Ford's best may be its youngest.

by Ted Grozier

Are cars getting worse? Doors don't slam right, plastics feel cheap, and corporate mega-mergers have squelched out some of the soul.

Then again, there’s the Ford Focus, a car with a vivid personality that comes from one of the biggest carmakers on the planet. This small econobox is a vehicle of uncompromisingly high quality, forward-looking style, and above all, a fun factor which makes it more popular among the TCC brain trust than cars costing twice as much.

On sale for over a year across the Atlantic, Focus has already clinched the European Car of the Year award. It came stateside as a 2000 model in hatchback, sedan, and wagon form and is expected to supplant the Escort as one of Dearborn's best-selling cars. And for good reason: efficient packaging, athletic performance, and value for the dollar are among the strengths which make it one of the best subcompacts yet.

Looks and strength

Building an eye-catching car costs no more than building a bland one, so for the entry-level Focus, Ford splurged on style. Whether or not you like the Euro-sourced "New Edge" design, you'll appreciate how well it works; the tall roofline, long wheelbase, and slab sides make room for a cavernous interior and class-leading luggage capacity. From the B-pillar forward, sedan, wagon, and hatchback share the same structure, with racy headlamps, broad wheel arches, and a steeply-raked windshield. The lines of the three-door hatch are particularly dynamic. One complaint concerns the LX's 14-inch wheels; they are simply dwarfed by the tall profile and seem rinky-dinky. Other models get the 15-inch footwear the silhouette and broad haunches deserve.

As with almost all production cars these days, the Focus' skin is an integral part of the computer-designed, load-bearing structure. The laser-welded steel unibody is formed from steel blanks of varying thickness - from about one to three millimeters - to provide strength at critical points while keeping weight down. The three-door, for example, weighs only a hair over 2500 lb while boasting an extraordinarily stiff chassis. Ford tells us, in fact, that the Focus is the first Ford to have computer-processed stiffness goals at each bodyshell joint.

Rad on the road, too

That kind of body stiffness is the foundation of good driving dynamics. With a MacPherson strut setup in front and an all-new multi-link rear suspension, the Focus is well-equipped to hustle down any road. Ford has dialed-in almost perfect tuning: compliant springs and bushings soak up the worst surfaces, but good damping tempers unsettling body motion. The power-assisted rack and pinion steering is an unqualified delight - effort is relatively low yet feel is superb, and as we learned after lap after lap at Pocono International, Focus consistently goes where it's pointed no matter how hard it is pushed.

Manual transmission models feature a well-weighted shifter and silky, progressive clutch. Good thing, too, because even the 16-valve, 130-horsepower Zetec engine demands a fair amount of gearchanging to bring the chassis up to the speeds that make it shine. Also displacing 2.0 liters, the base 110-horse four-cylinder is neither notably strong nor annoyingly taxed, providing smooth, flexible, fuel-efficient and unobtrusive motivation. An electronically-controlled four-speed automatic is an $815 option on all but the SE Wagon, which is automatic-only.

Despite rear drum brakes, stopping is secure and pedal feel is good. The ventilated discs on the front axle use floating calipers and a soft pad compound for powerful action. We would like to see ABS standard across the model range though; currently it is a $400 option on all but the ZTS sedan.

Room to stretch out

Entering the Focus with a tug on the functional grab-handle latches, you'll first notice that for a "small car" the seats are awfully high. Getting in is more of a sideways slide than the climb down to the pavement of other subcompacts. Once in place there's still plenty of room above your head, giving the cabin a feeling of spaciousness beyond the legitimately impressive size. Because of the chair-height seating arrangement, legroom front and rear is also more than adequate and remarkable for a vehicle with such tidy exterior dimensions. Visibility is good, as is the driving position; a tilting/telescoping wheel is optional though we don't think it's necessary as the driver's seat is height-adjustable. One gripe, though: the crank used to raise and lower the seat is an awkward means to achieve what should be a simple result.

Switchgear and plastics are of fine quality and controls fall naturally to the hand. Air conditioning is standard on the sedan and wagon; the three-knob HVAC are easy to use even with gloved hands and are positioned below the slightly less logical radio buttons. Redundant controls for volume and frequency are mounted on the left side of the steering column for no-look adjustment. Theater dimming interior lights and a 60/40 rear seat are standard equipment. All models include a remote trunk/liftgate release mounted cleverly on the left side of the dash; there it is easy to find with the driver's door closed and can easily be reached while standing outside the vehicle.

ZX3 hatchbacks, although they ship with the performance-tuned Zetec engine, CD player, fog lamps, and leather-wrapped steering wheel, oddly lack power door locks, which one might want. (Keyless entry is a $395 option.) Sedans begin in LX trim; (cassette, crank windows, manual mirrors) SE models add keyless entry, variable-intermittent wipers and power mirrors, while top-spec ZTS sedans come with ABS, cruise control, the Zetec engine, CD player, tilt wheel, center armrest, special seating fabric, power windows, and a special kind of "wood trim" we wish Ford had left in the paint can from which it came. The SE wagon is equipped similarly to the SE sedan.

No matter the equipment list, noise and harshness are conspicuously absent from Focus' cabin. By performing acoustical modeling from the start and incorporating the results into the chassis design, Ford was able to keep resonance to a minimum without heavy sound-deadening pads. With such refinement, interior room, and build quality the Focus drives and rides like a much larger, more expensive car.

In showrooms now, the Wayne, Michigan-built Focus starts at $11,865 and is backed by a 36-month, 36,000-mile warranty.

2000 Ford Focus

BasePrice: $11,865

Engine: 2.0-liter in-line four, 110 hp; 2.0-liter in-line four, 130 hp

Transmission: five-speed manual, electronically controlled four-speed automatic

Wheelbase: 103.0 in

Length: 174.9 in (sedan), 178.2 in (wagon), 168.1 in (three-door)

Width: 66.9 in

Height: 56.3 in (sedan and three-door), 57.0 in (wagon)

Weight: 2551-2717 lb

Fuel economy: 25-28 city/ 32-35 hwy

Major standard equipment:
Dual front airbags
Power locks
Power brakes and steering
AM/FM cassette stereo

© The Car Connection

 

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