Ford launches 2011 Focus bristling with gadgets

Ford says its all new Ford Focus is the most technologically innovative car in its class in Europe, which is why they invited us to the launch to have a play wih all the new toys.

Although the range starts at £16,000 for the bog-standard, 1.6 petrol engined version, we were let loose in the 1.6 EcoBoost turbo petrol car, powered by Ford's Titanium X engine and loaded with every gadget available.

With all the added electronic extras and a set of smart 18-inch alloys, it all weighed in at a wallet-worrying 25 grand, which would buy you an awful lot of Volkswagen Golf, for example.

Ford's designers have tweaked the outside of the car to give it a distinctly sporty look, which may seem a little incongruous in a car which will see much of its front-line action as a low-end rep-mobile or mid-range rental, but it's when you step into the driver's seat that you really notice the Focus' tech intentions.

The cockpit looks like something out of Battlestar Galactica (the new CGI-laden re-imagining rather than the creaky 80s effortm that is) and at first feels a little claustrophobic. There's no sunroof and the large binnacle which swoops behind the rear view mirror down through a large chunk of the windscreen is, on initial contact, a bit imposing.

It feels a bit like being inside Darth Vader's helmet, and the dash and centre console with its dizzying arrays of buttons and switches add to that impression.

Surprisingly, after a few minutes of driving, that initial discomfort turns to a rather cosy, cosseted feeling, a bit like the cockpit of an F1 car or a jet fighter. There's not much room to fidget about but somehow that makes the car feel safe.

There are two screens, one in the central dash, the other in the centre console above the audio system, each controlled by a joypad on either side of the steering wheel. As you might expect one controls the car's functions, the other the entertainment. We won't go through the gamut of options, suffice to say the menus are laid out intuitively and all but the biggest luddites will soon be comfortable without having to resort to reading the dreaded manual.

Needless to say, there's a fair chunk of computing power going on here but we failed to wheedle any details about the SoC innards out of the attending Ford execs, even after several single malts.

We suspect, however, that British chip design outfit ARM may have had a some influence over the car's impressive chippery. And there's more than a nod in Apple's direction with the inclusion of the glovebox-mounted 30-pin dock connector for your iDevices.

Much of the inbuilt technology is there to allow leaden footed owners to eke the best fuel mileage out of the already frugal power plants, the most obvious being stop/start technology.

It's nothing new, and available on an increasing number of mid-range cars trying to squeeze under the current EU emissions standards, but it's quite impressive nonetheless.

Pulling up to the lights and dropping out of gear causes the engine to turn off completely and, to be honest, the Focus is so quiet at idle that the first indication we had that anything unusual was going on was when we noticed the rev counter dropping to Zero.

A small panic ensued as we realised that no-one had explained how the stop-start system actually works, but our first instinct was to drop a foot back on the clutch and, with that, everything was back in action again. We wouldn't be surprised if some users didn't happily drive about for years with the radio on without realising the engine was cutting out at all.

Heading out onto the open road, you'll notice the gear change indicator which tells you exactly when to shift up or down the six -speed manual box for optimum fuel efficiency, which, for the purposes of our test drive, we completely ignored, not least because Ford had invited us to try out the cars on the outskirts of Glasgow, which has fewer speed cameras (none) than we have ever seen in any other area of the UK.

Getting out onto the open road, you start to realise what that great lump of plastic taking up half of the windscreen is all about. It houses an array of sensors and cameras which allow the Focus to perform some of its most impressive party tricks.

Traffic Sign Recognition, as you might have gathered, recognises traffic signs. And we're not talking out-of-date GPS tracking here. The car actually takes video of the road in front of you and recognises a variety of standard signs including speed limits, even those which have been set up temporarily. The latest limit is displayed in the central dash screen and fades gradually as the information becomes older.

Anyone who has slammed on the anchors coming up to a 'safety' camera because they weren't sure of the current speed limit will be grateful for this one.

Next, we're out onto the motorway and discovering some more new toys. Drift into another lane without indicating and the Lane Departure Warning will let you know you're going off the straight and narrow. Persist with your wobbling and the computer will grab the steering wheel and put you back on the right track using the Lane Departure Aid. Try and pull out into a lane while someone is sitting in your blind spot and a little orange light flashes in your wing mirror to warn you that you're about to slam 200 grand's worth of Mercedes into the central reservation.

Auto High Beam will stop you dazzling other motorists as it dips the headlights automatically, Active City Stop will operate the brakes automagically if you're about to plough into the back of the car in front because you're paying more attention to the shop windows than the road ahead, and Active Grille Shutter cuts the car's emissions by two per cent by routing air away from the radiator intake when it doesn't need it, reducing drag.

Add active cruise control, power steering, climate control, Bluetooth, that 30-pin Apple dock connector and torque balancing, which distributes power to whichever wheel needs it most and you've still only really scratched the surface of what's going on under the skin of the 2011 Ford Focus.

If you're considering buying one new, we're sure you'll have many years of blissful motoring happy in the knowledge that you're every move is being measured and monitored by dozens of sensors and cameras. But we couldn't overcome a slight nagging worry.

If you're anything like the average thinq_ Hack, the chance of ever buying a new car fresh out of the showroom is slim to none. Your humble author drives a car almost a decade old which, despite giving many years of faithful service, is getting a bit long in the tooth. The air conditioning either wheezes like an asthmatic octogenarian or blasts shards of icy air into your face, depending on what mood it's in. The auto gearbox refuses to go into overdrive which means that driving above 50 miles an hour is noisy and very expensive, and the cruise control works but only if you want to drive at exactly 47 miles an hour.

All of these things have broken in the last three years on a car which is, technologically speaking, about as advanced as your average digital watch.

When we buy computers, we expect them to last maybe five years if we're lucky before it turns up its toes and dies. Which is all well and good in a product which is pretty much obsolete after three years.

Your gran will always be grateful for your ancient PC cast offs because all she wants to do is pootle around the Internet and read a few e-mails. But what happens to a ten-year-old Ford Focus when it gets the electronic equivalent of Alzheimer's?

Do you really want your gran behind the wheel of a car which was once capable of applying its own brakes, stopping its own engine and steering all by itself?

The PR folks at Ford tried to assure us that all of the car's systems had been thoroughly tested way beyond the expected life of the physical components, but we can't help feeling that planned obsolescence is being built into so many of the products we buy and that using masses of compute power to shave a few milligrams of CO2 off of the emissions figures is a bit like trying to stop a tsunami with a bath sponge.

You won't hear us say this too often, but there has to be a point at which so much tech is too much tech.

Having said that, check out this video of Ford's Parking Assist technology which looks fantastic but is really freaky when it's you in charge of the clutch and brakes. And it really works.