2015 Ford Focus 1.0 EcoBoost European-Spec First Drive
Can a Small Engine in a Medium Car Equal Big Sales in America?
Ford introduced its designed-in-England 1.0-liter, three-cylinder turbo engine to us Yanks with the release of the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE 1.0-liter EcoBoost. That little environmentally minded three-banger impressed us greatly ("a gem of an engine"), and we thought the rest of the high-mileage Fiesta (EPA-rated at 31/43 mpg city/highway or 34/47 as-tested Real MPG) was pretty much OK. Keep in mind that the Fiesta SFE is a tiny little thing, weighing in at just 2,615 pounds. Can the same 1.0-liter powerplant provide the get up and go, gumption and general "car-ness" that us American types are used to? With a larger car? Ford thinks so, which is why by about Thanksgiving you'll be able to head on down to your friendly neighborhood Blue Oval dealer and buy yourself a 1.0-liter Ford Focus.
The Focus is updated for 2015 with more mature styling inside and out. The Focus now much more closely resembles its European-only cousins, the newly restyled B-Max, C-Max, and S-Max. A little too closely, if you ask me. The interior, however, is updated and upscale with more than a touch of Volvo-inspired themes, such as chrome around the air vents. There are also new tech doodads (radar cruise control with collision warning, lane-keeping assist, start/stop), but the real story here is what's under the redesigned hood. The smallest EcoBoost is a brilliant lump of technology. Sized just like the bottle of Smartwater you're (maybe) sipping on, the diminutive three-cylinder produces 123 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque. The most jaw-dropping part is that peak torque occurs at a low 1,400 rpm. That's diesel-like, right off idle. Ford powertrain guru Andrew Fraser explained that creating massive levels of high-end boost with a turbo is easy – the infamous BMW M12 F1 engine of the 1980s could produce more than 1,100 hp from just 1.5-liters. Getting a very small displacement engine to produce peak torque so low in the power band is – according to Fraser – difficult.
How'd Ford do it? The three key EcoBoost technologies were part of the solution. They are, in no order, direct-injection, turbocharging, and variable camshaft timing. Of course, those are only the basics, and Fraser and his team had to keep on engineering to make a 1.0-liter engine palatable to the masses. Especially for us American types, who -- as Bob Lutz so famously said -- buy horsepower but drive torque. The compact turbo is sourced from Continental and spins at up to 248,000 rpm. The exhaust manifold is not only water-cooled, but it's incorporated into the aluminum head. Interestingly, the block is iron – more on that in a minute. The turbo itself bolts right onto the manifold, no headers needed. Also noteworthy is that during light duty, the exhaust valves open late, much the way an Atkinson-cycle engine behaves, though not quite.
Instead of spinning heavy, power-sapping balance shafts, the crank-pulley and the flywheel are intentionally unbalanced. So, instead of getting the violent NVH inherent to three-cylinder engines (Geo Metro, anyone?), the 1.0-liter EcoBoost behaves more like a properly balanced five-cylinder. Cool, huh? Back to the iron block, a tiny engine like this has significantly reduced thermal inertia. In English, the 1.0-liter heats up quickly, which is crucial in markets such as the Midwest and Northeast. Turns out iron is superior to aluminum for quick heating. Also, because the engine is so small, there's barely a weight penalty for having an old-school iron block. Yes, so there's no doubt that on a sheet of white paper, this engine is remarkable. But how does it work in a medium-sized vehicle like the Ford Focus?
If the driving experience can be reduced to grades, I give the Focus 1.0-liter a C+, the same grade I got in first-year French. I mention that only because I drove the car around the Palace of Versailles and not back here in the USA. If you've never been to or driven in that part of Europe, the speed limits are lower than what you'd typically find in the U.S. (20 mph through towns, 55 mph almost everywhere else). The area's fairly rural, meaning there are lots of tractors in place ready and waiting to slow your roll. Anyhow, that early wave of torque is a thing of beauty. First gear is very short, and you're into second almost immediately. Second gear, however, is shockingly useful. You could probably get along fine using only first, second, and sixth gear. There's just so much torque available, and for such a long time. Also, NVH levels are low enough that even if you have the little guy spinning close to its 6,650 redline, you don't mind it. This car is the opposite of thrashy. Is the puny EcoBoost as smooth as a four-cylinder engine? No, but you'd probably have to be looking for the differences in NVH to notice them.
Unlike the five-speed Fiesta 1.0-liter, the Focus comes with a six-speed manual. It's the only transmission available for now, though some sort of automatic is coming. After all, Americans hate shifting their own gears; manual-only cars tend to be sales-proof. Ford's being oddly tight-lipped about whether the auto will be a regular torque converter or a dual-clutch. Either way, the early torque is useful for bopping around town but makes for a pretty slow car as the revs build. No one showed me a dyno chart, but it's pretty obvious that the torque falls off the deeper you push into the pedal. This means the all-American nightmare scenario of not going fast enough when merging on the freeway is a real concern. Of course, using a lower gear and revving the engine more solves the problem, but Americans don't drive that way. The tiny-engined Focus handles well enough for an economy car, no doubt in part thanks to its optional 215/50R/17 Continental ContiSportContact tires. Having less weight on the nose than a 2.0-liter Focus helps, too.
This was only a First Drive, not a First Test, so I have to speculate a little bit on weight. There's a nearly 500-pound difference between the Fiesta ST and the Focus ST (2,729 versus 3,193 pounds), though of course we're talking about two different engines. This is a problem because until the 1.0-liter Focus shows up on our shores, all U.S. Fiestas have either 1.0-liter or 1.6-liter engines, and all Foci have 2.0-liter mills. Taking an educated guess, going from a 2.0-liter I-4 to a 1.0-liter I-3 will probably shed between 100 and 150 pounds from the Focus. Obviously, the Focus 1.0-liter will be heavier than the Fiesta with the same engine. Heavier means the fuel economy won't be as good. The Focus will no doubt cost more, too.
Ford's being oddly tight-lipped about the last two numbers. It refused to state the mpgss or the price. Starting with the latter, the Fiesta SFE is $995 more than the standard Fiesta. Let's figure the 1.0-liter engine option will cost the same in the Focus, and that the small engine will only be available in a hatchback body like the SFE Fiesta's. The base price would then be $20,445, based on Ford's 2014 pricing. Keep in mind that the 1.0-liter Fiesta's current base price is $17,400. Just over $20,000 seems like an OK price, considering the larger vehicle attached to it. However, in terms of both performance and fuel economy, larger is definitely the enemy. As for fuel economy, the Focus does add a sixth gear compared to the Fiesta. I'd guess final EPA numbers will be somewhere around 30 city, 42 highway. That's below the Fiesta SFE but still pretty good. You know what? That might be the best way to sum up the new 1.0-liter Focus. Not quite as good as the Fiesta, but not too bad.