SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide
The Beatles said "it keeps getting better". For Ford, with the introduction of their new world car, the Focus, it's getting way better. The Escort will go the way of the Aspire to car heaven (for the Aspire it probably was Purgatory).
The Focus has already garnered a multitude of awards in Europe. European car of the year for 1999, Car of the Year, Estonia and Car of the Year 1999 in Denmark.
The design is totally new except for the 2.0L eight valve and 16 valve powerplants. The exterior is definitely fresh. It is new-edged with very defined lines and shapes. If it were to have any resemblance to existing rolling stock, look to Germany and the Jetta, but that's understandable since Focus's prior European intro.
The lines are sharp, with a combination of round shapes, slopes, flats and a convergence of lines. The hood is steeply sloped and the headlight assemblies follow that flow, but the grille shape also flows into the headlights on the vertical. A slick styling touch. The front wheel wells are well defined and the body side molding to continue and connect the line to the rear wheel wells.
The rear deck is flat and cut off cleanly, with integrated taillights. The overall design was striking at first, not sure if it was love or hate. But after spending some time with the new look, it has a habit of growing on you. It is unique and in the two door ZX3, it is outrageously cool. The four door wagon is also a slick looking unit.
The size is subcompact with a long 103.0 inch wheelbase and an overall length of 174.9 inches. Width is 66.9 inches but the height is a tall 56.3 inches. In comparison, the new Focus is slightly longer and narrower than the Escort it replaces. But the inside of the Focus is significantly more spacious and comfortable. More later.
My test vehicle was the upscale ZTS four door sedan. It was equipped with the 2.0L Zetec DOHC, 16 valve engine which pumps out 130 hp at 5,300 rpm and a strong 135 pounds of torque at 4,500 rpm. Redline is right at 6,800 rpm. The base 2.0L motor is rated at 110 hp at 5,000 rpm and 125 pounds of torque at 3,750 rpm.
Transmitting the power was Ford's MTX75 5 speed cog swapper. It was a slick shifting unit with a smooth, linear hydraulic clutch. I spent some time with the new 4 speed electronically controlled auto and it is an excellent unit, but this car begs for the five speed. With the manual unit the focus is on fun, power, flexibility and economy.
Power can be felt every where, but it comes on the cam after four grand, and it gets downright nasty at 5,000 rpm, then falling a little flat by 6,200 rpm. Drop the hammer at 4,000 with a smooth clutch engagement, and be prepared to light up the front tires all through first gear with a chirp going into second. It hauls the Focus's 2,552 pounds as if it were much lighter. Mashing the go pedal will result in 0-60 times under nine seconds with an average of 8.97 seconds which required two shifts as second is only good to about 57 mph before the rev limiter interrupts the fun. Passing is equally quick with 50-70 mph acceleration taking only 5.20 seconds and a steep grade slowing that time to 8.41 seconds.
With the automatic, expect about another second to 60 mph and passing times up by about a half a second.
The engine emits some of the best four cylinder sounds. During hard, high speed blasting, the tone is a throaty growl, almost gnarly, but when cruising down the highway at 70 mph, this sweet motor is nearly inaudible even though it is spinning 2,800 rpm.
Fuel stinginess is supposed to be a quality of economy cars. The Focus will not disappoint with an EPA rated return of 25 mpg city and 34 mpg highway. During my test period, the Focus averaged 28 mpg with the tach living at or near the red zone most week. Expect 28-30 mpg in more retrained driving in El Dorado County and 35 mpg plus on the highway. With a 13.2 gallon fuel tank, Los Angeles would be non stop for about $15.00.
A new platform and chassis have benefitted the Focus in comfort, ride and handling. The body is extra stiff and the fully independent suspension uses MacPherson struts up front with coil springs, but the rear has a pressed steel multilink arrangement that Ford calls "control-blade". Improved lateral stiffness with greater wheel control and movement improves stability and actually creates passive rear wheel steering. It also provides reduced noise, vibration and harshness.
New low friction steering and front suspension components enhance the ride and cornering prowess, which is substantial. The steering is the best I have encountered in a Ford product. It is accurate with near perfect feel. Kudos are in order.
Brakes are ventilated front discs and drum rear with ABS being standard with the ZTS. Stopping distances were short. Pedal feel was progressive with just right effort.
