Thinking outside the (econo) box.

by John Matras

Base Price $11,960
As Tested $14,435

The Ford Focus is a ground-up re-evaluation of the subcompact. For years, the small car has been a shrunken version of the standard sedan. Ford studied the needs of passengers and designed the Focus from the inside out. Although you may have heard that song and dance before, there's more truth to it with the Focus.

Instead of figuring how to fit passengers within the conventional three-box sedan profile scaled down to compact proportions, Ford raised the roof for today's taller average heights the elevated the seating height for more effective legroom.

To accentuate this change in concept, Ford employed its New Edge styling (introduced on the Mercury Cougar), which combines arcs with crisp edges. As a result, the Ford Focus stands out from the crowd yet delivers good fuel economy.

Model Lineup

The Ford Focus comes in three body styles: three-door hatchback, four-door sedan and five-door wagon. Two four-cylinder engines are available with a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic.

The sedan comprises the bulk of Focus sales and is available in three trim levels, an entry level LX ($12,220), an upgrade SE ($13,565), and the fully-equipped ZTS ($15,165). Leather interior trim is only available for the ZTS ($695).

The wagon is available only in the SE trim level ($15,380) and offers the largest cargo capacity in its class.

Three-door hatchbacks in base-model stripper trim have in the past often been used to used to low-ball buyers into the showroom only to be switched into larger, more expensive and more profitable models. Ford has instead positioned its Focus hatchback as a sports model and named it the ZX3. (The model designation is derived from the Ford Escort ZX2 coupe.) Ford Focus ZX3 comes with such sporty accoutrements as 15-inch aluminum wheels, fog lights and a more powerful 130-horsepower twin-cam engine. ZX3 also offers sportier and even more distinctive styling than the Focus sedan. Only a limited number of options are available for the ZX3 ($11,960).

ZX3 comes with a leather-wrapped steering wheel. Options include side-impact air bags, anti-lock brakes and remote locking. Not available on the ZX3, however, are power windows, cruise control and the tilt/telescoping steering column offered on other Focus models. The only additional ZX3 options include floor mats, smoker's package (lighter and ashtray), and an engine block heater.

Walkaround

We drove the Focus ZX3 hatchback and it didn't take long to figure out that this is a car that is noticed. Its New Edge styling, with tidy creases that define intersecting arcs, looks simpler than it really is. Large pie-section headlamps give the front end a distinctive appearance. On the ZX3, they are joined by fog lamps in the grille opening below the bumper. There's a similar, but smaller opening above the bumper that houses the turn signals. Both are outlined by arcs. The front and rear fenders are highlighted with geometric curves creased into the sheetmetal. The roofline is highly arched, particularly noticeable when parked next to another car. The roofline is truncated just aft of the rear axle line. Wedge-shaped tail lamps set in the C-pillars enliven an otherwise plain rear end. Ford claims the tail lamps are more noticeable in that location and reduce repair costs in minor accidents. However, the sedan and wagon have conventionally placed tail lamps, so we'll accept the unique shape and location as distinctive and effective styling.

Lower bodyside PVC coating provides protection from stone dings on all models, and the underbody gets PVC coating as well. Clearcoat paint is standard across the board. The ZX3 and LX have black rather than body-color bodyside protective molding, but this is offset on the ZX3 by black rocker panels. The door handles on all models are black as well. The door handles on black cars blends in, but black also masks the distinctive lines of the Focus that are accentuated by the brighter colors.

Interior Features

If you like the Focus outside, you'll love it inside. The New Edge styling extends to the interior. The dash is a collection of arcs, the instrument panel covered by an asymmetrically curved and sharply creased bezel. A 7000-rpm tachometer flanks a 140-mph speedometer in the ZX3. Both instruments are round and easily readable, clearly marked with white numerals on black, though the tach has no redline. The fuel gauge has a small arrow pointing to the right, denoting on which side the filler is located, appreciated by those of us who drive a number of cars, have bad memories or both.

The center dash panel is formed by an arc that sweeps upward across the dash to the right side of the car and an inverted parabola. The radio fits into the top of this area and includes a single-disc CD player. Part of the controls can be taken with you to discourage theft. Snuggled in to the left is the cigarette lighter/ash tray. Circular ventilation controls, less frequently accessed, fit below the radio and are styled in the New Edge theme, with buttons styled to fit the room available. The trunk release, on the left end of the dash, is triangular as well, shaped to fit into the intersection of the arcs outlining the instrument panel.

The overall asymmetry lends an informal air to the interior, but the feel of the interior is rich. The control knobs all have distinctive shapes for easy identification; rotary controls are rubberized for pleasing soft-touch operation. The steering wheel on the ZX3 is leather-covered and satisfying to touch. Even the plastics used on the dash and door panels have a finger-friendly soft-touch feel.

The seats are comfortable with an exceptionally high hip point, 20 inches above the ground. The advantages of this seating include a better view down the road, plus more effective leg room front and rear, and it takes advantage of the Focus' roofline with headroom for the long and tall. It also makes entry and exit easier. The manual height adjustment on the ZX3 allows almost everyone to find a comfortable position behind the wheel and an easy arm's length away from the manual shifter.

The back seat of the ZX3 is best accessed by the young and agile, but both front seats do slide forward. Once back there, however, rear seat riders have lots of legroom, thanks to widely spaced runners under the front seats, plus adult-sized head and shoulder room. Versatility of the hatchback design is lost on most Americans, who prefer the more formal sedan profile with its conventional trunk, but this design is hugely popular among Europeans for its practicality. Fold the back seat of the ZX3 and there's 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space and a big door for access.

Driving Impressions

Like an eager puppy, the Focus ZX3 begs to go for a ride and you're just as happy to comply.

The 2.0-liter 16-valve double overhead-cam four-cylinder engine starts instantly and rewards drivers with an almost imperceptible idle, it's so smooth and quiet. Clutch take-up is good and easy to modulate. Shifting into first gear reveals a rubbery feel to the linkage of the long-shafted shifter. It feels like a Saab shifter; it's precise but not inviting. The 130-horsepower engine answers a heavy foot with surprisingly rapid acceleration, a benefit of a lightweight car with well-developed torque characteristics. Fully 80 percent of the engine's maximum torque is available from idle to 6000 rpm; peak torque of 135 foot-pounds comes at 4500 rpm. Making the ZX3 even more satisfying to drive is Ford's excellent control of noise, vibration and harshness in this engine. Forget the usual inexpensive four-cylinder harshness; this puppy loves to run and doesn't complain about visiting the upper reaches of the tachometer.

If the ZX3 doesn't accelerate like an economy car, it doesn't turn like one either. Response through the rack-and-pinion steering is quick and precise, and feedback is excellent. The car feels like it is leaning in corners more than it actually is because the driver is sitting higher in the saddle. We'd like to trade the 70-series tires that come on the ZX3 hatchback for the 60-series tires that come on the ZTS sedan.

The ZX3 cruises easily on the Interstate. The engine is quiet and wind noise is subdued. Ordinary roads feel smooth, while well-maintained superhighways feel velvety. Cruise control would be a welcome feature.

Final Word

The Ford Focus breaks new ground in economy car design. The ZX3 hatchback proves the economical and practical can also be sporty and fun.

Overall, the Focus shows that Ford has done some thinking outside the box. In doing so, Ford has created an inexpensive car that is desirable as well as practical.

© New Car Test Drive, Inc.

New Car Test Drive

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