By Christian Seabaugh
Forty has become the new “it” number for fuel economy. Hyundai had an entire ad campaign touting each of its 40-mpg, highway-capable, gas-powered models, and before long other automakers jumped into the fray with ultra fuel-efficient models of their own. Chevrolet created the Cruze Eco, Honda the Civic HF, and Ford took a crack at it with the Fiesta SFE. Since then, Ford has expanded its 40-mpg highway lineup, and the 2012 Ford Focus SFE is Dearborn’s latest attempt at a fuel-sipping compact sedan.
In Ford parlance, SFE is short for Super Fuel Economy. Available solely on the Focus SE Sedan with the six-speed dual-clutch automatic, the $495 package adds a host of eco-friendly tricks to the Focus, aimed at making the car more slippery and less thirsty. The SFE package adds aerodynamic wheels covers to the 16-inch steelies, low rolling resistance tires, disc brakes at all four corners, a rear spoiler, and active grille shutters. All this results in a Focus capable of achieving an EPA-estimated 28/40 mpg city/highway. A standard Focus with the same 2.0-liter I-4 with 160 hp and 146 lb-ft of torque is rated by the EPA at 28/38 mpg.
Though testing data shows the Focus SFE is only slightly slower than its non-SFE siblings, the Focus SFE still isn’t quite as lively to drive as other Foci — not surprising considering economy and performance are often at opposite ends of the fun-to-drive scale. In our testing, the Focus SFE needed 8.1 seconds to accelerate from 0-60 mph. The Focus SFE needs double its 0-60 mph time to complete the quarter mile, taking 16.2 seconds at 87.7 mph at the strip. Braking and lateral acceleration are similarly average; the Focus needs 114 feet to come to a standstill from 60 mph, and completes the figure eight in 27.7 seconds at an 0.62 g average.
But performance isn’t the reason one opts for the SFE package — fuel economy is. In our testing we achieved a trip-computer indicated 36.3 mpg in a 75/25 split of highway/city driving. In the real world the Focus SFE doesn’t feel like a slowpoke, and the trade-off between SFE and non-SFE Foci becomes much less noticeable. The four-banger’s 160 hp is more than adequate around town, and offers plenty of passing power on the highways. The hard eco-friendly tires don’t help handling performance, but do offer a quiet and refined ride. The Focus SFE is also a competent handler, and its progressive steering feel works to remind you of its chassis’ sport roots.
As expected in a Focus sedan, the interior feels roomy; the cloth seats are comfortable; and iPhones and other media devices are easily paired and played through Sync. One interior feature unique to the Focus SFE is its EcoMode. Displayed on 4.2-inch screen between the speedo and tach, EcoMode shows not only the usual mpg and distance-to-empty readouts, but also includes a fuel economy game like the one found on the Fusion Hybrid. The game measures two metrics: Anticipation and Speed. Anticipation essentially measures how well you read traffic — if you’re smooth and stay off the brakes, you’ll earn more leaves for a max of five. Speed works similar to Anticipation: Stick with the speed limit and avoid jack-rabbiting the throttle, and you’ll earn more leaves. Earn all ten leaves and you become an Eco Champion and get a digital trophy. Before you ask, yes, readers, I am in fact an Eco Champion.
Economy-minded gimmicks aside, this Focus is far from perfect. For starters, one of the easiest ways to improve fuel economy is to use cruise control to maintain a near-constant speed. Unfortunately, the only way to get cruise control on the Focus is with the optional Convenience Package, and, for whatever reason, our Focus SFE didn’t have it. Considering all of the Focus SFE’s hypermiling gas-powered competitors come standard with cruise control, we’re not sure why the same isn’t true for the Ford.
Another issue we had was with the SFE’s standard six-speed dual-clutch automatic. It had all the disadvantages of a dual-clutch transmission, like a jerky feel around town and stuttering while starting on inclines, but simultaneously offered all the disadvantages of a traditional slushbox, like slow shift speed. We love the idea of a dual-clutch tranny, but the execution’s just not quite there.
And if you’re looking for the most fuel-efficient car at that price point, the Focus SFE isn’t for you. Its 28/40 mpg rating is easily trumped by the Toyota Prius C’s 53/46 mpg rating, and by the $19,290 Honda Insight’s 41/44 mpg rating. If you’re looking for something slightly larger without a hybrid drivetrain, though, the Focus SFE isn’t a bad choice. The car offers decent fuel economy at a reasonable price, and that should make it plenty appealing to commuters looking to save a buck or two at the pump.