The Ford Focus sits in the 'small car' segment - even though its dimensions are quite generous. It has a great many competitors among them the top-selling Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla, plus the Hyundai i30. 'Should you buy one?' is a complex question depending on many factors, but the one I keep coming back to is risk management.
Watch the video (right) or read my report on which small car to buy >>
The last thing you want to do is drop the big bucks on a Ford Focus, and have it develop a problem that either can be, or won't be adequately fixed. It's very hard to get detailed information on cars and their problems - because this is an issue the car industry does not want oxygenated.
Here's what we absolutely know.
The small car segment is intensely competitive, with more than 30 different vehicles on offer. Almost a quarter of all vehicle sales are in this segment (250,000 sales in Australia in 2014). The Focus is a moderately successful entrant (15,000 sales) against the top sellers in the 40,000 ballpark (for Mazda3 and Toyota Corolla).
Ford is increasingly uncompetitive - its sales have dropped from 129,000 to 80,000 in the past 10 years - a decline of 38 per cent. It is a huge step backwards. Part of this is the Falcon, which has all but evaporated. But much of it is a consequence of customer alienation, disenfranchisement, etc.
Both here in Australia and internationally, Ford has lost sight that no matter how big you are, the business still depends on customers. And the easiest way to grow your customer base is to ensure that existing customers keep coming back.
Here's why they don't.
This is just one example: Meet Malcolm, a Ford Focus Trend 2.0-litre owner. The car is 18 months old, still under warranty and purchased new, and it's got a problem. Here's his story:
Malcolm told be his car shudders and vibrates under load and in tight cornering. He described it as "very clunky". This happened from the very first day of ownership, and he told me he'd been enduring it for 18 months.
To make matters worse, it sounded to me like Malcolm was getting a truly world-class brush-off from his local dealer. They were busily doing nothing of substance, but they were providing an impressive load of lip-service.
I think we'd all agree new cars are not supposed to feel this way. Malcolm e-mailed me, and I tried to get some action out of Ford.
I needn't have bothered.
My full response to Malcolm's problem is here >> But basically I told him that the dealers response was comprehensively inadequate, and I forwarded it to a PR executive at Ford Australia, Neil McDonald, the brand communications manager. Mr McDonald responded:
"We have a program in place for the Focus transmission and dealers are aware of it. I’m surprised the customer has been brushed off because the dealer body has been tasked with assisting all customers and working through with HQ.
"To background, Ford is providing owners of vehicles equipped with the PowerShift 6-speed transmission an extended warranty covering the clutch and transmission input shaft seals as well as the transmission software calibration that may affect shift-quality performance, in the event that the vehicle exhibits excessive transmission clutch shudder on light acceleration. The extension is two years.
"We provided a technical service bulletin to all dealers in October 2013 under which they have been inspecting and replacing shaft seals if needed, and cleaning and replacing clutches on some vehicles equipped with the PowerShift trans.
"This only affects the 2.0 GTDi petrol engines as the 2.0 TDCi engine uses a wet clutch.
"If you want to go back to the customer and grab his contact details I’ll follow up with CRC. If he has been dealing with a dealer they should have provided a case number as well so we can follow up. It’s hard to comment on what work has been done without knowing the full story. If the car is 18 months old it should still be under warranty.”
HERE IS WHAT ULTIMATELY HAPPENED
The promised customer service follow-up occurred. Malcolm e-mailed me back today, roughly six weeks after contacting me initially. This is the disheartening outcome:
"Many thanks again for your input into this issue. A Ford customer service rep did contact me. In summary, Ford claim that the car is designed fit for purpose and will do nothing more. I requested they confirm this in writing, which they have. Basically they write that the car complies with acceptable quality under Australian Consumer Law, it is safe, durable, free of defects ........blah blah etc etc.
"They also sent me a flyer on the powershift which includes a statement that a "bedding in period" is required for the first few hundred kilometres but can be longer. They acknowledge that " a slight shudder or vibration" may be experienced which is "normal" and will disappear as the clutch beds in. Quite frankly if they placed their usual LARGE marketing billboards above these cars in their sales showrooms, stating that these cars may have rattling noises and shuddering at low speeds, who would buy them! But of course they claim this all normal!
"I have happily owned many Ford Falcons - and a 250 Cortina long ago - but I will never buy another Ford. How they can claim this driving experience is "normal" is unbelievable. So John, I think Ford is too big to take on, and I am sure their legal team are all over their issues. The whole thing stinks.
I've never met Malcolm, never driven the car. I can't therefore verify the problem. But even if there is absolutely no problem, this is serious customer service failure. A failure to explain normal operation. A failure to maintain a positive relationship with a long-term customer. Malcolm is just one person like the 50,000 who have already walked away.
On balance of probability, however, I think there is a real problem. This is a known issue and it seems to me the balance of probability falls well on the side of putting the customer last, and putting corporate hubris first. This looks like a first-rate job of arse covering to me.
There are plenty of alternative vehicles to buy, from brands with a much stronger pedigree on both the customer service and vehicle quality fronts.
On the basis of these probabilities, and in the interests of managing risk, my strong advice is: Don't buy a Focus - it's too much of a risk. See my report on which small car to buy instead >>