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Drew Smith: ethnographer, strategist and host of Rising Minds

Quick Thoughts: A small car in a big car’s pants: the new Ford Focus

Ford’s new Focus has been unleashed a full year ahead of it’s European on-sale date and it’s already generating substantial comment in the sphere of the blogs. Ed Stubbs and Dustin Shedlarski have both written interesting critiques of a design that I, personally, find a little schizophrenic. But let’s face it: when you’re trying to design one C-Segment product for two markets – one that’s been downsized for decades and another that’s only just coming to terms with the concept – things are bound to get a little hectic.

There isn’t much that neither Ed nor Dustin have covered, from the lower DRG composition (clearly inspired by the maniacal Focus RS but failing to relate to any of the other DRG elements) to the nicely resolved, if busy side surfacing and the fuel flap on the 5-door that relates neatly to the tail lamp (no matter that said lamp looks to have been lifted from a rejected Renault Megane proposal…).

It’s clear that, no matter what your take on the car as a whole, the exterior design of the new Focus provides a strategically sensible, dynamic counterpoint to the impeccably premium Golf, the premium arriviste Astra and the dull, crap Megane. It certainly can’t be called conservative and boring, as the previous iteration was at launch.

Yet in pouring over the images of the new Fords, it wasn’t thoughts about C-Segment competitors that were running through my mind, nor Ford’s swanky new touch-infused HMI solution (I hope to look at that in more detail soon), but rather how the side surfacing fits into a trend started by, and so far limited to, BMW and it’s SAV products.

Having a 1st generation BMW X5 in the family, I’ve had ample time to pour over the car and have often chuckled at that way the side surfaces were composed to give the impression of a sporty, lithe estate car cloaked in butch body armour. It’s a trick that BMW employed again on the second X5 and now on the X1 to even more dramatic – some would say bizarre – effect. Next time you see one, stop and take a minute to let your eyes wander over the car and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean if the pictures above don’t make it clear.

Now, it would seem, Ford is using the same stylistic device on the Focus. Take a look at the rear 3/4 shot of the sedan or hatch and tell me you can’t see a smaller car being shrouded by enormous fenders… it’s an effect not to dissimilar to Wallace wearing the Wrong Pants.

The rationale is clear: the Focus is a pan-Atlantic car and needs to appeal to US and European tastes. To that end Ford has created a car with a centre section that speaks of compact european dynamism, a rear end that is full of American mid-sized mainstream and a front that is an amalgam of large car, small car, sports car and family car. All of which sounds – and looks – like a classic case of design by committee on a car that needs to be small (to keep the Europeans on side) but big (to make Americans feel comfortable buying a smaller car) but small (to introduce Americans the benefits of a small car). Whereas BMW focused on combining two clear typologies that are universally understood – estate and 4WD – and interpreted the mix in a typicaly BMW way, the Focus struggles to adequately and simultaneously satisfy American and European expectations of what a compact Ford should be.

All of which, no doubt, will be irrelevant when the car comes to market. The interior looks bang up to date and of substantially improved quality, the HMI should be fantastic and, dynamically, it will more than likely take the class crown, continuing the proud tradition of it’s predecessors. I just wish it wasn’t wearing the wrong pants.

Category: Design Strategy, Detroit, Motor Shows

Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

11 Responses

  1. EdStubbs says:

    Think you hit the nail on the head with the comment about having to appeal to two very different markets, and the resultant compromises that have to be made. No problem if you’re sculpting a brawny D-segment BMW or Audi, but on a compact like the Focus there’s inevitably some ‘lost in translation’ moments! We’ll be getting a revised grille/lower-intake treatment in the EU which will be a little more refined..

  2. Ben says:

    I keep seeing all this praise for the interior but all I can see is an overly complicated and “technical” mess. Even if that’s the top spec car pictured, the number of buttons on the steering wheel gives me the creeping horrors and the centre-stack somehow manages to appear positively covered in buttons while also having almost none.

  3. admin says:

    While it wont win prizes for subtlety, the interior – like the exterior – seems to be a sensible strategic response to the Golf and Astra, which both offer quite different approaches to IP design.

    I agree with you on the proliferation of buttons but Audi, BMW and Mercedes are the only manufacturers that I know of that have come up with anything like a satisfactory solution to the issue, and those solutions are not cheap to implement well.

    The Opel Insignia and any of the Renault navigation systems, which all use cut-price, home-brand variations on proper MMI systems, are so woefully underbaked that I’d rather have a well-resolved, if chaotic-looking set of buttons than be stuck twiddling crap multi-function knobs.

  4. Ben says:

    IP design?

    Nothing wrong with a well-thought out proliferation of buttons, but this seems to have a multi-function wheel under the big screen, surrounded by what I’m guessing are the capacitive touch buttons, then the HVAC controls lower down.

