Will the brilliant new Focus have the Volkswagen Golf looking over its shoulder?

Two particular statistics jump out at you when looking at how successful the Ford Focus has been since it first arrived here back in 1998, and here they are – 2,000,000 models have been sold in the UK and during its 20-year lifespan it has been Britain’s second best-selling car.

Most manufacturers dream of launching a product that experiences those levels of success and the Focus has certainly proven itself as a real favourite, but it was far from perfect. The interior felt rather drab, dark and average quality at best, rear-head space was tight and the automatic gearbox was about as responsive as your average dozing cat. The overall car was excellent, but there were little things here and there that just got on your nerves occasionally.

Having built the new Focus completely from scratch, Ford has had a chance to correct errors and improve on areas that held the outgoing generation of the Focus back. It could have taken an easier route and avoided altering a recipe that has proven so popular with the car buying public, but thankfully it hasn’t and the results of this bolder approach will have the Volkswagen Golf feeling very nervous indeed.

For a start, the new Focus is both lighter and stiffer, meaning that it provides a better platform for driving dynamics. This shows up particularly well in the new ST-Line, the sporty trim level that also brings with it a fresh suspension setup. Out on some fiendishly tricky mountain roads, the ST-Line hatch proved itself as one of the finest handling cars in its class yet again, with an improvement in front-to-rear balance and a more eager front end – a feature that’s also present in other models in the new Focus range. When driving the new Focus at pace, you’re experiencing just about as much fun as you can have in a ‘normal’ family hatchback, and this is easily one of the Ford Focus’s biggest selling points – as it has been since 1998 – it’s just now even better.

New engines are introduced with the new Focus, with two standout 1.5-litre engines stealing the show – one petrol, one diesel. The former is a 3-cylinder turbocharged unit that puts out a remarkable 180bhp. For such a small engine that’s a hugely impressive figure, and the same engine also has cylinder deactivation technology that works without the driver even noticing. It’s a seriously impressive little unit. The diesel 1.5 is pretty special too, it’s a new ‘EcoBlue’ unit with 118bhp and while you might not expect it to shift the Focus along at much of a rate, it does so plenty well enough thanks to its impressive torque and uncharacteristically long power band. It also does this while remaining quiet, so should prove less wearing on longer drives.

Ford always lost points when it came to its last-generation automatic gearbox, but the new 8-speed box is a big improvement for the brand. It shifts quickly and seamlessly like some of the best boxes on the market, but it also adapts quickly to your requirements and will learn from your inputs over time. The new 6-speed manual gearbox is also new, and still provides the engaging, fun shift feel Ford’s manual option always appears to have.

Inside the new Focus there’s a whole new array of gadgets and technological advancements to play with, but for the first time in quite some time it’s contained inside an interior that finally feels really well put together. The quality is there at last and so is the design. It still feels a bit dark but different trims and textures break that up nicely and at last you don’t feel a bit short-changed for the excellent driving characteristics. As for that new tech, well, pothole detection, a heads-up display, and Co-pilot 360 really deserve an article of their own.

Synergy customers seeking out a car that can do more or less everything will need to put the new Ford Focus on a shortlist. It’s comfortable and refined on a motorway, fun and involving on a twisty road, and has jumped up vastly in quality and ability over the outgoing model. We can’t wait to try it back home in Britain.