Buying a Used Car - Don't Buy a Ford Fiesta or Focus

Updated on September 19, 2019

The Two Cars To Avoid

Let’s start with the cars you need to avoid. Then we’ll look at the specific problems with these two vehicles.

Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta

Avoid these two cars with the Ford PowerShift Automatic Transmission (the transmission is sometimes just called the DPS6):

  • Ford Fiesta (2011 to 2016)
  • Ford Focus (2012 to 2016)

If you’re looking for an affordable small car from a big name, these cars look amazingly attractive at first. They’re widely available, they look good, come with plenty of equipment, and are being offered at prices far below the competition in the used car market.

There’s one market in particular that has viewed the Fiesta and Focus as great bargains: families looking for a fuel-efficient and affordable car for new drivers. As teenagers across the country are moving into college dorms, parents are frequently looking for used car bargains. Both vehicles are available as hatchbacks, adding to the versatility.

But there’s a reason so many owners are selling them at a deep discount. Here’s what’s wrong with them.

Reviews of Best and Worst Used Cars

Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide Magazine March 2019
Consumer Reports Used Car Buying Guide Magazine March 2019

A reliable guide that covers cars back to 2010. It'll break down everything into good categories, tell you potential gotchas to look out for in used cars, and why a particular pick is so good (or so bad). Plenty of charts if that's your thing for comparisons.

 
Ford Focus (in red) and Ford Fiesta (yellow/green). Photo taken at CES 2011
Ford Focus (in red) and Ford Fiesta (yellow/green). Photo taken at CES 2011 | Source

PowerShift Automatic Transmission

Both the Fiesta and the Focus were sold with Ford’s PowerShift transmission for several years. PowerShift is Ford’s marketing name for what is called a dual-clutch transmission. Dual-clutch transmissions are found in a number of cars, including BMW and Porsche, and usually give improved gas economy. Having a dual-clutch transmission isn’t always a bad sign, but Ford’s PowerShift version has been plagued by problems.

Jerky Acceleration, Stalling, Uncomfortable To Drive

The symptoms are easy to recognize. When you first start to drive, the car convulses and shakes from the rough transmission. After a few seconds the transmission reaches its shift point where it automatically changes up to the next gear. Owners of the affected vehicles say this is so jerky that the whole car vibrates and trembles.

Other owners have complained the clutch slips, or that the car is very inconsistent when accelerating. There’ve been reports of the vehicles not accelerating as expected, or leaping forwards without warning. That’s unsettling and could be dangerous in heavy traffic.

The problems don’t disappear once you’re up to speed. It’s reported that the automobiles can stall at highway speeds. Ford has said this doesn’t present a safety problem as brakes and other systems are still functional, and the driver can coast over to the edge of the road. But that’s not reassuring if you’re on a busy multi-lane highway with cars and trucks driving on either side at high speed.

All of this combines to make an automobile that is painful and uncomfortable to drive. If you have a young driver in the car, the unpredictable nature of the driving is much worse and could contribute to risk situations.

The initial response from Ford was to tell drivers:

  • That’s how a dual-clutch transmission is supposed to feel; and
  • Give it time: the car is programmed to learn how you drive and it’ll get smoother.

As more and more owners complained, Ford then provided software updates to their dealers, claiming that the PowerShift transmissions just needed to be reprogrammed. That meant a visit to the dealership. Not only was it inconvenient for the owners, but there was no noticeable effect: the issue was just as bad. Many owners have reported multiple visits to have additional software updates applied, with no improvement to the problem.

Repairs And More Repairs

The shaking and convulsing symptoms are bad enough. With so much jerking and rough motion going on, it’s inevitable that the affected vehicles would experience transmission problems and failures much more frequently than is normal across the industry.

However, experts in the industry agree the design is fundamentally flawed. That means that repairs and replacements won’t fix the underlying problem. And, indeed, unhappy customers have reported taking their cars in to the dealer for expensive repairs only to have the exact same problems resurface.

There’ve been reports of abysmal failure rates, with hundreds of thousands of vehicles having to go through three or more transmission repairs, while other owners have had upwards of six clutch replacements.

Lawsuits

Ford has faced multiple legal challenges over the issue. A class action lawsuit won a settlement in late 2017. Owners of impacted vehicles might be entitled to a number of different benefits, including:

  • Having their car bought back by Ford
  • Cash payments
  • Discounts toward a new Ford vehicle

While the last benefit (discount toward a new Ford) might sound appealing, Ford has mostly exited the car market to concentrate on more profitable trucks and SUVs. Many owners were attracted to the Fiesta and Focus because of their great fuel economy, while others simply didn’t like the size and appearance of bigger vehicles.

Automatics Only, Manual Transmissions Unaffected

Ford has suffered an enormous credibility problem in the automotive press over this problem. The company’s handling of the issue hasn’t helped their woes at all. Internal documents have been reported as showing Ford knew this was a problem for many years, and that they directed Ford dealers to assure customers the behavior was normal. Then, in what could only be described as a bizarre move, they belatedly told dealers to fix transmissions for free, but only if customers asked for it – dealers said they couldn’t proactively contact customers – and only for a single week in July 2019.

Are there any good Fiestas and Focuses? Maybe, if you’re in the small minority of Americans who likes to drive a stick shift vehicle. The problem is specific to the PowerShift automatic transmission. Ford also says they’ve fixed the problems in the most recent years. But too many customers have been turned off of Ford and aren't willing to gamble on the same technology. With Ford moving away from cars in the U.S. market, Ford could have a tough time selling any of their remaining cars.

There are lots of reliable cars available to buy used, and you will easily be able to find something to fit almost any budget. While the Ford Focus and Ford Fiesta may look tempting when you see them with low miles at an affordable price, you will only be letting yourself in for a painful experience.

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