPlay, sat nav, and parking sensors.
Considering you get so much in the way of equipment, it was a bit of a surprise to discover that this new Focus is actually lighter than the last one. But what's more surprising is that you can actually feel the benefit of this weight reduction when you drive the thing.
To drive, the new car has lost the slightly rotund feeling of the previous two models. That isn't to say that it feels tinny or cheap, quite the opposite in fact. It takes some very clever chassis and suspension work to deliver a car that feels as fleet of foot as this but still gives the impression of being hewn from the solid rather than assembled from smaller parts.
The engine in the car I drove had the tiny little 999cc Ecoboost triple which is carried over from the old model. With 125 BHP on tap, it's capable of moving the car about in an acceptable fashion. Actually, that isn't fair. It's still a deeply impressive engine, mostly free from turbo lag and willing to rev out to the 6.5k red line. It must be said though, for any serious get up and go, you'll want to look at the 1.5 litre three-pot further up the range. This is the same lump you get in the newest Fiesta ST and even with the wick turned down slightly it produces 182 horsepower.
Even if you're not going for a land speed record, you might want to consider the larger engine anyway. You see, whilst the ride is very good and the little engine is game, the one-litre Focus has a bit of a hidden foible. To save weight (and cash) Ford have decided to fit all 1.0 petrol and 1.5 diesel hatchback models with a simple, old-school torsion bar rear suspension. They've basically done away with the thing that made the original Focus special in the first place.
Did I miss it? Well, perhaps I wouldn't if I hadn't have been getting reacquainted with the mark one model. But where that car would dive into a corner as though it was being pulled through the bend by magnets, the new one feels inert and a little soft when you really pile in. It's not bad by any means. But it doesn't excite, and it leaves little to recommend the Ford over a cheaper rival from Kia or Hyundai. The torsion bar means that it gets flustered by bumps too, this is not the Focus way.
I'm told by people who have tried it, that the more powerful models with the more expensive rear suspension are superb. They bite great big chunks out of bends with the tenacity of the original Focus, and accelerate in a way that would shame the hot hatches of a few years ago.
But most people won't buy the 182 horsepower ST-Line model. Nor will they buy the two-litre diesel, because the government has now decided that after twenty years of telling us that diesel is great, it is in fact awful and must be taxed now that everyone has one. They especially won't buy one because the people who want a hot hatch know that soon there will be a proper ST model which will be much faster and not much more expensive.
By taking away the clever suspension from the cheaper models, the ones that normal people actually buy, Ford have spoilt the game they started back in 1998. They've deprived their most important new car of its USP, and whilst the rest of the car is very good, it isn't demonstrably better than an Astra or a C'eed, which are both cheaper.
So, there we go then. The sports car for everyone. Dead at the age of twenty.
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THE TECHNICAL BIT - 2018 FORD FOCUS 1.0 125 TITANIUM.
Engine: 999cc Petrol, 3 cylinders, Turbocharged. Transmission: 6-Speed Manual. Power: 125 BHP. Torque: 125 lbs/ft. Driven wheels: Front Wheel Drive. 0-62 MPH: 10.0 secs. Top Speed: 124 MPH Economy: 58.9 MPG Combined. Price: £21,550 excluding options.