The Ford Focus range has expanded to include two new models this year: the sport-oriented ST version and an electric-powered model. The Focus 5-door hatchback continues to offer an excellent mix of agile handling, cargo room, and strong fuel economy. Under the hood is a 160-bhp 2.0-liter inline-4 coupled to a standard 5-speed manual, with a 6-speed PowerShift automatic or range-topping 6-speed PowerShift with SelectShift manual controls optional. The ST is all about carving corners, while the Titanium trim level loads the Focus 5-door with luxury touches like leather seating, a 10-speaker Sony audio system, SYNC with MyFord Touch, push-button start, and dual zone automatic climate controls. For a sinister touch, the SE Black Pack appearance package includes a piano black grille, 17-inch machined alloy wheels and, as you might have guessed, a black paintjob to match.
The Ford Focus Electric is taking the fight to eco-themed rivals like the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid. If you want to impress the neighbors, tell them the EPA's equivalency formula pegs the Focus Electric at 110/99-mpg in city and highway driving. Of course, this fun fact is tempered by the Focus Electric's estimated total driving range of 76 miles — that's better than the Mitsubishi i and about even with the Nissan Leaf. The Focus Electric accepts charge at 6.6 kW versus 3.3 kW in the Leaf. According to Ford's estimate, that means a full recharge via a 220-volt outlet is accomplished in 4 hours, or half the time you'd need for the Leaf. Performance is peppy, especially at city speeds, and top speed is set at 84 mph. A display on the dashboard fills with butterflies if you're gentle about applying the gas pedal. MyFord mobile apps allow you to locate charging stations, or pre-heat and pre-cool the car while it's plugged into the grid (thereby saving battery life once you're on the road).
The BMW 3-series delivers a special mix of sporting performance, practicality and European luxury in a compact package. It's the car that defines 'sport sedan,' and the benchmark every luxury car maker from Acura to Volvo aims at when it develops an entry-level luxury sport sedan.
The all-wheel drive 328d is available as a sedan or wagon and is powered by an advanced turbo diesel four-cylinder engine that produces 180-hp and 280 lb-ft of torque while connected to an eight-speed automatic. Standard safety features include six airbags, four-wheel anti-lock disc brakes with adaptive brakelights, rain sensing wipers, front fog lights, traction and stability control and active anti-whiplash head restraints.
The BMW 3 Series has long been the most sporting entry-luxury sedan, but the latest version has been diluted somewhat by an attempt to broaden its base. The suspension is softer and the steering is lighter. However, keen drivers can fix both issues, and still get the 3 Series of their dreams. Switching BMW's driving dynamics control mode from comfort to sport helps, although you must select it again each time you start the car. Better to opt for the M sport suspension (part of the sport package), or the dynamic handling package, which includes the adaptive M suspension and variable sport steering.
The harder decision is which powertrain to choose. Those stretching their budget to get into a 3 Series will be drawn to the new entry-level model, the 320i, which costs more than $4000 less than a 328i. The downside is that the 320i's 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder makes only 180 hp -- down from 240 hp in the 328i. Just like the 328i and the 328d, the 320i allows buyers to swap in a six-speed manual transmission in place of the standard eight-speed automatic as a no-cost option. It also can be had with xDrive all-wheel drive (but only with an automatic transmission).
The 328i's gutsy turbo four manages decent gas mileage with a combined city/highway EPA rating of 27 mpg -- too bad it sounds like a diesel at idle. BMW now offers an actual four-cylinder diesel, the 328d, which is equipped similarly to the 328i but costs $1500 more. You should recoup that premium pretty quickly, however, as the 328d gets spectacular mileage. The 328i and the 328d are available as a sedan (with rear-wheel drive or xDrive) or as an all-wheel-drive sport wagon.
The classic BMW in-line six-cylinder engine, turbocharged to deliver 300 hp, powers the 335i, either as a sedan or the Gran Turismo. This is the most potent 3 Series variant, at least until the M3 returns to the lineup in mid 2014. The 335i is also the only 3 Series sedan where one can combine xDrive and a manual transmission.
The current Jetta, introduced last year to better compete with the likes of the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla, has been a huge hit, the American public taking to its larger size and lower price. Now, for 2012, a new Jetta arrives: the GLI. This sporty Jetta is powered by VW’s familiar 200-bhp turbo 4-cylinder, mated to a standard 6-speed manual or an optional 6-speed dual-clutch automatic. Also noteworthy: The GLI has a true multilink rear suspension, which helps keep the back end of the car planted better than the standard Jetta’s twist-beam axle. Available Jetta engines include VW’s old sohc 2.0-liter inline-4, a 2.5-liter 5-cylinder and one of our favorites: a 2.0-liter turbodiesel that endows the Jetta TDI with 42 mpg on the highway.