It’s official. The small car wars have begun. It started with the introduction of both the 2011 Chevy Cruze and 2011 Hyundai Elantra last year—of which the Elantra is a truly compelling package. But with the 2012 Focus—available in early 2011—Ford is bringing some real competition for the seeming-to-have-it-all Elantra. Both cars offer incredible fuel efficiency in a good-looking and well-designed package, laden with some seriously cool technology.

Today, a market that for years has been known as the resting ground of uninspired econoboxes, is lively with competition—even the venerable Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic will be getting much needed refreshes to maintain competitiveness. Whereas before the small car market was content to just limp along with anemic sales, it’s current vibrancy is being pushed along by rising gas prices, increased environmental awareness and looming stringent fuel economy regulations.

And the 2012 Ford Focus is perhaps the most interesting of these new small car offerings to date. In my 2011 Elantra review, I said the Elantra was the equivalent of an automotive Unicorn. And if that’s the case, the 2012 Ford Focus is a Unicorn with demon horns. Let me explain.

It Can Turn You Into a Race Car Driver, But Sips Gas With the Best of Them

The 2012 Focus comes with a group of standard features—torque vectoring control chief among them—that make even the least confident drivers among us feel like they know exactly what they’re doing when they hit a corner at high speeds. What is torque vectoring control? Suffice it to say that it uses the car’s brakes to apply more force to the inside wheels in a corner, with grip subsequently being transferred to the outside wheels. The result? A driving experience normally reserved for high-performance motoring. Seriously, it’s that fun.

Fun to Drive and 40 miles per gallon.

While torque vectoring can be given the lion’s share of the credit for the Focus’ driving dynamics, the vehicle also benefits from beefy front and rear stabilizer bars, available four-wheel disc brakes, and a substantial 160 horsepower 2.0-liter engine.

When I had the car full throttle in the canyons surrounding Malibu last week, it took a hold of my wild side and pushed me to take it to the limits. I was entering corners cautioned for 25 mph at 50 mph and hardly slowed down, coming out the other side feeling energized by the experience. I did this corner after corner and every time the result was the same.

Ford Focus

And while performance is normally associated with lower fuel economy, the 2012 Focus is estimated to return 40 mpg on the highway (official EPA fuel economy hasn’t been released yet). Don’t get me wrong, if you drive this car like I did for a couple of hours on windy back roads, you likely won’t get anywhere near 40 mpg. But when driven as you would normally drive a car on a day-to-day basis, you’ll find it behaves like a docile puppy and sips fuel in a miserly fashion. With a standard louvered grille, advanced engine technology and low wind resistance, the Focus is designed for it.

The Opening Bid is Incredibly Reasonable, But it Tops Out at The High End

While the 2011 Elantra has Value with a capital “V” written all over it, the Focus’ value is in the fact that it is far more customizable, can be loaded with a bewildering array of advanced technology options, and is available as both a sedan and hatchback. Sure, the low end Focus starts at around $16,000, but when you fill the hatchback with every doodad possible you can expect it to cost around $28,000. That seems to be where things are headed and the market keeps telling automakers that it wants the ability to load a car to the gills. In fact, Ford says that most of their buyers opt for a significant amount of upgrades—and car companies have to make money somewhere.

Standard at $16,000, you’ll get the sedan version with a manual transmission, electronic stability control with torque vectoring, front disc/rear drum brakes, and most of the things Americans expect as basic features in a modern vehicle—including power windows, telescoping steering wheel, A/C, tire pressure monitoring and remote keyless entry.

From there on up you add a ridiculous list of equipment, so that at about $28,0000 your Focus hatchback includes a massive 8-inch touch screen with navigation and the MyFord Touch driver interface, a 10 speaker (including subwoofer) 355-watt Sony sound system, a moonroof, back-up camera, sport tuned suspension, HD radio, Sirius satellite radio, push-button start, cruise control, four-wheel disc brakes, 18″ wheels, rain-sensing wipers, power driver’s seat, heated front seats, and an AUTOMATED parallel parking system that parks the car without you touching the wheel in less than 24 seconds.

It’s Comfortable, Stylish and Functional

The 2012 Focus seats fit me like a glove. Granted, I’m not a large person, but even more expensive cars struggle to make a two hour drive without starting to cause stiffness. The dash was easy to read and pleasing on the eyes and all the various buttons and dials were positioned for easy reach.

Ford Focus

Since Ford made this Focus to be distributed around the world, the styling was developed in a way that the whole world could enjoy. With what Ford calls “kinetic design” (similar to Hyundai’s “fluidic sculpture”), the designers gave the 2012 Focus an understated modern look reminiscent of the British racecars of old. Between the sedan and the hatchback, the hatchback does the best job of looking good. The interior is also modern without being over the top.

All that style and comfort is enhanced by the fact that the Focus is also an incredibly functional car—especially given that it’s available as a hatchback. The hatchback has over 114 cubic feet of total interior volume, of which more than 90 is reserved for passengers—keep in mind it’s a hatchback and that 90 can expand or contract based on folded second row seats. For perspective, the 2011 Toyota Camry has a total of 116.4 cubic feet of interior volume.

Wrapping it Up

If these new entrants into the small car arena are any indication, the next few years should bring small car cutthroat competition like never before—and the 2012 Focus is poised to be one of the most popular. While it’s not the most affordable small car out there, it brings so much technology to the table that it borders on overwhelming the competition with its intellect. And if the intellect doesn’t get you, just throw it into a few corners with wild abandon and you’ll see what I mean.