Why the New 2015 Ford Focus Is Important

The refreshed 2015 Ford Focus was unveiled in Spain on Sunday. It will go on sale in the U.S. in the second half of 2014, Ford said. Photo credit: Ford.

Ford (NYSE: F  ) revealed its freshly overhauled 2015 Focus in Barcelona on Sunday. The Blue Oval's hot-selling compact has a new face, an improved interior, and a new engine that could become a favorite with green-minded Americans.

As you can see in the photo above, the most noticeable change to the Focus is its new grille, which follows the Aston Martin-ish design introduced on Ford's midsize Fusion.

But there's a lot more going on with the new Focus.

The difference between "new" and "all-new"
To be clear, this isn't an "all-new" Focus. Automakers use "all-new" to designate a completely new version of a model, one that has been redesigned from the ground up. There won't be an "all-new" Focus for a few more years yet.

So what do we call this new-but-not-all-new Focus? In the jargon of the auto business, the 2015 Focus is "refreshed." Automakers generally plan to refresh a model when it's roughly halfway to two-thirds of the way through its planned life cycle. Refreshing an existing model costs much less than designing and tooling up to build an all-new one, but it gives the automaker a chance to bring improvements to customers. 

The Fusion-esque grille and hood are the most immediately noticeable changes to the 2015 Focus. It's a well-integrated look. Photo credit: Ford.

It also gives customers a reason to give the model another look. Often, sales of a model start to sag after a few years, as competitors release newer alternatives. That has been happening to the Focus here in the U.S.: Ford's compact was a big seller when it first came out, but a refreshed Civic from Honda (NYSE: HMC  ) and an all-new Toyota (NYSE: TM  ) Camry have recently stolen some of the Focus' thunder.

Long story short, the 2015 Ford Focus isn't all-new from the ground up. But it has received a host of changes and improvements to go with its striking new face.

No hybrid version (yet), but a high-tech three-cylinder engine that could be a hit
First on that list is a step forward in Ford's ongoing green push -- but it's not the plug-in hybrid model that had been widely rumored. Instead, Ford says 2015 Focus buyers will now have the option of the company's award-winning 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine. Right now, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder is the only choice for U.S. Focus buyers; that engine will continue to be standard in the 2015 Focus.

The 1.0 liter has become a favorite in some overseas markets, and it has won several industry awards. It's a very well-regarded engine. But by American standards, it's tiny -- Ford often brags that the engine block can fit in an airplane's overhead compartment. 

It's a three-cylinder with Ford's special EcoBoost sauce, which includes a turbocharger and direct injection and variable valve timing, technologies that work together to squeeze as much power as possible out of every drop of gasoline at any given engine speed. 

That technology is pretty effective: In the Fiesta, the tiny engine is rated at 123 horsepower, slightly higher than the 120 horses generated by Ford's workhorse 1.6 liter. Ford didn't release ratings for the 1.0 Focus, but they should be similar -- and the 1.0-equipped Focus should easily beat the 2.0 version's EPA-estimated 40 miles per gallon in highway driving. 

Some styling tweaks, and some new high-tech safety features
The 2015 Focus also gets some visual changes in addition to the restyled grille and hood. Ford says that it has added "signature lighting" for the car's headlamps and tail lamps (translation: fashionable LED accents), along with new rear lamp clusters and a restyled trunk lid.

The changes to the rear of the Focus are more subtle. Photo credit: Ford.

The Focus' interior has also had an overhaul. Ford hadn't yet released photos of the new interior at press time, but we know that it has a revised center console and some new seat trims. There are also revisions to the car's suspension to improve handling and comfort.

Ford is also making more of its high-tech driver assist features available on the Focus, with an optional package that includes a rearview camera and the automaker's lane-keeping and blind-spot warning systems.

The upshot: A timely overhaul for Ford's faithful compact
Since its introduction, the current Focus has been one of the world's best-selling cars. It's a top seller in Europe and has been a big hit in China. But in recent months, its sales here have faded, as buyers have looked toward fresher options from Ford's Japanese rivals. 

Ford's total U.S. sales have been solid; the Focus' recent decline hasn't been a big issue here. But the concern has been that Focus sales overseas would start to fade as well. That would be a problem.

The overhauled 2015 Focus should help when it goes on sale later this year. The new Focus nicely incorporates some of the styling magic that helped make the Fusion sedan a big hit. The new 1.0 EcoBoost engine will appeal to green-minded buyers and should give Ford some impressive fuel-economy figures to advertise.

Will it be enough to regain lost sales ground? It's hard to say. The Japanese automakers are operating with a big currency advantage that gives them more room to cut prices or offer incentives, moves that Ford can't match without giving up significant profits. 

But the current Focus remains a solid contender in the tough compact segment, and the refreshed 2015 model looks to be a meaningful improvement. Ford did its part; now we'll see how the market responds.

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