Forget premium badged one-upmanship; some of the most interesting cars on sale right now are in the mainstream arena. They may wear day-to-day badges to undertake the day-to-day monotony but, thanks to advances in technology and customer expectations, the middling models shouldn't be ignored for their affordable price tags. They have equipment to rival the better premium models of only a few years ago, and to drive, many represent more grins for your money than anything else.
Step up Ford's Focus. It's about as mainstream a car as you could ask for, one that competes with Volkswagen's Golf (one of the few mainstream cars to carry some upmarket credibility) and a host of other worthy though supposedly undesirable hatchbacks and saloons. The Focus has always been a bit different; from its very beginnings Ford over-delivered on the driving front, creating a hatchback that people loved.
That's not just us road-tester types either. Nonetheless, we do extol the virtues of the car's crisp steering, fine riding suspension, taut control and tidy handling as reasons for enjoying it. Put anyone in a Focus, new or old, and they will come back saying they've enjoyed driving it. It's unlikely they'll be able to say exactly why but they'll have connected with it in a way that they won't with its many rivals.
That connection remains true in the current car. Despite getting bigger and needing to adhere to ever more stringent safety legislation and customers' comfort expectations, the Focus retains much the same fun-to-drive character it always has. Admittedly, the steering isn't as sharp; it has gone electric and hence lost some of its feel in the pursuit of efficiency. But of its type it remains one of the best.
It's the way the Focus goes down the road that makes it so satisfying. Its closest rival is closing the gap, but the Focus flows beautifully, particularly in the Zetec-S guise tested here. This model features more driver-focused damper and spring settings. Not that the Focus doesn't cope admirably when riding on its standard suspension set-up, but Ford's tweaks do increase its resistance to body roll and add greater enthusiasm to the steering. It's composed though, too, Ford's suspension people resisting the temptation to lower the car on harder springs and dampers. That means it rides neatly, coping with bumps and lumps while retaining fine control of the body.
It would be easy to recommend a so-equipped Focus with the highest output 1.6L EcoBoost turbocharged petrol engine with its 180hp, but for all its pace - 0 to 100kph arriving in a respectable 7.9 seconds - it's arguably as enjoyable with more modest engine outputs. Opt for a lesser unit and you can further indulge in the Focus' fine handling, revelling in its ability to carry and maintain speed on interesting roads rather than merely relying on engine power to close the straights between the bends. It is where mainstream bread and butter cars ace their premium rivals - delivering driver appeal at pace that's not likely to see you getting the wrong sort of attention from the law.
In a world that's beset with economic woe, buying a mainstream car might no longer be a choice, but a financial necessity. The gains in recent years regarding fuel economy make running costs ever more affordable, with even the highest-output Focus currently available returning a credible 6.0L/100km. Add in an interior that's of a quality that premium makers would have been proud of just a few years ago and equipment and safety levels unimaginable in the past decade and it's time to forget badge prejudices.
In truth, over the last 10 years that's true of all mainstream cars. The Golf, the Honda Civic and the Toyota Auris; all are well equipped, some can park themselves and some, the Focus included, can even check on how drowsy you are. Monitoring systems like this were once the preserve of high-end models.