On roads like Ponderosa, the Focus did an admirable job in quelling the washboard and keeping the cabin quiet. The reduced friction in the suspension components allowed the Focus to absorb smaller irregularities like a big sedan. In the tight 90 degree bumpy corners, the Focus powered through the left and right handers at speed, holding its line exactly as instructed.
But the best entertainment comes not at the movies, but in getting to the movies, especially in the twisties of Green Valley, Latrobe or Apple Hill. There was a little more body roll than I like (but then again, this is not an $85,000 Lotus Esprit), but cornering power was strong with great looking multilaced 15X6 inch alloys shod with meaty 195/60 series tires. With the manual, diving into corners while snicking the slick shifter into the exit gear was a blast. Throttle steering was very controllable and predictable with just the right amount of understeer. The quick, accurate steering allowed the Focus almost to be flicked around with great control. Turning circle is tight at under 36 feet wall to wall.
With the attention paid to reducing suspension component friction, the highway ride is remarkable. Although there is some road noise (this Focus stickers for well under $17K), minor road irregs are subdued leaving the cabin undisturbed. The standard stereo can be described as "kick-ass" (you can use the words kick-butt if you want). A CD is standard and the multiple speaker stereo packs a real wallop. The sound was clean, clear, strong and crisp. Rock and roll lives in the Focus as does Beethoven.
The inside offers a large cabin (it qualifies as a compact) relative to its (subcompact) exterior dimensions. The front seats are large and sublimely comfortable. My test vehicle had optional leather (a $695 bargain), but the standard cloth seats will not disappoint its occupants.
The dash is a little avant garde, but the instrument binnacle contained a large speedo and tach with flanking fuel and temp gauges. It was a little too swoopy for my tastes. The center mounted AC vents follow a low to high dash line and the center pod containing the sound system and AC controls is also unconventional looking. But the controls are easy to use and straight forward.
The back seat is surprisingly substantial. It carried two big guys with no complaint. Leg, head and hip room were more than adequate. It's almost amazing how much room you can pack inside a 175 inch motor vehicle.
The trunk swallowed four golf bags with ease. It could have easily handled two more, which isn't a bad idea to have a spare after you launch your regular set into a water hazard. If any game ever required a sports psychologist, this is the one. Just remember to remove the keys to the car from your golf bag before launch. Ford claims 12.9 cubic feet, but if you need more the rear seats are a 60/40 fold down. The large handles for their release are glow in the dark and are conspicuously located in the trunk. In the small chance that a child would lock himself in the trunk, he or she might have the sense to pull on the glowing knob.
Focuses start at about $12,000 for the base ZX3 up to a base of $15,580 including destination ($415) for a ZTS. My ZTS came with every option but one, including leather, side air bags ($350 and a good buy), front and rear floor mats ($55) and a smoker's package (a $15 new smoking tax) for a total of $16,695. The only other option would be the excellent four speed automatic for $815.
An LX sedan with auto, air ($795), antilocks ($400), CD ($140) and alloys ($360) will total $14,235. The engine will be the 110 hp eight valve four, no upgrade to the 16 valve is available in the LX, but the eight valver will do a fine job for people will normally weighted appendages (right feet).
Harrell Motors, Placerville Ford Center, has new Focuses arriving daily. If you want the latest in new edge styling, great sound and snappy performance in an economy package that doubles as the giant economy size, the Focus will definitely sharpen your view of economy cars.
SPECIFICATIONS: Price $12,300 to about $17,000 Engines SOHC inline 8 valve 2.0L four 110 hp @ 5,000 rpm 125 lbs-ft of torque @ 3,750 rpm DOHC inline 16 valve 2.0L four 130 hp @ 5,300 rpm 135 lbs-ft of torque @ 4.500 rpm Transmission Four speed electronically controlled automatic Five Speed Manual Configuration Transverse mounted front engine front wheel drive Dimensions: Wheelbase 103.0 inches Length 174.9 inches Length--ZX3 168.1 inches Width 66.9 inches Height 56.3 inches Weight 2,521 to 2,633 pounds Fuel Capacity 13.2 gallons Trunk Capacity 12.9 cubic feet Turning Circle 35.76 feet (curb to curb) Co-efficient of drag 0.32 Track (f/r) 58.8/58.5 inches Performance: 0-60 8.97 seconds 50-70 5.20 seconds 50-70 uphill 8.41 seconds Top Speed Well into triple digits Fuel Economy EPA 25/34 mpg, but expect 28-30 mpg in El Dorado County and 35 mpg plus on the highway