Ford’s best attempt yet at a truly global car.
by Sue Mead
Quick, name that car: Prince William recently was seen driving one. It’s garnered accolades from Sweden to Scotland, including the prestigious European Car of the Year 1999 Award. It’s been wolf-whistled by those who determine “l”automobile plus bella du monde? - the World’s Most Beautiful Automobile. It’s captured first place in the German Goldenes Lenkrad automotive competition. And no, it’s not a Jaguar.
Stumped? One more clue: It’s base price is under $12,500.
Correct answer: It’s the all-new Ford Focus, replacing long-running economy-class yawn, the Escort, and promising to create a new standard for small cars when it hits U.S. soil in autumn 1999. That, despite a name that comes in second only to the “Probe” in the contest for cheesy automobile names.
In a class where less is rarely more and “more” generally means colorful detailing and driver-friendly print ads (such as those for the Dodge/Plymouth Neon), or so many of the same model you find yourself trying to open someone else’s car at the grocery store (the ubiquitous Toyota Corolla and Honda Civic), the Focus has taken on the daunting task of standing out in the crowd while obeying its commands: high mileage, low price, reasonable convenience. In our first drive, it has come through with flying colors.
At a glance and on paper, the Focus is impressive. Built on an all-new platform, its design is far more adventurous than almost anything else to come off small-car assembly lines within recent years. Called “Smart Design,” with “New Edge” proportions by Ford’s engineers, the lines are clean and dynamic, from the low hood line to a gracefully arcing greenhouse to its taller-than-average roof line (accommodating ever-taller drivers) and ending with a low-drag “Kamm” tail.
The Focus line shares a common front-end structure up to its B-pillar (behind the driver’s door), but the most striking aspect of the new design is the distinct personality of the three models in the line: the ZX3 hatchback, sedan and wagon.
Of the three, the wagon is the least exciting, sharing its cousins’ sleek, aerodynamic-looking frontline but suffering a tacked-on hind quarter somewhat reminiscent of utilitarian European delivery trucks.
Coming in second in the design category is the sedan, with styling cues suggestive of current Volkswagen designs (think new Passat and Jetta) but with a distinctly American accent rescuing those top line curves from bubble-hood syndrome. A low back end is snipped and sporty, similar to the BMW 3-Series.
Taking first prize, however, is the ZX3 three-door hatchback, whose stealthily muscular shape belies the functionality of this mature take on the traditional grocery-getter. The hatchback wows coming and going with its taut front end punctuated by oval headlamps set flush with the hood within triangular mounts. Lines stretch smoothly into a “checkmark” design created by a smooth roofline and seamless intersections at the taillights, high mounted for safety and hugging the edge of the hatch. The ZX3 also boasts standard 15-inch alloy wheels and a higher beltline than expected in a compact, which creates an overall sporty, almost coupelike appearance.
More than just innovative, the Focus’ sleek design underscores one of Ford’s goals for the new car: higher levels of stability, better handling, and a significant reduction in NVH (noise, vibration and harshness) for the small-car class. Smooth outer panels are supported by an all-new, highly rigid yet lightweight platform architecture. The rear suspension is fully independent, providing superior ride and handling.
Ford ensured that Focus also evokes a “fun to drive” spirit by improving precision and stability in steering as well. Power steering with “linear” characteristics is standard on all models, and a relatively “quick rack” (just three turns lock-to-lock with a turning radius of 35.8 feet) provides more precise feedback when cornering, resulting in a highly responsive ride.
Under the hood, the emphasis, again, is on lightweight engineering with competitive performance for its class. Buyers have a choice between two in-line four motors, the 2.0- liter SOHC in-line four with split-port induction and 110 horsepower, and the 2.0-liter 16-valve DOHC Zetec in-line four, with 130 hp. Both motors offer respectable low-end torque, with 80 percent of peak strength available from idle to 6000 rpm. Each has been engineered for low friction and noise output, with a reduction in engine noise by as much as 50 percent from previous uses of the engines. A manual transmission with hydraulic clutch is standard on all models.
True to small-car form, the Focus boasts low emissions levels and good fuel economy. The SPI engine has been rated at 28 mpg city/35 mpg highway; the Zetec achieves 26 mpg city/33 mpg highway. Models with automatic transmissions rate slightly, but not significantly, lower.
In the safety department, standard driver- and passenger-side airbags are par for the course, and ABS is only optional. However, the Focus is one of the first small cars to come equipped with ISOFIX child safety seat attachments, and side-impact airbags are available. Ford hopes to emphasize the role of the Focus’ improved stability as a safety feature, as well.
The interior is thoughtful with good visibility but retains an almost unavoidable small-car feel. A somewhat cluttered dash is designed for driver-friendly access, with temperature-control knobs identifiable by feel. An available leather-wrapped steering wheel and leather trim dress up the mostly soft vinyl interior; sport bucket seats and single-CD player help create the “fun to drive” feel Ford strives for in the ZX3. Standard on all models is manual seat-height adjustment for comfort and visibility.
Overall, the Focus boasts the largest interior in its segment. Seating areas, both front and rear, have been designed “to seat five adults comfortably, from the 5th percentile female to the 99th percentile male,” according to Ford. With a wheelbase of 103 inches, there is decent leg and head room: 43.1 inches of legroom and a 39.3-inch headline. Storage space is abundant for a small car, as well. The sedan’s trunk has 12.9 cubic feet of space, while the wagon has a generous 37.5 cubic feet of space.
Available in 12 exterior colors and three interior trim colors, with optional leather seats for the highest-end ZTS sedan model, the 2000 Focus rings in between $12,280 for the ZX3 and $15,795 for the SE wagon. In price, features, and improved performance, the Focus promises to deliver a new ride to small-car owners.
If only they would now play a game of “rename that car.” Perhaps the Prince (or even the Artist Formerly Known as Prince) could help!
© The Car Connection