The 1.6-liter naturally-aspirated petrol engine is a true compromise milestone in the automotive sector, as it is by far and away, the most adaptable unit one could think of, used during the last, say, three decades, in Europe.
Usually ranging in power from just under to just over 100 hp, these engines powered everything from 1990s BMW 3-Series and Audi A4 sedans, positioned at the very bottom of the range, to swift city cars like the Renault Clio, where they constituted the stepping stone between the regular model, and the choice of the enthusiast, the hot hatch.
However, the classic 1.6 engine is now on its way out, as it’s meant to make way for newer, smaller-displacement units that can match them in terms of power thanks to a turbocharger, but beat it in terms of economy, due to their reduced size.
While Volkswagen was the first to employ mass use of turbocharged smaller-displacement engines in the 1990s with the 1.8-liter twenty-valve unit, now virtually all manufacturers are on the downsizing train (whether they like it or not).
However, it’s Ford’s line of new EcoBoost motors that has attracted the most attention towards the phenomenon lately, even if they were by no means the first to jump on it, nor is their engine the smallest – that distinction goes to Fiat with its arguably cooler turbocharged two-cylinder with just 875 cc.
Getting back to the topic at hand, the slow march towards extinction for the classic 1.6, so when a friend bought a brand-new Focus, I jumped at the opportunity to get behind the wheel of the most basic of them all, the lower-powered variant of the 1.6-replacing 1.0-liter EcoBoost three-pot turbo, under the bonnet of a mid-spec Focus hatchback with hubcaps (yes, they still make those).
Putting out 100 PS / 99 hp, the three-cylinder unit is very quiet and well balanced at idle (especially for a three-pot), and while a moderately-well trained ear can distinguish the telltale idle thrum specific to this type of engine, it’s actually surprisingly refined, at least in the Focus. The Fiesta also gets it, but has far less sound insulation, so it may be a very different experience altogether in that car. The car I drove also had a stop-start system fitted, and while it was generally not intrusive (aside from the moments you purposely want to fluster it), each restart sends a thud through the entire cabin, as do gear-changes carried out at low rpms, where I found you had to ride the clutch a bit more than it felt natural to.
If you obey the dashboard shift indicator, you’ll find yourself driving around at or just under 1,500 rpm, which is fine, except for when it asks you to select the fifth (and final) gear as efficiently as possible – the engine pulls it off, but you feel it as being very strained, so I found myself using fourth more than I would have liked to.
The gearbox itself deserves high praise, and its ratios are well thought out for city driving, and it also continues the tradition of an accurate yet mechanical-feeling shifter operation – for me, it is one of the smoothest I’ve had the chance to try.
Under hard acceleration, even this 99 hp variant moves the car surprisingly zippy, and it picks up nicely from anywhere in the rev range, particularly low down – peak torque of 170 Nm / 125 lb-ft is delivered around the aforementioned 1,500 rpm mark, and it really shows.
Does It Work?
The whole idea behind this downsized and turbocharged 1.6 replacement is getting better fuel efficiency, so I feel that this is actually the key point of this drive. The person who kindly loaned the car to me had done 2,500 km (~1,500 miles) since new with it, all of which was done exclusively in the city. He had not reset trip computer once, and it was reading 8.5 l/100km, or 33 mpg UK / 27.6 mpg US.
When I drove it, in mixed and moderately crowded conditions, I managed to get below the 8 l/100km mark without too much restraint – I even squeezed in a few acceleration runs without resetting it, and it still dropped down nicely once we resumed normal driving.
So, does it work in terms of fuel economy? Well, no, or not as well as Ford would have you believe, I mean, my figures were quite far off the official claimed average of 4.8l/100km (58.9mpg UK or 49mpg US). Granted, if you are very careful with the right foot, you can probably get closer to that figure, but the discrepancy was a bit too noticeable.
What About the Car?
I'll admit to being a fan of the Focus series from the first model onward, though my pick are the last ones to be produced just before this new one that I drove . They’ve always been great handling things, with good steering and decent brakes, while doing the regular practical family stuff excellently too.
Now, if you’ve ever had doubts about electric power steering, I'm here to tell you that high expectations will be met with disappointment, especially after having driven a car with great steering prior to it (the a third-gen Mondeo, or, say, a Mazda). The new Focus’ steering is one of the sharper (and better) electric setups that I’ve seen, though there’s just too much twitch off center, and because of this irritating and unwanted sharpness, you may find yourself not having as straight a driving line as you would have wanted in some situations – going dead straight demands more concentration than it should.
The rest of the package is competent, with a typical Ford interior mostly clad in soft materials, and a great comfortable driving position. The fully-independent suspension on all corners is one of the strong points of the car, as it gives good grip in corners (even if they are bumpy) and the comfort/refinement levels are good too. One thing I didn’t like was shaving your shins each and every time you opened the moderately-sized glove box which is not made of soft plastic, and if you’re wearing shorts, it can leave a mark.
Engines similar to this one will become the norm soon, and there’s no excuse for not being informed. Besides, this lack of information and demand from the public were the main factors that allowed the automakers to postpone the mass adoption of downsizing and turbocharging, even if the technology was readily available. Don’t believe Ford’s own or any other reps when they say we had to wait this long because the tech wasn’t ready – it was, but they just preferred to keep selling cars with old-gen motors for both their own and the oil companies’ benefit.
The Focus equipped with this new one-liter engine is a good proposition. It’s still no diesel in terms of efficiency, but its use and further development should be encouraged through solid sales. However, I’d recommend opting for the not much more expensive 125 PS / 123 hp variant, which gets a six-speed gearbox and some extra punch. Don’t get me wrong, the 99 hp you get in the basic unit does the job surprisingly well for its power, and once you get past the sometimes noticeable turbo lag lower in the rev range, and find the torque band, it’s more than adequate.
Ford should be applauded for what it has created here: a fun and relatively frugal turbocharged engine that is better than the classic 1.6 in every single way. Hopefully, though, they will continue to improve its efficiency, and instead of supplying unbelievable numbers for its cars, perhaps it should give more realistic estimates that are closer to achieve. If there are two points where the old engine was better than this new one, they are its ability to get closer to the manufacturer claimed economy numbers, as well as ensuring smoother gearshifts at lower rpms, when this small turbocharged unit struggles and certainly feels like it.
By Andrei Nedelea
Photos: Andrei Nedelea / Ford