The amount of technology packed into a modern hatchback is astounding, features that were the preserve of luxury brands are now within the grasp of anyone able to afford a relatively cheap new car. To demonstrate I borrowed a Ford Focus Titanium X Estate (perfectly timed for me moving house) with all of the option boxes ticked to see how much easier the tech made life over a week. From voice activation to adaptive lights, smartphone integration to park assist, I played with tested everything.
Cars and phones don’t mix together well. At best a ringing phone is an annoyance, at worst a danger if you decide to pick up. Thankfully systems such as Ford’s Sync, now in its second generation, are available, allowing you to call, hear your texts and even control your music without even taking your hands from the wheel. Based on a Microsoft operating system, it works with both Apple and Android Smartphones, in this case an HTC One M8. There’s also a couple of USB ports that allow you to also connect an iPod or other music devices too.
It’s a simple process to pair your phone via Bluetooth, giving the car access to your contacts, music and messages. An 8” touchscreen allows you to navigate between phone, music, navigation and climate controls really easily, the four options appearing in the corners of the screen at all times. The menus are clear and not unattractive but lack the Apple like cleanness of similar systems from Audi & Mercedes. It’s certainly intuitive though, after a few hours of driving and precisely no time looking at the instructions I was able to navigate quickly between screens, helped by large icons. I found the satellite navigation easy to follow with handy warnings for fixed speed and traffic light cameras. The option of having the next turning with a mile countdown between the dials was a nice touch too. My only gripe is that entering addresses could be a little slow at times, frustrating if you’re already running late!
New with Sync 2 is enhanced voice activation, controlled by a button on the face of the right wheel spoke. The computer does an excellent job of hearing your commands making dialling a number both easy and safe. Calls are crystal clear and the inbuilt microphone picks up everything you say seemingly regardless of speed. Whilst dialling and changing audio source were definitely easier though voice control, I still found myself ignoring the voice activation and touch screen to press a good old fashioned button for the climate control. Sometimes the old way is still best.
From my experience, this is true of parking too. While the Park Assist will spookily steer itself while parking, creeping out any passengers in the process, it isn’t always as accurate as it could be. To be fair though, Ford doesn’t call the system self park for a reason, the technology isn’t quite that far advanced but it sure is impressive. After pressing a button to select either parallel or perpendicular parking, the system scans for a space, pinging to let you know it’s found one. After you come to a halt at the computer’s desired start point, select reverse and start slowly edging backwards (the slower the better) keeping your hands well clear of the wheel. The car will then turn itself getting nail-bitingly close but never hitting the cars around you. If you really don’t trust it, there’s a rear view camera too.
In fact, the Focus turns out to be very good at avoiding hitting things. Active City Stop detects potential low speed collisions and applies the brakes to prevent an accident. Fortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to try it, as tempting as it was to stack a few cardboard boxes and aim the car at them. There’s also a blind spot information system (BLIS) that flashes a light in the door mirror to warn you of anything hiding and gives obstruction warnings as you reverse. These and the proximity sensors dotted around the car are handy but can make it sound like someone dying in a hospital drama. Lots of hyperactive beeping followed by a flatline. Great if something’s there, not so great when the computer thinks a sharp incline is a wall. There’s also a lane keeping assist which will subtly adjust the steering. If you can’t keep in lane though, you probably shouldn’t be driving.
Of all the tech on the car, it was the adaptive headlights that were most impressive. Packing LED daytime running lights and bi-xenon headlights into an attractive and aggressive shape, they could be operated manually or left to their own devices. Even though I’ve previously scoffed at auto headlights (how hard is it to turn them on?) these blew my mind. On top of coming on when it got dark, they turn to illuminate corners with the help of the inner foglight and also adjust their beam depending on how fast you’re going, wide and short at low speed, longer but narrower at high speed. The icing on the cake was their ability to switch between dipped and main beam quickly and without dazzling other drivers all by themselves.
So is all this kit worth the money? While the latest Focus starts at £13,995, you have to spend at least £17,095 to even option Sync, fine when you consider the cheapest model only comes with the oldest, least efficient engine. To get Sync 2 with the 8” (rather than 4.2”) screen you need to spend another £500 or jump to Titanium spec at £20,095. Compared to other mainly German rivals, that strikes me as pretty good value, just don’t expect it to be quite as well finished as, say, an Audi A3. You can go overboard however, our test car came in at an eye watering £29,615, partially down to metallic paint, some very tasty 18” alloy wheels and tinted rear windows adding nearly a grand to the list price. Pick your options carefully though and your life behind the wheel will be better.