We've become used to the warble and whirr of a tiny three-cylinder engine in city cars such as the Toyota Aygo, Citroen C1 and Peugeot 107, but is Ford's decision to fit its all-new, 1.0-litre triple into its best-selling Focus a step too far? We travelled to Spain to find out.
More than 200 engineers based in Dunton, Essex, have worked on this little engine, and their painstaking development shows. The iron-block, aluminium-cylinder head unit has several innovations, including three tiny pistons with four valves per cylinder, direct fuel injection, a minute turbocharger (from German firm Continental) and a maintenance-free, oil-lubricated camshaft drivebelt. It only weighs 97kg with its ancillaries, and is so tiny that the block is no wider than an A4 sheet of paper.
It's available in two power outputs; 98bhp with a five-speed gearbox, or 123bhp and a six-speed gearbox. Ford says it is working on a twin-clutch semi automatic for the unit, too. The official fuel economy figure for the 123bhp unit is 56.5mpg.
But why is this engine in the Focus first, when the Fiesta seems the more logical recipient? Ford's petrol engine chief engineer Andrew Fraser explained that the three-cylinder is designed to replace the ageing 1.6-litre petrol unit, which makes up a tiny percentage of Fiesta sales, but about 15 to 20 per cent of Focus sales. The new three-cylinder is available in base Focus Edge trim for £16,245 with the 98bhp engine, but the most popular model is likely to be this Zetec car with 123bhp, priced at £17,745.
Under the bonnet, the engine looks pretty small, although with all the engine ancillaries and pumps at the front of the block, it fills the available space. Start it up, and there's a funny squirrelly noise from the starter motor, but then an almost silent idle. You would be hard pressed to tell how many cylinders are pumping up and down. That remains the abiding impression on the move, as Ford has elected to damp down the warbling signature tune of a three-cylinder. This is fine and good, except when you do hear the whirring engine on part throttle openings, it comes as a complete surprise. Another surprise is the amount of torque available, especially around 3,000-4,000rpm, where the unit feels lively and strong.
However, hills, speed and heavy loads show up the engine's relative lack of torque (although the turbo will over boost from 170 to 200Nm for 30 seconds) and drag the performance down. Overtaking, pulling out of sharp turns, or climbing steep hills often require a couple of down changes, although the engine makes no complaints and happily revs to its 6,500rpm red line. The all-new six-speed gearbox is a gem, too, with finely tuned ratios (less than 2,500rpm at 70mph in sixth gear) and a fluid-feeling gearshift.
With 30kg less in the nose, the Focus feels incredibly light. The handling is much improved over the 1.6-litre petrol, with better turn-in to corners and a supple, comfortable ride. Braking, too, feels more positive, with less nose dive as you apply the anchors. Above all the Focus is really quiet and refined. Lift off the accelerator, and with less engine braking than the four-cylinder units, the Focus simply keeps rolling.
Add in Ford's well-proven cabin design, safety features such as lane-departure warning, City-Stop braking, and useful options like the new active door-edge protectors, Quick Clear windscreen and active parking, and you'll wonder if Britain's favourite family hatchback hasn't just got a bit more appealing in every way.