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Ford Focus ZX3 (2001)

SEE ALSO: Ford Buyer's Guide

by Carey Russ

Remember hatchbacks? "How Eighties," you say? Have you looked at gasoline prices lately? Perhaps economical, convenient hatchbacks have a future in this country. They've never gone away in the rest of the world, where high fuel costs and limited space have kept them popular.

Of course, there were drawbacks to many of the hatchbacks sold here in the '80s. Interior space was limited, comfort was minimal, and "frugality," not "fun" was the descriptive word. "Econobox" wasn't exactly a compliment.

But it is possible to combine space, comfort, fuel economy, and fun, and to sell that combination at a reasonable price. The Ford Focus ZX3 does just that. It is one of the few hatchbacks offered in this country today, and can fill the needs of commuters and young-at-heart (and wallet) enthusiasts equally well. I've been driving one for the past week. I haven't been bored, and the small- outside, not-so-small-inside ZX3 fits easily into tight parking spaces. It has no problem keeping up with traffic, or staying ahead, for that matter, and the gas gauge takes its time dropping from "full."

APPEARANCE: There is no denying that the Focus ZX3 looks small. But, there is a bit of an optical illusion at work. The hatchback ZX3 is built on the same platform as the Focus sedan and wagon, and shares their wheelbase, width, and the sedan's height. It is about seven inches shorter than the sedan, and almost ten inches shorter than the wagon. Its styling is identical to the other Focus models from the windshield forward, but it is the most radical member of the family from that point back. Many different geometric forms blend together for dynamic harmony. Broad curved surfaces meet well-defined edges, with no straight, flat lines anywhere. Don't call it a box - the roofline slopes back to a slight "ducktail" spoiler above the three-dimensionally curved backlight. The side windows form a teardrop shape, with a small point at the rear. If the triangular headlamps and small oval grille are distinctive in front, the large, high-mounted taillights are even more so in the rear. Appropriate for its performance mission, the optional 16-inch wheels and low-profile tires fill the wheel arches.

COMFORT: Although it is shorter than the Focus sedan, and lacks separate trunk and rear doors, the ZX3 coupe has as much interior space as its sedan sibling, with slightly more rear headroom and marginally less rear shoulder room. It actually has more potential luggage capacity, if the rear seat is folded. It's split 60/40 for that, and the rear cushion can be flipped up (in one piece only) for a flat cargo floor. Liftover height is less than the sedan's. Rear seat access is not as easy as in a four-door sedan, but it's not too difficult, and anyone under six feet tall can be tolerably comfortable. The ZX3 shares most of its interior styling with the other Focus models, and it is as geometrically interesting as the exterior. But function and space are not sacrificed to style. Although the base-level ZX3 is fairly Spartan in accommodation, option packages are available to make it quite comfortable. Included in the pricey "Premium Group" is a tilt and telescope-adjustable steering wheel, very unusual for the ZX3's class, that makes it easy to get the driving position just right.

SAFETY: All Focus models have a rigid central safety cell around the passenger compartment, with front and rear crush zones and side impact protection. All occupants have three-point harnesses. Dual depowered front air bags can be supplemented by optional side air bags.

ROADABILITY: Like the Focus ZTS sedan, the ZX3's fully- independent MacPherson strut / multilink suspension is tuned in a very European manner. It's well-damped, with long travel and soft springs to take advantage of the rigid unibody structure. The relatively long wheelbase helps, too. The result is a very comfortable ride, with no choppiness, and nimble handling. Body roll during enthusiastic maneuvers serves as a psychological damper on excessive corner speed. However, Ford is trying to crack the Japanese-brand dominated sport-compact market with this car, and is aggressively working with aftermarket makers of suspension kits and other tuning parts. So, if you like the car but want more sport at the expense of comfort, it should be available.

PERFORMANCE: The ZX3 and the ZTS sedan are the sporty Focus models, and share the 2.0-liter twin-cam "Zetec" four- cylinder engine. The ZX3 is slightly lighter than the ZTS, and some people consider its hatchback style to be sportier. The Zetec engine is a near-perfect small-displacement sports engine. Its maximum 130 horsepower and 135 lb-ft of torque are enough for entertaining performance, especially with the standard five-speed manual gearbox. Keep it above 3500 rpm for the best response and a classic sports car exhaust note. Stay below that for frugal fuel economy. And there is an undeniable practicality factor in its small, easy-to-park size and good fuel economy (EPA 25/33, real world depends on judicious use of the right foot.) It can be a good commuter, but it's far too much fun to be called an "econobox." Besides, it's not boxy.

CONCLUSIONS: Economical but not a box, the Ford Focus ZX3 illustrates all that is right about hatchbacks.

2001 Ford Focus ZX3

Base Price              $ 12,125
Price As Tested         $ 16,400
Engine Type             dual overhead cam 16-valve 4-
Engine Size             2.0 liters / 121 cu. in.
Horsepower              130 @ 5300 rpm
Torque (lb-ft)          135@ 4500 rpm
Transmission            5-speed manual
Wheelbase / Length      103.0 in. / 168.1 in.
Curb Weight             2551 lbs.
Pounds Per Horsepower   19.6
Fuel Capacity           13.2 gal.
Fuel Requirement        regular unleaded gasoline, 87 octane
Tires                   P205/50 SR16 B.F. Goodrich Radial 
                          T/A (opt)
Brakes, front/rear      vented disc / drum, antilock optional
Suspension, front/rear  independent MacPherson struts / 
                          independent multilink
Drivetrain              front engine, front-wheel drive

EPA Fuel Economy - miles per gallon
    city / highway / observed      25 / 33 / 27
0 to 60 mph            8.7  sec

Power group - includes: remote entry and antitheft
 system, power locks,   side windows, external
 mirrors                                          $   740
Advance Trac traction control system              $ 1,225
Premium group - includes: 16" aluminum wheels
 with P205/50 R16 tires, front seat armrest, tilt
steering column, speed control, front maplights   $ 1,095
Antilock brakes                                   $   400
Side-impact air bags                              $   350
Destination charge                                $   465