IT WASN'T SO LONG AGO that optioning a diesel engine would never have entered the heads of Australian small car buyers. How times have changed.
Over the past few years, diesels have really come of age. Power output and, most particularly, refinement, have improved to the point where modern diesel engines are no longer the petrol engine’s poor cousin - and car buyers know this.
But can the diesel really compete with a more powerful, more rev-happy modern petrol engine? And, importantly, which powertrain suits the needs of small car buyers best?
We got our hands on two Ford Focus hatchbacks to find out: one a diesel-powered Focus TDCi, the other, a petrol-swilling Focus Zetec.
As an added bonus, the cars came fitted with two very different transmissions. The Focus Zetec boasted a simple, traditional and relatively unsophisticated five-speed manual transmission. At the opposite end of the technology scale was the TDCi, which was delivered to us with Ford’s latest Powershift twin-clutch automatic.
So, two different engines and two different drivetrains. Not only that, but two different trim levels and two (slightly) different suspension setups. Which is the better of the two? Read on.
Both TDCi and Zetec share the same sheetmetal, and, peculiarly enough, both of our testers also happened to come in the same colour: Titanium Grey.
While overtly similar, the difference is in the detail. The TDCi gets a plain-wrapper exterior, with 16-inch alloys, an unpainted hatch spoiler and a set of foglights being the only points of differentiation between it and the base-model Focus CL.
The Zetec, on the other hand, scores a pair of sideskirts, a set of 17-inch alloys, blacked-out headlamp housings, a body-coloured hatch spoiler and some chrome trim on the front bumper.
The difference is subtle from afar, but the Focus Zetec is the sportier-looking of the pair.
Refreshed for 2009, the key differences between the current shape Focus and the model it replaced in April are minimal at first glance and largely confined to the front end.
New Mondeo-esque headlamp clusters replace the more squared-off units of the old model, the tail-light clusters are revised and the front bumper has sharper lines.
In fact, all panels bar the roof have been tweaked, but, despite the sheetmetal differences, the 2009 Focus is only a modest visual update.
The interior of the 2009 Focus is, fundamentally, a nice place to be. The dash layout is clean and uncluttered, simple rotary knobs control the ventilation system, the seats are supportive and comfortable and there’s plenty of storage bins.
In addition, the instrument panel is well laid out and easy to see, the steering wheel adjusts for both reach and rake, and all-round visibility is good.
In all, for both models, the whole shebang looks pretty sharp. The Zetec gets an added touch with metal doorhandles and darker console trim than the TDCi.
However, there are some negatives.
Plastic quality is inconsistent and the grey plastics on the lower half of the dash are no match for the black dashtop, which looks and feels ‘premium’. The glovebox lid in particular feels especially low-rent.
The footwells aren’t especially tight, but the presence of three pedals in the Zetec manual makes accommodating a footrest impossible. However, that’s a minor quibble compared to the surprisingly cosy packaging in the rear.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the rear seats themselves: if anything, the good padding, generous squab and three adjustable headrests mean they’re great to sit on.
Instead, it’s the fact that putting a tall person in either front seat means rear legroom disappears rather quickly, and backseat occupants may find the front pews a little too close to their knees for comfort.
There’s still an ‘adequate’ amount of legroom on offer, but considering the Focus sells for more money than the Hyundai i30 (which offers better interior packaging), it’s definitely a point to consider.
The load area offers 385 litres of luggage space with the rear seats up, which compares very favourably with the i30 and Volkswagen Golf.
Fit and finish of the boot carpet is a little rough, but the presence of shopping bag hooks and a wide hatch aperture more than compensate.
The rear seats feature a 60-40 split (but don’t fold flat), and a space saver tyre lies beneath the boot floor.
Equipment and Features
In standard, un-optioned form, the Focus TDCi and Focus Zetec ship very well featured.
The TDCi gets the standard single-CD AM/FM tuner while the Zetec scores a six-CD stacker, but sound quality of both is identical – and rather good. An auxiliary input is included on both systems, but the Zetec also gets a USB port for an iPod or memory stick.
Annoyingly though, Ford has chosen to give the Zetec and TDCi a column-mounted ‘paddle’ to house the audio controls, rather than mounting them on the steering wheel itself.
Not only is it hidden behind and below the wheel (and thus hard to see), but its functions aren’t entirely intuitive and scanning through radio stations is a chore.
Cruise control is standard on the Focus TDCi and Zetec, and, thankfully, has its controls mounted on the face of the steering wheel.
Airconditioning, power windows (with auto-up and down) and a trip computer are factory-fit on both models, however no option exists for an integrated sat-nav system on any variant in the Focus range.
Safety equipment is generous, and up-to-par with the best of the small car segment.
ABS with electronic brakeforce distribution and brake assist is standard in the Focus TDCi and Focus Zetec, alongside electronic stability control and traction control.
Passive safety features include pretensioning safety belts on the front seats, three-point belts on all five seats, front and side airbags for the front occupants and full-length curtain airbags.
Although similar in appearance, the TDCi and Zetec models we tested are very different beasts under the bonnet.
The Zetec, the more conventional of the pair, is powered by Ford’s 2.0 litre Duratec inline four: an all-alloy petrol engine that produces 107kW of power at 6000rpm and 185Nm of torque at 4500rpm.
Our tester was paired with a five-speed manual transmission, a gearbox that feels good to shift – if a little rubbery – but one that also misses out on the extra ratio enjoyed by manual-equipped diesel Focus models.
But our diesel didn’t come with the manual gearbox: it came with Ford’s Powershift transmission, the company’s first twin-clutch automated manual.
