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Two for the home team: 2012 Ford Focus vs. 2011 Chevrolet Cruze

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  March 7, 2011 01:14 PM

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(All photos by manufacturers except Focus interior: Clifford Atiyeh/Boston.com Staff). Click photo for larger version.

Think how cheated you'd feel if the Red Sox saved their best performances for away games, leaving the home crowd with lukewarm, five-inning-long shows. Imagine baseball fans in Croatia with first baseline tickets to Fenway while native Bostonians, waiting and praying by Gate C, had only nosebleeds.

With that kind of treatment, how could anyone root for the home team?

I'm not a Sox fan — the sports section is all Croatian to me — but I know how it feels, year after year, to be disappointed with what you can't have. In the automotive arena, I've been crushed to find rally-spec, 300-horsepower Ford Focus hatchbacks in the United Kingdom, while the US is stuck with the previous generation model that's now 11 years old.

Then I'd croon for attractive family sedans from General Motors' popular European brands, Vauxhall and Opel, and find there were no American counterparts. When I visited the Geneva Auto Show three years ago this month, I nearly cried in a Ford Mondeo, the super-sporty four-door any average European can buy.

Home team, zero.

After years misjudging the nation's appetite for small cars, American automakers are making up to us. GM brought over those Vauxhalls and Opels as Saturns, and even after Saturn died in 2009, they continued the European bloodline with new Buicks like the 2011 Regal. Last year, Ford went so far to import its compact Transit Connect work van from Turkey, and handed Americans a truly likeable subcompact, the Fiesta. But two of the best new cars, the 2011 Chevrolet Cruze and 2012 Ford Focus, are their most heartfelt apologies to date.

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Click photo for larger version.

It's not that their predecessors, the Cobalt and 2011 Focus, were awful. In 2009, the Focus was one of the best-selling cars during the government's "Cash for Clunkers" program. But as in most months, the Focus — and the Cobalt, which didn't make the top 10 clunker trades — couldn't shake the Corolla and Civic from their cement perches. Buyers keep flocking to Honda and Toyota because every new model is as predictable as the last (built since 1968, the Corolla is the world's best-selling car of all time). They're not expecting eye-popping, innovative design and execution.

Those last five words are the first things you'll notice about the new Cruze, on sale since the fall, and the new Focus, which should arrive at dealers by the time you read this. Their gutsy blend of style, technology, and performance feels rather shocking, except when you realize how long the rest of the world has been enjoying them.

The Cruze, designed by GM Daewoo in Korea, went to Asian and European dealers in 2009. The Focus is new worldwide, though its rakish shape is very familiar to the second-generation European model. Americans couldn't taste the lovely Focus hardtop convertible in those years, but we're on the guest list for the hardcore 247-horsepower Focus ST debuting in 2012. Consider the home team thoroughly appeased.

Open and shut a Cruze or Focus and you'll hear the reassuring thump of thick metal and dampened latches. By comparison, the doors on a Kia Forte or the larger Hyundai Sonata close with a hollow pang. Everything, from the door handles to the hand brake pulls, feels pulled off more expensive rides (the chunky Cruze steering wheel with its knobbed palm grips is nicer than an Audi A4's). There are more soft rubber surfaces inside the Ford, but the Cruze interior looks classier and is easier to work, with chrome-ringed gauges, finer switchgear, and a simpler, more intuitive layout for the audio and vehicle controls.

2012-Ford-Focus-interior.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

Ford relies on two steering wheel-mounted "D-pads" — the classic four-way Nintendo-style controls — to command two LCD screens. Operating the audio and Bluetooth phone menus with these pads, however, seems like they're meant to be a backup for the voice-activated Sync system. For example, if you want to switch between one of three auxiliary inputs or select an iPod track, you need to first press the "menu" button on the console, then go back to the pads to select your choice. It's not a deal breaker, but sometimes you're not in the mood to talk.

2011-Chevrolet-Cruze-interior.jpg

Click photo for larger version.

Our $24,185 Cruze LTZ packed more options (18-inch wheels, 6-speed automatic, moonroof, premium sound, and leather) than our Focus SE hatchback could offer at $21,250 (Ford lets you throw all these items on, too, as a sedan or hatch). Touch-screen navigation and infotainment systems weren't included on our test cars. But the fact these options are here at all — like the Chevy's three-stage heated seats and automatic climate control with air quality sensors — is proof you don't need to wear size 15 shoes to get the big and tall treatment.

Case in point: Rear side airbags and front knee airbags are standard on the $16,000 base Cruze, and unheard of in all but the priciest German sedans.

Most small cars remind you how small they are on the highway, where shorter wheelbases and four-cylinder engines tend to give a harsher, noisier ride than larger cars. That doesn't happen here. Ford and Chevy have gone to town on sound deadening material — they've laminated the windshields several times over, covered parts of the engine and hood, and filled all sorts of gaps and holes so 70 mph feels utterly peaceful. The engines aren't buzzing — they're geared properly, and the chassis are as planted as the best midsize cars. Ford even tunes the Focus steering rack to automatically compensate for crosswinds.

When the straightaways dissolve into side streets, the Focus and its more powerful 2.0-liter engine show up the Chevy's turbocharged 1.4-liter. The difference between 160 and 138 horsepower isn't much, but the Focus serves up smoother and more gratifying thrust. It's a quieter car during acceleration, and the steering is quicker and more direct. Think creamy polenta versus buttery grits. I did, however, find our Ford's optional sport suspension to be a little stiff on bad pavement and the Chevy's a tad more compliant.

Ford left out a sixth gear on the SE's standard 5-speed manual (the Cruze comes with six), but it's a well-spaced, precise stick that could have dropped out of a BMW. The Cruze's 6-speed automatic is without fault, although it could drop out of top gear quicker for passing. I tried the 6-speed dual-clutch automatic in the Fiesta sedan, which actually gets better gas mileage than the manual, and found it a hair faster to react. Bottom line for these cars: plan well ahead before you merge.

Of course, gas mileage is a big factor for a compact car, and here's where it gets really confusing. Chevy rates our automatic Cruze LTZ at 24 mpg city, 36 highway. The manual Cruze LS does 26 in the city. If you step up to the mid-priced Eco trim, you're rewarded with 28 city and a class-leading 42 highway, but only if you choose the manual transmission. Take the Eco automatic you're back down to 26 city and 37 highway.

It's the same with the Focus. The SE trim is estimated at 26 city, 36 highway, and the highest 28/40 rating is only on the SE automatic with the $495 SFE package, which deletes the pretty alloy wheels for cheap covers. Hyundai attacks these discrepancies in commercials for the new Elantra, which delivers a single 29/40 rating across all trim levels and transmissions. They're right — Ford and Chevy are advertising high fuel economy numbers that are only available on very specific, limited production trims.

Fuel economy niggles aside, the Cruze and Focus look and drive like world champs. But should it hurt our national pride that the Koreans and Europeans have built the best American compacts in years? I don't think so. The automotive industry has gone global for decades, and it's clear our US divisions are better engineering the midsize sedans and large pickups that dominate our market. And, by the way, those flashy new Kias were penned in Germany.

Sox fanatics wouldn't have cared if their whole team were filled with David Ortizes and Dice-Ks. To ride a home victory, as Ford and Chevy are doing now, it helps to bring the best from everywhere.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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