Time to Downsize

By Hannah Wallace May 31, 2008

Sales reports from Detroit automakers this year have been grim. Pickup trucks sit on dealer lots. So do sport utilities, many minivans, so-called crossover vehicles and, surprising to some, large luxury cars.

The crash of America's real estate-housing sector explains the truck flop. Those in construction who depend on healthy growth are not buying new work trucks this year. It's a good time to be a mechanic, in fact. Older vehicles are being repaired, not traded in.

And with soaring gasoline-diesel prices in the first quarter, many buyers are stepping down for their next vehicle, settling for satisfying need instead of want. Corporate layoffs and frightened consumers have combined to ratchet down the standard of living for many.

This year's bleak economic news might explain why a number of smaller cars have been sent for test driving lately. Frankly, I welcome a chance to drive something under $20,000, to get a proper contrast to luxury cars topping $100,000. But the automaker's motive is more likely to spotlight what has a realistic chance of finding buyers. That's probably the reason a 2008 Ford Focus was dropped off and left for an unusual two weeks.

This popular four-door has a suggested retail price of $16,375. Slap on just about every desirable option, from satellite radio to heated seats, and it tops out at $20,200. That's about as affordable as today's market offers.

And it probably explains the first quarter report , in which Ford sales took a hit, as did most manufacturers, in profitable vehicles, but showed an 11 percent increase over last year with sales of the Focus.

This little car has caught on. Think of it as an American alternative to Camrys and Accords and Altimas.

There are several models of Focus and young people tend to gravitate to the two-door ones (Focus offers a new coupe design for 2008). But add a newborn to the mix and the Focus sedan becomes the more desirable. Entry and exit, front or back, is easy even while carrying a baby and car seat.

The sedan is good-looking, but has some tarted-up features that detract from its basic good looks in my book. A curved piece of chrome is located aft of each front fender, apparently to create a kind of racy "air intake" look. It's out of place on this car.

So is the mini-wing atop the rear of the trunk lid. These wings add downward air pressure for race cars at high speeds, helping to stabilize them; it looks silly on a small sedan like the Focus.

More chrome circles the taillights, each of which displays more light from a side view than a rear one. A bigger surface is needed to help those behind a Focus at night.

The real attraction is not found in the car’s exterior, however. In two weeks, I drove the Focus about 700 miles and averaged 35 miles per gallon in mixed city/highway use. That is outstanding. (With an extended interstate trip, it averaged 37 mpg.)

I'm a bit disturbed that anti-lock brakes are paired with traction control as a $385 option. Those need to be standard equipment. Other options? The automatic transmission is $815. Leather bucket seats cost $695. Something called ambient interior lighting was $295 on our tester. And a spare tire was $60.

Our ramped-up audio system was $645 and adding the satellite radio feature tacked on another $195.

But many makers of small cars have a practice of making almost everything "optional." That low sticker price seen on TV is never the actual purchase price. Hard to imagine telling a Ford dealer you want a stick-shift Focus without a spare tire. Now, that would be a special order!

Lately I've had a succession of Hyundais and Kias and small cars and they all have this in common: Their build quality cannot match higher-priced cars. No surprise, really.

In the Focus, a large plastic cover fell into the front passenger's footwell. It appeared to clip under the glove compartment, but no one crawled under there far enough to find out where it went. Another large plastic piece turned loose while I was driving on the interstate, swinging down to strike my ankles and then toppling over to the floor. It was startling. When I stopped, I tossed it to the rear seat.

As the price for a vehicle goes down, so do quality factors involving noise, vibration and harshness. NVH is an important measure for automakers and you get what you pay for. In less expensive cars like the Focus, wind noise created from the windshield can be heard inside the car. Tire noise can be a factor. Clearly, less insulation, perhaps of lower quality, is used to cut costs.

If your need is primarily a commuter car, however, and you need 35 mpg fuel economy to help your budget's bottom line, you'll not likely let wind noise stand in your way. Overall, the Focus performed well. It cruised and passed at interstate speeds, then crawled for two hours through traffic stopped by an accident.

I came to understand why its sales are up while most others are down.

Robert C. Bowden produces The Car Place, a Forbes Best of the Web selection, and can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] 

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