The 2008 Ford Focus is the first car on the market with a factory-installed, Microsoft-developed, voice-activated system that can read text messages off Blackberries and similar devices as the car travels - with both of the driver's hands on the steering wheel.
It's also the first car with a factory system that lets drivers inquire verbally "what's playing" on the stereo and get a clear, verbal announcement that it's singer Alicia Keys or the Rolling Stones.
The new Sync system, as it's called, is the most attention-getting new feature of the redesigned Focus for 2008. But Ford's smallest car also has new, upscale styling with prominent chrome-colored grille outside and cleanly designed dashboard inside, a bit more power in the four-cylinder engine, new seats, more standard safety equipment and a retuned suspension.
It also carries a notable government fuel economy rating of 35 miles per gallon in highway driving.
But the Ford Focus station wagon and hatchback are gone. For 2008, the Focus is available as a sedan and coupe, each with seats for five.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $14,695 for a coupe and $14,995 for a sedan, both with standard five-speed manual transmission. A four-speed automatic transmission adds $815 to the price.
Competitors include the 2008 Honda Civic, which starts at $15,445 for a base coupe and $15,645 for a base sedan,
While the look is new and attractive on the Focus, the underlying front-wheel-drive platform remains from the old car, so this doesn't qualify as a new-generation model.
Still, it's surprising what a stiffer, lighter body and a smartly reworked suspension can do, especially when matched to a more precise rack-and-pinion steering system.
The test Focus Coupe held its line and its composure impressively on curves, turns and on hilly roads, even as I moved along briskly. The car's motions were predictable and the overall feeing in this small car was "steady as she goes" even as I neared the handling limits.
I especially enjoyed the steering, which didn't require constant adjustments even on long sweeping curves.
I heard road noise and felt many road bumps mildly, but the sounds and impacts were nowhere near as much as I expected or remembered from earlier Focus test drives.
Ford officials worked to reduce noise and provide a quieter passenger cabin.
Front seats are more substantial than before, providing more support and more comfortable resting spots. The back bench seat, however, feels more plebeian and is a tight fit for three adults. Even at 5 feet 4, my head hit the exposed, hard plastic coat hanger on the ceiling in the coupe's back seat.
Rear-seat legroom of 36.1 inches is the same in both coupe and sedan. In fact, designers kept the roof line of the Focus coupe so similar to that of the sedan that back-seat headroom is the same in both versions: 38.1 inches. Hip room in the back seat is the biggest difference - 2.5 inches less in the coupe than in the sedan.
But trunk room is the same in both coupe and sedan - a commendable 13.8 cubic feet, thanks to a low trunk floor. Note the Focus comes with a portable tire inflation system standard. A spare tire is optional.
The 2008 Focus has the same 2-liter, Duratec four-cylinder engine that was in the earlier Focus.
It has been tuned a bit, so there's 3 percent more horsepower - to a maximum of 140, which makes it competitive with the 140 horses of the 2008 Honda Civic.
Torque peaks at 136 foot-pounds at 4,250 rpm.
The five-speed manual is the better of the two Focus transmission offerings for drivers who want to feel some pep and verve. In the test Focus, it was easy to pick the best gearing to maintain a good pace, even if the overall power didn't feel exactly sporty. In a Focus with four-speed automatic, however, the car felt sluggish on hills.
Fuel economy is noteworthy, because there aren't many 2008 non-hybrid cars with government mileage ratings of 35 mpg or more. This 35-mpg rating on the highway is posted for the Focus sedan or coupe with manual transmission. The city mileage rating is 24 mpg.
While it's surprising that the Sync voice control system debuts in a low-priced, small car rather than a pricey luxury model, it will be seen elsewhere soon enough. Ford Motor Co. officials plan to put Sync in all Lincolns and many other Ford vehicles. And Microsoft plans to offer it to other automakers, after Ford's exclusive agreement with the software company expires in November 2008.
In the Focus, Sync is not available on the base S models. It's a $395 option on the mid-range SE as long as the SE also has a $415 Driver's Group option package. Sync is standard on the top-level Focus SES.
The 2008 Focus also is the first to include standard air conditioning on all models and standard curtain air bags. But antilock brakes and traction control remain options, even on the SES, and Focus doesn't offer stability control.
2008 Ford Focus Coupe SES
BASE PRICE: $14,075 for base S coupe with manual transmission; $15,075 for SE coupe with manual; $16,075 for SES coupe with manual.
AS TESTED: $18,840.
TYPE: Front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, compact coupe.
ENGINE: 2-liter, double overhead cam, inline, Duratec four cylinder.
MILEAGE: 24 mpg (city), 35 mpg (highway).
TOP SPEED: NA.
LENGTH: 175 inches.
WHEELBASE: 102.9 inches.
CURB WEIGHT: 2,588 pounds.
BUILT AT: Wayne, Mich.
OPTIONS: Audiophile stereo system with six CD player and MP3 player $645; power moonroof $625; antilock brakes and traction control $385; interior ambient lighting $295; Sirius satellite radio $195.