The advent of soft-roaders, where people are expected to drive around with up to 200 kilograms of all-wheel-drive gubbins they may never use just so they look more intrepid and have a nice view, means that estate cars, station wagons and shooting brakes have had a hard time of it in recent times.
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For fleets, it's slightly different. Accountants are well aware that with the same engine, sport utility vehicles (SUVs) will use more fuel, because they have to carry more weight and push a lot more wind.
The market now reflects the real needs of many SUV buyers, with most makers offering two-wheel-drive versions and saving weight and fuel. But whatever a maker might do to its soft-roader chassis, it really won't corner like a car, because its centre of gravity and height do not and will not allow it to.
It's not fair to judge SUVs against the Ford Focus III. It's not even fair to judge Ford's Kuga against it, and that has arguably the best handling chassis in its SUV market slot.
If there was ever an advertisement for the family wagon we used to know, its the Focus III wagon, which matches most C-segment SUVs for load and passenger space, but retains the same handling characteristics that helped the hatch and sedan become New Zealand Car of the Year.
There are two engine choices: an entry-point 1.6-litre, 92-kilowatt, 159-newton-metre petrol-fuelled Ambiente wagon at $36,990, and our test car: the 2.0-litre, 120kW, 340Nm turbodiesel Trend wagon, for $6000 more, both with Ford's slick-changing, two-pedal, six-speed powershift gearbox.
Externally, the two can be differentiated by the petrol car's steel rims to the turbodiesel's alloy items.
Both cars are well equipped. Along with a full suite of driver-assistance acronyms, such as ABS and DSC, and with six airbags and a five-star Euro NCAP crash rating, the cars have high levels of connectivity, including Bluetooth with voice control and USB and MP3 auxiliary access to a six-speaker radio/CD sound system. The unit has steering-wheel controls, as do the cars' simple trip computers.
For the extra money, in addition to its superior power unit, the turbodiesel adds cruise control, a speed limiter, rear parking sensors, fog lights, electronic as opposed to hydraulic power steering, and lumbar adjustment for the driver's seat.
The heavier, quicker diesel car also has larger front disc brakes and a 500kg increase in its braked trailer rating, to 1500kg. It has an additional five litres of fuel capacity too, with a 60-litre tank - enough for more than 1200km.
Some recent offerings have a similar pricing gap, and the only difference is the engine, so the Ford doesn't do too bad, although the diesel Trend model's cloth trim didn't suit a car costing $42,990. Velour would have been much more welcoming, although the hard cloth did look as if it would last a while.
The benefits of the wagon are obvious, with far more potential load space than the Focus hatch. With the rear seats up, you have 476 litres as opposed to the hatch's 316, and when folded, 1502 litres as opposed to 1101 litres. However, if the driver or front passenger is very tall, the rear seats can't complete their tumble-folding.
For all that, the boot has an uncluttered shape and the tailgate opens usefully high and wide for heavier or more difficult items.
The wagon doesn't seem to transmit as many noises as load carriers of old. A certain amount of road noise gets through to the rear compartment, but that's more a criticism of our road-building.
The rear seat offers a good, supportive shape, and there is leg room for larger occupants.
In the front, Ford has got it right. It probably realises there's no point in fronting up with a decent driving chassis if the driver can't get themselves sorted.
The 12-centimetre difference between main drivers of our test car proved no problem. The front chair could be raised, lowered and pulled and pushed to provide a perfect fit, with rake and reach wheel adjustment allowing fine changes to suit.
The dash buttons and levers are obvious and easy to use, save for the stereo buttons, which are very awkward.
However, with station changes possible from the steering wheel, this really isn't a problem.
My previous experiences of the latest Focus on test have featured cars with 18-inch rims, which did not ride very comfortably. The test wagon's 16-inchers were a revelation. The car patters over bumps with little fuss, and while it's more comfortable over harsh surfaces, it doesn't suffer much in the handling department.
Ford's electric steering is neat and well weighted, the car changes direction tidily and the chassis feels as communicative as the hatch.
The car has terrific body control and its cornering attitude is flatter than any SUV owner could dream of. It offers impressive levels of grip, and if I was a sales rep with a large area of New Zealand to service, I would be tempted to take the longer twistier routes just for the sake of it. When did you last do that in an SUV?
Punching its 120kW through Ford's Powershift transmission, I expected the turbodiesel Focus to stumble a bit in this area after stories of less than perfect early examples of the gearbox, but I couldn't fault it.
It shifts as quickly and as slowly as you wish, and when you need it to, the unit will launch the Focus off the mark with great gusto. The factory says the car should hit 100kmh in just over nine seconds, although I'd say it was more like 8.5. No slug at all.
There is a manual mode where gears can be swapped by using a thumb-operated rocker switch on the gear lever. However, you don't need it. The diesel engine has swags of torque and it can be left to its own devices most of the time.
While testing, I was only able to make the Focus sip fuel at a slightly more voracious rate of 5.6 litres per 100km than the factory-rated 5.3 litres. But the car hadn't travelled far, and I figured that even with the recently increased road-user charges factored in, the 2.0-TDCi would be about 8 per cent cheaper to run than a similarly powerful petrol version.
If you can live without the remarkably effective and frugal diesel engine, the 1.6-litre petrol version of the Focus wagon might be a good alternative, though.
You don't miss anything really important for its $6000 cheaper price, and it comes with the best part of owning a Focus, its sublime chassis and effective packaging. Also, it has a factory rating of 6.4 litres per 100km, although it takes two seconds longer to reach 100kmh with the same Powershift transmission.
It is possible to buy better-equipped light SUVs and soft-roaders than the Focus wagon, but once you add a decent turbodiesel to the equation, they become more expensive by at least $5000.
I'd like to see more friendly seat trim and an easier sticker price, but otherwise the Focus wagon's chassis, general driving demeanour and practicality provides a sure antidote for drivers fed up with truckish C-segment SUVs.
AT A GLANCE
Ford Focus wagon diesel
Drivetrain: Transverse FWD 1997cc DOHC 16v turbodiesel, six-speed powershift transmission.
Performance: 120kW at 3750rpm and 340Nm at 2000-3250rpm, max 207kmh, 0-100kmh 9.1, 5.3L/100km, 139g/km CO 2.
Chassis: Front – independent MacPherson struts. Rear – independent multi-link control blade. Electronic power-assisted steering. 16x7 alloy rims with 215/55 R16 tyres. compact spare.
Safety: Five-star EuroNCAP rating, ABS, DSC, six airbags, decoupling pedals, hill-launch assist.
Dimensions: L 4556mm, H 1505mm, W 1823mm, W/base 2648mm, load volume 476-1502 litres, weight 1471kg, fuel 60 litres.
Pricing: Focus Trend 2.0L turbodiesel wagon $42,990, Focus petrol wagon from $36,990, other models from $29,990.
Hot: Huge load for its segment; punchy engine and transmission; unimpeachable chassis; sharp looker.
Not: Rough cloth for its price; no automatic wipers and lights; expensive.
Verdict: Fine-driving and roomy wagon justifies its price once you use it. Huge tank range.