Who says frugal and fun can't go together?
by John Matras
Base Price (MSRP) $12,125
As Tested (MSRP) $15,200
Introduced last year, the Ford Focus is one of the most enjoyable compacts in its price range. It's fun, it's practical, and it's safer than most, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Wild New Edge styling helps it stand out from the crowd.
An available twin-cam engine give the ZX3 hatchback, ZTS sedan and SE wagon enthusiastic response. Yet all models deliver good fuel economy.
Ford Focus comes in three body styles: three-door hatchback, four-door sedan and five-door wagon.
Two 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines are available (a 110-horsepower single overhead-cam and a 130-horsepower double overhead-cam Zetec). There's also a choice of 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transmission.
The sedan comprises the bulk of Focus sales and is available in three trim levels, an entry level LX ($12,385), an upgrade SE ($14,040), and the fully-equipped ZTS ($15,260). ZTS comes with the more powerful twin-cam Zetec engine.
The hatchback is available as one model, the ZX3 ($12,125). This is a sport compact, and comes with all the requisite hardware: a more powerful 130-horsepower twin-cam engine, 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, and fog lights. Its wild styling makes the hatchback look sportier and even more distinctive than the sedan. Power windows, mirrors and locks, and keyless entry are now available ($740), along with optional cruise control.
The wagon is available only in the SE trim level ($16,235) and offers the largest cargo capacity in its class. For 2001, it comes standard with the 130-horsepower dohc Zetec engine. Also new, is the availability of the 5-speed manual transmission in addition to the automatic.
For 2001, Ford has added its AdvanceTrac ($1225) vehicle dynamics system to the option list. Described below, AdvanceTrac includes rear disc brakes and traction control, but requires ordering the optional anti-lock brakes ($400).
Other optional safety equipment includes side-impact air bags ($350). Cruise control, which was not available last year, has been added to the options list.
When Ford engineers designed the Focus, they didn't simply make a smaller sedan. Ford studied the needs of passengers and designed the Focus from the inside out. 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). Ford's 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.
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. Painted silver accents around the center dash give the ZX3 a modern look, while wood grain in the same area enhances the ZTS model.
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.
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. 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.
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.
ZX3 doesn't act like an economy car. It accelerates and turns much more quickly, making this one of the most enjoyable cars in its class to drive. 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. Optional 50-series (16-inch) tires sharpen handling response.
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.
Optional AdvanceTrac monitors the car's behavior while cornering, checking the steering angle, lateral acceleration and yaw rate, then helps maintain stability. If it senses you're in trouble it reduces power and selectively applies to brakes to individual wheels to keep the vehicle on course; it uses the ABS and traction control system to help it accomplish this. The system intervenes progressively so that the drier is hardly aware that AdvanceTrac has been activated. It may be turned off by pressing a button on the instrument panel, but comes back on whenever the vehicle is started.
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.