    In the end I’m going from a 400px wide pic, so what do I know? 🙂

    Oh! I know this: Most people will be coming to this from a car at least a few years older, probably two models back, and so, sitting in the showroom, they’ll be impressed.

  5. Barton Smith says:

    Nice write up mate.

    What I also find interesting is the tapered window around the c-piller and how it is becoming more prevalent over the trend to cut the glass back in.

    Whether that is Oliver Stefan or Gorden Wagener’s influence or not I don’t know.

  6. Brian Driggs says:

    More edgy than the Edge. More contoured than the Contour. Some might think there’s too many aspects fighting for focus, but I think that’s part of why I think it’s such a cracking little car.

    It seems as if the new models Ford is producing are uniquely Ford. While Kias are looking more like VWs (which are looking more like Audis) and Hyundais are enjoying a few pints with the Mercedes design team, these new Fords really stand out.

    Consider me smitten with the new Fords. The Fiesta, this Focus, the Taurus and even the Raptor all speak to me. Not as a designer, because I’m not, but as a gearhead. It’s been years since I decided that there’s no point in buying a brand new car if you know how to maintain them yourself, but Ford sure is making it hard to stick to those guns.

    They must be doing something right.

  7. Bhaven Chauhan says:

    Since the first images of the new Focus were revealed, I’ve been waiting for a decent review of it’s interior and exterior design (most other car blogs simply state the obvious and don’t actually critique it)

    Good to finally read a proper review; and I’m glad there’s others out there that can see what a mess the exterior is.

    I feel Ford’s “Kinetic Design” theme hit it’s peak with the latest Fiesta, which had a very cohesive aesthetic… seems like it’s all downhill from here.

  8. Massimo says:

    It’s funny…

    how people try to be kind; start saying:
    -it’s step forward;
    -it’s challeging;
    -it’s unusual (if compare to Golf and etc.);

    -that we need to adjust our eyes (the americans apperently have 4 eyes; or maybe, we back in europe have only 1; and how about the asian?);

    -that we need to adjust our taste;
    and
    -that is always easier doing something else rather than the right thing…

    This car doesn’t have head neither tail; or as Drew put it has it too much; maybe it’s not what you call ULTIMATE Ugly; nevertheless is a mess. I can say that by the time it goes in production they better change bumpers, lamps and etc.

    And the interior as previously said in other posts above is ultra-complicated, and other are doing it better.

    I would like to stop then on some copycat elements that are simply out of place (are they [ford] missing creativity, are the ford designers staying too much on facebook looking what the others are doing?).

    I mean in the all studio nobody stopped a second and say: “Hey guys we have the lamps like a megane, or the c-pillar like the astra”, BUT of course the most irrelevant element in a car design the fuel filler flap is new. GREAT, BIG DEAL!!

    Is it naivety, is it arrogance; is it selfishness; or is it simply that who was designing the Megane finished its contract and then was employed by Ford (and by now is at PSA or FIAT).

    I keep wondering how this industry is keeping doing what it does, in such unawareness.

    So what Ford did then, was not a car for Europeans, and neither a car for Americans; what Ford did then is a car the afloat (i didn’t say sink)…

    Afloat in the big Ocean the divides the 2 side of the Atlantic.

  9. Drew says:

    Hey Bhav,

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment. It’s interesting that you think that kinetic peaked with the Fiesta as I’ve been told that the new Focus is basically the last iteration of Martin Smith’s kinetic design language. Post-Focus, Ford is said to be introducing a new global design language that will be collaborated on across the US, European and Asian studios. How this works out in practice remains to be seen. I guess if people take the view that the new Focus is confused, it’s because it’s had to embody two different Ford design languages, Kinetic (Europe) and Bold (North America).

    You can see the same level of confusion in the current Aussie Falcon. As US exports were on the cards for that, it has Bold proportions about it but a lot of the surface treatments and graphics are an unsuccessful (in my eyes at least) take on Kinetic.

    With any luck, Ford’s global car program will lead to a much more cohesive design direction. J Mays has said that we’ll start seeing the first concepts previewing the new language in 2012.

  10. Drew says:

    Massimo! Welcome back!

    Little more to say other than, as usual, you’re bang on.

    I was astonished when I looked at Ed’s review comparing the Astra and the Megane and saw the graphic similarities.

    In any case, you and I both know what will happen to the companies that continue to be so complacent. Thank god there’s a new Ford language on the way. It’ll give them a chance to blow the complacency out of the water and leave their awkward pan-Atlantic transition period behind.

  11. Dustin says:

    The confused Focus does look better in person. These photos do over exaggerate the surface details. I do still believe it could be simplified and cleaned up. I have heard rumors on the next Fusion/ Mondeo (new design language?) that it looks amazing. And that it will blow away everything else on the market. Of course this came from a Ford designer and I am sure he is a bit biased. I do know one thing and that is the Focus looks way better than what America has currently. As for what will come out of this awkward puberty stage Ford is in, I guess we will have to wait and see….

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