Lets start this review on a positive note. I love my Ford Focus SE hatchback. I've had it for about a year now and have had zero real problems. I bought it used with just a few thousand miles and have put on several thousand since. I average 31 mpg with snow tires and 33-35 with summer tires. It's quiet, comfortable, and (once you get used to it) outfitted with formidable tech. I think the biggest reason I am happy with my choice is that I chose a 5-speed manual transmission rather than the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission that comes standard in these cars.

I first started looking for new cars after my trusty 2003 Hyundai Elantra decided to kick the bucket last winter. As a poor graduate student I needed a car that would get me to work, have room for trips and minor field-work, and would do it without breaking down and while being really fuel efficient. The Focus stuck out immediately as a contender. I could get one that was still under manufacturer warranty for around $9,000, what a deal! It was a nearly new car that was contending with cars with vastly more miles. I had driven one as a rental car and liked the sporty-feeling handling, so I pursued a few.

This car has everything you want, and it's pretty cheap. The exterior styling is great, I especially like the hatchback design and the grill is striking. The interior is nice as well. The seats are really comfortable, which is something I can't say for a lot of small cars. There is just enough rear room for adults, and it works fine for my son. The seats fold down completely flat and give you tons of room in back if needed. The steering wheel is really comfortable and the displays are well done. The speaker system in the SE is really nice and the radio seems to pick things up well. If fact the specs of the entertainment system are really attractive. Bluetooth and USB connectivity, along with voice recognition and optional directions and SIRIUS radio make for a pretty nice sounding package.

The layout of the entertainment console leaves a lot to be desired
The entertainment system is actually my one big complaint though. It is almost there but there are enough weird glitches to make it pretty annoying until you get used to it. The buttons that take over most of the central console (if you have the base model or My Ford Sync versions) are horribly arranged and mostly useless. Perhaps the most annoying feature is that there are seek/scan buttons on both the steering wheel and the console…and they do different things depending on which you use. Trying to manually tune a radio station was incredibly aggravating. But, eventually you learn to ignore the buttons on the console, use the voice control whenever possible, and things work out.

The voice control is really pretty good. There is a strange glitch when trying to get audio to work through the USB cord (you have to time your command for just after you start the audio on your device or the audio never comes through). Bluetooth audio works really well and calls are picked up clearly enough that it isn't annoying to the person you call. The paddle-style voice control on the wheel is really nice (though I have noticed that newer models have moved this functionality to the multi-selector switch).

The twin screens (and their multi-selectors on each side of the wheel)
take some time to get used to
Getting used to the twin displays takes some time, and I think it could have been done better. There are two identical multifunction selectors on the front of the steering wheel. The left-hand selector controls the display on the instrument console. The right-hand selector controls the center console display. This works well once your brain has adjusted to the idea, but it takes some time before you automatically know which thumb should be pressing buttons.

Speaking of the displays, I'm a huge fan of the fuel efficiency readout. I'm not usually a hyper miler, but  having a display that gives you feedback on your speed, shifting, anticipation and gas mileage turns out to really change my habits. I'm sure it doesn't work for everyone, but I catch myself paying more attention to my shifting especially (I almost always have full scores for speed and anticipation, but shifting is much more finicky). I appreciate the extra incentive to be a bit greener.

Now, for the bad stuff.

There are a few people online who have faulted the durability of the interior, including rattling and broken interior parts. There are also some problems reported with the front suspension that are covered in Technical Service Bulletin's from Ford. I have had no problems yet. The biggest problems I've had are peeling chrome on the steering wheel and around the top of the shifter. These were there from the previous owner and haven't progressed so I'm not too bent out of shape about them. I'd prefer they weren't there, but it's not worth making a fuss about something that small and cosmetic. But, there are bigger fish to fry in terms of durability with this model.

Peeling chrome one the steering wheel

Peeling chrome around the edge of the shifter
One minor gripe is that the cup holders are really poorly designed, especially in the back seat. They are tucked back against the corner of the seats, tilted, and unstable. My son has spilled multiple drinks in back already. The front ones are also pretty poorly designed, but at least they are flat. There is a little molded plastic pocket between the shifter and the driver that is possibly the most poorly designed storage I've ever witnessed in any context. Tilted, not square, and shallow it barely holds a pack of Trident gum. So far the only things it holds well are a tube of Chapstick and a pair of fingernail clippers…beyond that it is fully useless. So, storage isn't a strong suit of this car though the parking card holders in the console and the pen clip in the glove compartment are nice touches.

As I started to look into cars I started to read some rumors more disturbing than peeling chrome and poor storage about the 2012 and later Ford Focus. Ford had switched to a newly designed 6-speed Powershift transmission for the redesigned Focus that shifted using two computer controlled clutches. Essentially it is a manual transmission (with all of it's fuel efficiency advantages) that is run by a computer in order to give the driver all the advantages of an automatic transmission. In theory this isn't a bad idea…the worlds fastest car, the Bugatti Veyron, uses a computer controlled dual-clutch transmission that is (at least theoretically) a similar idea. The Focus transmission is not, by any stretch of the imagination, in the same league as the Veyron. For one, the clutches are dry. Second, it costs about half a life's pay less money. Third, if you get a Veyron you can expect it to run consistently.

Ford has been plagued by complaints about the transmission since it was introduced. There have been multiple Technical Service Bulletins sent out to Ford service dapartments about everything from rough shifting to clutches being ruined by leaking transmission oil and just plain worn out clutches. There are some reports on FocusFanatics.com of people having to have the entire transmission rebuilt. There seem to be multiple problems, both software and hardware related, with this transmission.

I test drove a Focus hatchback with this auto-magical transmission and it was perfectly fine. My rental car was also fine driving round trip between Milwaukee and Manatowish Waters, WI for my friends wedding. So, my own experiences have been fine…but I've had plenty of reason to be thankful for choosing the manual transmission.

The first reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Powershift transmission was directly from the dealer. I stopped in to have a hose replaced under warranty on my washer fluid tank. As I was waiting, the dealer I had test driven with got to talking with me. He asked if I had eventually purchased the Powershift or the 5-speed manual transmission. When I said I had gone with the manual he said, "Whew, good. We've been getting multiple warranty repairs a week on the Powershift. You made a good choice." The service manager, who I went to highchool with, said about the same thing when I picked my car up from the service department. This dealership is small, in a town of 30,000 people or less, so that many warranty repairs on one model is huge!

The second reason I have to doubt the Powershift is the experience of my cousin and her husband, who own a 2012 Focus hatchback just like mine but with the Powershift transmission. It has spent weeks in the shop, on multiple occasions, and still doesn't run right. All the TSB's have been run on it, including updating the firmware and replacing the clutches. My cousin calls it, "The car from hell." It runs rough, lurches at low speeds, lugs at starts and as the symptoms get worse it refuses to go at all. The next thing you know the clutches are shot. They bought it new and it's still under warranty, but it has been in the shop enough that they both are completely exasperated.

My manual transmission on the other hand has been a dream. It runs at a pretty high RPM on the hiway, about 3,000rpm at 65mph, but it has plenty of power and shifts really smoothly from a stop. I have yet to have any issues with the drive train at all.

So, overall, I would recommend the 2012 and newer Ford Focus to anybody. It looks great, has a great interior, is really responsive to drive, and has great interior tech. It's cheap on the used market, probably due to the problems with the Powershift transmission. It's also really fuel efficient. But…if you get one you'd better be able to drive a stick. I wouldn't own one with the 6-speed Powershift transmission unless it was given to me as a gift, and even then I'd think twice.