Review: 2013 Ford Focus SE hatchback

Upon reserving a “Ford Focus or equivalent” on the Budget Rental Car website, my expectations instantly dropped to the floor. Like most people who hear the words “Ford Focus”, the only thing that came to my mind was “crap” – though I have to admit that the actual words in my head were a bit more harsh than that. I was definitely planning for the worst.

So yeah…my wife and I recently rented a 2013 Ford Focus SE from Budget at the Reno Airport. We were flying in from San Diego and needed a car for a long weekend of skiing at Heavenly, and being that the weather was good and we didn’t have a lot of luggage with us, a small car like the Focus was all we needed. Of course the car guy in me wanted to go all-out and get something cool like the Camaro SS I recently rented in Phoenix, but my wife might have killed me if I did that. She’s far more practical smart than I am!

First impressions

They told me at the counter that it was red, which instantly raised my spirits. There’s no better color on a car IMHO, so at least it would have that going for it. But it got even better – once I actually saw the car, I realized that this was not the stripped-down and soulless Foucs I had envisioned in my head. What Budget actually gave us was a fully-optioned SE model with all the sporty bits like gray aluminum wheels, leather interior, and that cool red paint to match. Alright! It was right then that I knew that this might not be so bad after all.

Ford Focus SE front view

2103 Ford Focus SE front view

There wasn’t a lot of time to get to know the car before we set off on our drive out of Reno towards Heavenly / Lake Tahoe. It was 3:45pm at this point, and we needed to be there before 5pm to pick up our rental skis. If we were going to make it in time, we needed to leave now – so we literally threw our bags in the back and started driving.

small Ford Focus looks big

Although it looks a bit big from the outside, it’s actually quite a small car

large hatch area of the 2013 Ford Focus

Here’s another angle that makes the Focus look more like a minivan rather than a compact car. Looks can be deceiving!

Ford Focus compact size

If you step back from it a bit, it’s small size becomes more apparent.

All of the major controls were easy to find within the first few minutes, which says a lot considering that I was trying to drive and get comfortable at the same time. I knew immediately that the car felt good – nice supportive seats, gauges that were easy to read, and very good visibility to the outside from any angle. Even though this particular car had over 21,000 miles on it, it felt really tight and there were no annoying rattles or creaks. Structurally, it felt like a brand new car.

ford focus keys

Keys to the Focus

Handling

One of the good things about this rental experience was that it required a lot of time driving on winding mountain roads (HWY 50 on the east side of Lake Tahoe). Therefore, I got a pretty good feel as to how this car handled in a variety of driving conditions and coming away with a clear understanding of what it was best suited for. So what’s the verdict? This car is most fun on mountain roads at slower speeds. It’s not a race car, and it’s really easy to push to the limits around tight corners, but it’s totally fun to cruise around in the mountains at a casual pace.

dark gray wheels on the Focus SE

The dark gray alloy wheels (P215/50R17’s) give the Focus a sporty look

gray 17" wheels on this Ford Focus SE

Closeup of the 17″ wheels on this Ford Focus SE

It also tracks very well on the freeway. Road noise is higher than what we hear in our Honda Fit, which isn’t surprising considering the sportier tires on this Focus.

Interior

I’ve seen plenty of pictures of the Focus interior from magazines and blog articles, and I had always thought it looked too crazy for me. It looked like it was designed for the young male demographic, and although I am male, I am not so young anymore. It didn’t really appeal to me.

Ford Focus SE black leather interior

2013 Ford Focus SE black leather interior

black leather front seats

Front leather seats

center console design

The center console is very aggressively designed, but it’s very functional – everything is in easy reach.

However, that all changed once I got the chance to spend some time with this car. Yeah, there’s a lot going on visually – but it’s so darn comfortable! And I like the cockpit feel from the driver’s seat. It looks and feels like a sports car, which as a guy, thinks is pretty cool. For what it’s worth, my wife was not amused.

ford focus steering wheel and gauges

Closeup of the steering wheel and gauges in this Focus SE

gauge cluster closeup

Closeup of the gauge cluster

front door panel

Front door panel detail

I didn’t get the chance to sit in the back seats, but I did have plenty of opportunity to stuff a lot of things into the back. The rear hatch area easily swallowed our two large suitcases, as well as several pairs of ski’s with the poles and boots to go with them. This car can easily swallow a lot of cargo thanks to the split-folding rear seats.

rear hatch space

There’s a bunch of space to swallow all your stuff in the back hatch area of the Focus

Engine and transmission

This Focus was powered by a 2.0 L Inline 4-cylinder engine making 160bhp mated to a 5 speed automatic transmission. Underpowered is probably the best way to describe this combination, and I really didn’t feel as if it was any more powerful than our 2010 Honda Fit. While not completely slow, it really didn’t have the power to back up the sporty looks of the car. Yes, it merged onto the freeway well. And yeah, it powered up and over the mountains on the way to the Heavenly Ski Resort, but…it just felt so weak doing all that.

160hp inline 4-cylinder engine

160hp inline 4-cylinder engine in this 2013 Ford Focus SE

Another troubling issue was the transmission. It felt as if it was slipping a bit, due to sloppiness and bucking slightly at slow speeds. That’s a pretty serious issue to have with only 21,000 miles on the clock! I’m not totally convinced that this was a problem, however – it was hardly noticeable most of the time, so I’d have to drive other Focuses (er…Focii?) to determine whether or not this is a natural trait. But when it did happen, it felt like something was definitely wrong.

ford focus gas mileage

The gas mileage was pretty good. I didn’t crunch the numbers, but we made it from Reno to South Lake Tahoe and back on just 1/4 tank.

The bottom line

After putting 136 miles on this Ford Focus SE over the weekend, I walked away really impressed with it. The engine and transmission combo left a lot to be desired, but I loved the driving position and feel from inside the car. I came to think of it as a practical sports car due to it’s fighter-jet cockpit and ample storage space. There’s definitely a Yin / Yang thing going on there, and…I like it. As a matter of fact, I’d happily trade our Honda Fit in on one of these, though my wife would be more hesitant. She liked it, but thought that it was a bit to complex and overly designed (especially the interior). She much preferred the simplicity of our Fit.

But yeah…I’m not going to hesitate to rent a Focus again given the opportunity. I liked this car a lot.