The new engine has Ti-VCT variable valve timing, though you have to rev it to tap into its perky side. But Ford has done a good job in making the Focus feel light-footed off the line, with low first-gear ratios in either gearbox, and the dual-clutch gearbox does a great job keeping the revs high and uninterrupted. Take off, foot to the floor, and the Focus feels quick. If you want to do the shifting yourself, you have to make do with a little +/- button on the side of the shift knob instead of paddle-shifters or a separate gate. Fortunately, the PowerShift transmission does come with a Sport ('S') mode, just below Drive, which smartly holds revs for grades and corners, holds upshifts significantly longer, and downshifts a gear with the slightest tap of the brake pedal.
The other option for shifting yourself is the five-speed manual gearbox—which is only offered on S and SE, not SEL or Titanium. The linkage is sweet, if a bit long, and the clutch feel more soft than sporty.
While the powertrain requires a little diligence, the ride-and-handling compromises are about the best it gets. The Focus handles as well as—or better than—the most deft handler in the class, the Mazda3, with a suspension that doesn't crash and bang over rough transitions, nor punishes over heaves or potholes. Ford's electric power steering system provides nice weighting and it performs well, providing precise control but not transmitting much feel of the road. The electric steering system is awesome in transitions, too, never binding up or feeling off its game. While the suspension allows a bit of give, it loads and unloads in the most transparent, predictable way possible, yet isolates you from harshness.
And on the subject of brakes, there's nothing to complain about; S and SE models come with rear-drums instead of discs (in the name of cost-cutting), but pedal feel and stopping power felt about the same at legal speeds.