A small car but not as you know it
FORD has lifted its game with the new Focus and now it is lifting the ride height.
It is a smart, if niche move. The Focus Active rides about 30mm higher than the regular hatchback and comes with plastic cladding and "skid plate" inserts in the front and rear bumpers.
That lift is more about helping people swivel into seats than it is about tackling bush trails but it gives Ford a faux SUV at a time when its regular SUVs, the EcoSport and Escape, aren't gaining much traction on the sales charts.
With the competition for every sale as ferocious as it is right now, every little bit helps.
A sticker price of $29,990 will translate to roughly $34K on the road before you start ticking options. One bundle prospective buyers should consider is the $1250 driving assist pack that dramatically upgrades the safety software.
The Active's interior trim is loosely based on the entry level Trend hatch. On the other hand, independent rear suspension is shared with the sporty ST-Line wagon version (the others use simpler a torsion beam).
Other Active additions include blue stitching on the cloth seats, the drive mode software adds trail and slippery modes for the occasional foray on sand or snow, along with the convenience of dual-zone aircon and wireless phone charging.
Service intervals are 12 months/15,000km, costing $1546 for the first five years.
Among the many rivals for the Active are similar front-drive SUVs such as the Mazda CX-3 sTouring (from $28,390), Mitsubishi ES with safety pack ($26,990) and the all-wheel drive Subaru XV 2.0i-L ($30,860) - the high-riding version of the Impreza gets even more ground clearance for better off-road behaviour.
Adding height typically has an adverse effect on cornering but that isn't the case in the Focus Active. The extra suspension travel and bigger tyre sidewall makes it a touch more supple than the standard car, which is tuned to Euro-levels of firmness.
The upshot is the Active doesn't jar over speed humps yet it can still corner like a regular Focus (and it can corner very well).
Cabin plastics aren't class-leading but the ergonomics are pretty good. Ford's infotainment set-up is fine in its own right but is also happy to get cosy with smartphones.
Rear occupants do without air vents, cupholders or USB ports. That isn't ideal, nor are the relatively flat seats themselves.
The default safety kit extends to six airbags, autonomous emergency braking with pedestrian and cyclist detection, lane-keep assist and reversing camera with 180-degree view.
That was enough for the Focus to earn a five-star rating from ANCAP when it was tested in December last year, with 85 per cent for adult occupant protection, 87 per cent for child occupant safety and 72 per cent for vulnerable road user and safety assist.
ANCAP regarded whiplash protection for front occupants as marginal, affecting its score for adult occupant protection and active safety.
With the driving assist pack option, the Active gains adaptive cruise control with stop and go, rear-cross traffic alert with auto braking and blind spot monitoring.
Having just a 1.5-litre three-cylinder doesn't sound like much, even with a turbo - but it is.
The Focus's slick eight-speed transmission convert its moderate outputs (134kW/240Nm) into more than acceptable acceleration around town or on the freeway, accompanied by an entirely entertaining rumbly, rorty exhaust note.
Away from the lights, there's enough torque to gently tug the steering wheel. Under way, the auto is more than acceptable up or down the gears.
The transmission can, however, hesitate when switching to and from reverse, as is often the case in car parks.
Steering is as sharp as it is on a regular Focus, with just a touch of play on centre before the car responds in linear fashion to the steering input.
The ride is also better than a lower-slung Focus, without any discernible change in driving manners. If you're going hard enough to notice, there'll be a Focus ST that's more suited to your tastes in dealerships early next year.
For similar money, I can buy an all-wheel-drive SUV that's no thirstier.
If I was in the market for a family Focus, the Active would top the list.
Hyundai Kona Active AWD from $29,000 plus on-roads
You need to add a $1500 to this price for comparable active safety but otherwise the Hyundai is a serious rival.
Mitsubishi ASX Exceed AWD from $30,990
Another $2000 will put the leather-upholstered Exceed in the drive. Its longstanding engine uses more fuel but its active safety is on par.
Mazda CX-3 sTouring FWD from $28,390
The Mazda has more flair inside and out but less space for passengers and cargo.
Boosting the ride height and adding software-enhanced performance on marginal surfaces is Ford's smart pitch to buyers who don't want a regular hatch or an all-wheel drive SUV. The Active's price, however, pits it against some serious competition.
Ford Focus Active vitals
Price: $29,990 plus on-roads
Warranty/servicing: 5 years/u'ltd km, $1546 for 5 years/75,000km
Engine: 1.5-litre 3-cyl turbo, 134kW/240Nm
Safety: 5 stars, 6 airbags, AEB, lane keep assist, post-collision auto brake