Boasting six ratios, two clutches and the ability to swap gears in the blink of an eye, the Powershift transmission combines the mechanical efficiency of a manual with the user-friendliness of an automatic.
Left in ‘Drive’, it functions just like a regular auto, the gearbox’s software juggling the clutches and gears without the driver’s intervention. A plus-minus plane is included for manual shifting, and upchanges are accomplished by pulling the gear lever back – arguably the most logical arrangement for a sequential shifter.
The Powershift twin-clutch gearbox is currently only available with the Focus TDCi, and it makes a good partner for that model’s 2.0 litre Duratorq turbodiesel.
Putting out 100kW at 4000rpm and 320Nm at just 2000rpm, the Duratorq is a stout unit.
Those numbers also go some way toward explaining the TDCi’s $1500 premium over the better-equipped Zetec, but whether they make a difference on the road is open to debate – as you’ll soon find out.
Braking hardware consists of discs all round, each clamped by a simple sliding caliper. The TDCi is equipped with 300mm ventilated rotors on the front and 280mm solid rotors on the back, which are appreciably bigger than the 278mm front, 260mm rear discs used by the Zetec.
While the TDCi holds an advantage in the braking department, the Zetec benefits from a sports suspension package.
Featuring tuned dampers and spring-rates, the Zetec’s suspension otherwise shares the TDCi’s MacPherson strut front and independent multi-link rear suspension layout.
TMR put both variants to the test over two weeks, subjecting each to a healthy spread of highway, city and suburban driving.
For city drivers, the TDCi will probably be the pick of the pair. Not only does the Duratorq turbodiesel have more than enough grunt to get the Focus off the line smartly, but the twin-clutch gearbox is a very slick affair.
Like most twin-clutch gearboxes (the VW Golf’s DSG suffers from the same affliction), the Powershift exhibits a momentary lag when taking off from a standstill. However, it’s not excessive and it’s certainly a characteristic that drivers will become accustomed to quickly.
Depending on throttle position, the Powershift gearbox provides smooth, unhurried gearchanges or fast decisive ones.
It isn’t quite as refined or as clever as Volkswagen’s DSG transmissions, but the level of sophistication, efficiency and performance it offers over a conventional automatic makes the Powershift worth the extra outlay.
Unfortunately, the TDCi has one big handicap: its weight. Tipping the scales at 1458kg it’s not exactly a whale, but compared to the 1326kg kerb mass of the Zetec Manual the TDCi auto is a touch porky.
The diesel’s extra weight explains its bigger brake package, and it also explains why it doesn’t feel quite as zippy as the petrol Zetec.
With 135Nm more torque than the petrol Focus and a quick-shifting box hooked up to the engine, one would naturally assume the diesel to be quicker off the line.
However, its extra heft coupled with a 4500rpm redline means the diesel can’t match the Zetec for outright go, and our own independent testing verified this: the Focus TDCi hit 100km/h from standstill in 11.05 seconds, while the Zetec was marginally faster at 10.77 seconds.
The Zetec is also faster through a corner. Not only does the sports-tuned suspension help when the roads get curvy, but the Zetec’s lighter engine, lower kerb weight and reduced unsprung mass all conspire to improve handling.
It changes direction far more willingly than the TDCi; the Zetec is a real pleasure to steer. It’s no sportscar mind you, but it handles well for a modestly-priced hatchback.
On suburban streets both TDCi and Zetec are comfortable to drive. Damping is good and most bumps and gaps are taken care of easily, however large potholes can send a wince-inducing thump through the cabin.
Body roll is clearly evident in both models, but not worryingly so. Grip is plentiful for regular driving conditions, however it is possible to rouse the stability and traction control systems if you get too rowdy with the tiller and accelerator.
While the TDCi may not be as fast or as nimble as the Zetec, it manages to claw back an advantage in the fuel economy stakes.
Over the course of our test drive, we achieved an average fuel consumption figure of 6.6 l/100km in the TDCi and 9.3 l/100km in the Zetec, making the diesel by far the most frugal of the pair.
So which is better: diesel, or petrol?
For this writer, the Zetec won out thanks to its engaging drive, willing engine and more involving manual transmission.
However, on the other side of the coin, it’s very easy to appreciate the TDCi for its low thirst, tractable engine and easy-going driving dynamics. And that Powershift transmission is a real gem.
The outcome of this test is entirely subjective then. Determining which makes more sense for you really boils down to whether you want the more exciting drive – choose the Zetec - or one that uses minimal fuel and is easiest about town – in this case choose the TDCi.
Engines aside though, the Focus is still an honest and capable contender in the crowded small hatchback segment.
Its design may be getting a little dated and its interior could benefit from more top-shelf materials, but it still represents decent buying – particularly for those who value good on-road dynamics.
The Focus range starts at $20,490 (plus on-roads) for the base CL hatch and tops out with the $36,990 (plus etc.) XR5 Turbo.
The Focus Zetec manual we tested retails for $26,490 (plus) and the TDCi costs $30,290 (plus) when fitted with the Powershift gearbox – a touch on the expensive side, but still a cheaper alternative to a DSG-equipped Volkswagen Golf diesel.
My advice? While the TDCi diesel is good, save the dollars on purchase and go for the petrol manual instead.
- Good handling in the Zetec
- Twin-clutch Powershift gearbox is excellent
- TDCi diesel is reasonably frugal
- Boot space is generous
- Interior quality needs to be bumped up a notch
- Rear seat legroom suffers when front seats are moved back
- TDCi not as quick as its specs would suggest
- Audio remote control 'stalk' seems like an afterthought
- Powershift transmission not available with a petrol engine