Car talk: With Microsoft's help, you can tell a Ford Focus what to do
With due respect to the Smart car, the 2008 Ford Focus is the real smart car. Smart is merely the Daimler two-seater's name. But smart is how...
Detroit Free Press
2008 Ford Focus SES coupe
Vehicle type: Front-wheel drive compact five-seater.
Base price for SES trim line: $16,075 (excluding destination charges).
As tested: $18,465.
Engine: 2.0-liter DOHC 16-valve four-cylinder;
140 horsepower at 6,000 rpm; 136 pound-feet
of torque at 4,250 rpm.
Transmission: Five-speed manual; auto is
an $815 option.
Fuel economy: 24 mpg city/35 mpg highway.
Curb weight: 2,588 pounds.
Crash tests: Not yet rated in government tests. The 2007 Focus got 4- and 5-star frontal ratings, but with some side-impact ratings dipping to 3 stars (www.safercar.gov). The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the 2008 model a "Good" rating for offset frontal crashes but has not yet conducted other tests (www.iihs.org).
Comparative base prices
(Manual transmissions, not including destination charges)
Dodge Caliber SXT: $16,620
Honda Civic LX coupe: $16,760
Mazda 3 I Touring sedan: $16,255
Toyota Corolla S: $15,450
With due respect to the Smart car, the 2008 Ford Focus is the real smart car.
Smart is merely the Daimler two-seater's name. But smart is how the Focus acts, thanks to Sync, the slickest piece of consumer electronics to hit the market this year.
Sync ties your phone calls, text messages and iPod seamlessly into the little Ford's operations. In fact, Sync, which Ford developed with Microsoft, is so good it obscures the fact that the 2008 Focus is an otherwise average update of an aging compact car.
Sync's voice-activated controls for iPod-type devices, phone calls and text messages make the Focus the pinnacle of sophisticated and user-friendly automotive electronics.
It's also a significant advance in car safety, removing at least two sources of distraction and allowing the driver to focus on the road.
Prices for the 2008 Focus start at $14,075 for an S coupe with a five-speed manual. You can't get Sync on base models, but it's an option on others and is standard on the top-of-the line SES.
I tested an extremely well-equipped SES coupe with Sync, heated leather upholstery, a primo stereo with eight-inch subwoofer, adjustable ambient interior lights, a raft of other options and an $18,465 sticker. That's a lot of equipment for the price, but Sync is the standout.
The Focus is up against newer, better-looking cars such as the Honda Civic and Mazda 3. None of them has Sync, though, which makes other automakers' best suddenly seem so five minutes ago.
How Sync works
The heart of the system is a state-of-the-art voice recognition system that lets you run your phone and MP3 player without touching either device.
Press a button on the steering wheel, speak your request for a song, an album or a recording artist, and music pours from the speakers.
Or tell it to dial a phone number or any name in your phone's memory. Any mobile phone or BlackBerry-type device equipped with Bluetooth for hands-free operation will make the call and pipe it over the car's sound system.
Music playback pauses to ask if you want to take incoming calls, identifying the caller by number or name.
Say "yes" and the music stays paused and resumes when you end the call.
Ford and Microsoft spent about 18 months perfecting Sync. It's the only system on the market that lets you give voice commands to iPods — or any MP3 player connected with a USB cord. It also works with iPhones for calls and music, though Web-browsing and some other features are not available.
If you receive a text message, Sync asks if you want to hear it, displays the number the call came from and reads the message aloud, even translating shorthand like "C U there" into a spoken "see you there."
You can't dictate a text response, but if the Focus is not moving, a toggle on the steering wheel lets you choose from 15 common responses, everything from "10 minutes late" to "I love you."
It's no "eejit"
If you've ever used voice-recognition software, you are now justifiably skeptical. Voice recognition is tough. Doing it in the noisy environment of a car cruising at highway speeds is particularly daunting.
On other cars, I usually give up testing the systems the third time I ask for an address on Woodward Avenue and the navigation system plots a route to Woods Hole, Mass. (The Focus doesn't have a navigation system, but Ford will soon offer Sync in other models that do.)
I'm a particularly tough test for voice recognition, because I have an Irish accent and an unusual vocal timbre.
To test the system, I told Sync to call my sister-in-law, Liz Phelan, in my phone's memory. "Phelan," with the "ph" that sounds like an "f" and the long "e," would stump most voice-rec systems.
"Calling Liz Felon," Sync replied, dialing the right number.
The system understands an Irish accent but doesn't speak it. I requested a Green Day song by title, but giving the second word the colloquial Irish pronunciation.
"Play American Eejit," I ventured.
"Playing American Idiot," came the correct response.
The voice recognition is so robust that it understood my commands at 70 mph with the driver's window open, though the car suffers from road noise that stymied Sync on some rough surfaces.
Oh, yeah ... about the car
The system is so enjoyable, I ignored faster and more expensive test cars so I could spend more time in the Focus.
Ford gave the Focus a new look and other updates for 2008. The styling is attractive, if a little formal, with upright sides and a traditional roofline that belie the breakthrough within.
I wish Ford had kept the sharp-looking Focus hatchback and station wagon, and I suspect either of those styles would have helped it snag young buyers likely to fall for Sync.
The interior is basic. The trim on the dash and doors is hard black plastic, and the fit between some of the pieces were slightly uneven.
An ambient lighting package that allows you to select from seven colors for lights in the foot wells and cup holders is a pleasant feature, and the gauges have an attractive matte silver face with light blue numerals and red pointers.
The Focus has always had an excellent chassis, and the little car remains supple and fluid when driven around curves. The 2.0-liter 140-horsepower engine is adequate, but barely. Replacing it with Ford's fine 2.3-liter four-cylinder, which produces 160 horsepower in the larger Fusion sedan, would make the Focus more confident and enjoyable.
However, the small engine does help the manual-transmission Focus achieve excellent ratings of 24 mpg in city driving and 35 mpg on the highway.
Introducing a breakthrough system such as Sync on an aging design such as the Focus is a bit like serving champagne in a paper cup. If the only joint in town with Dom Perignon doesn't have stemware, though, where else will you go when you want bubbly?
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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