2000 Ford Focus
Can Europe's reigning Car of the Year be a success in North America? Ford hopes so, because it is pretty much betting the farm on the 2000 Focus.
Choosing a car at dealership. Thoughtful grey hair man in formalwear leaning at the car and looking away
MANCHESTER, N.H. — Can Europe's reigning Car of the Year be a success in North America? Ford hopes so, because it is pretty much betting the farm on the 2000 Focus.
And, based on our first impressions, this is a car that should wow buyers.
Focus is ostensibly a replacement for Escort. But at least in Canada, it is also a replacement for the ill-fated Contour and Mercury Mystique, other Eurostars that failed to catch on here, and which are gone as of model-year 2000.
Like the Mercury Cougar coupe, which was Ford's vanguard into the so-called New Edge philosophy, you'll either love or hate the Focus' styling.
But at least its styling has a purpose. John Doughty, an Aussie who was chief ink-thrower for this car, says designers hoped "to make a small car that the market would perceive as desirable, not merely a necessary evil, something they have to buy because they can't afford anything else."
Before there was styling, there was packaging. Doughty says the basic premise of Focus was to provide mid-size interior room on a compact footprint.
The key was raising the driving position, making for a taller car. Combined with the skinniness demanded by narrow European streets, this could make the car look top-heavy and tippy. So there are various styling tricks — wide wheels that come right to the edge of the fender openings, chubby fender flares, substantial front and rear fascias — to give the car a more solid stance.
But it still looks pretty strange.
We will be getting a two-door hatchback, a four-door sedan and a station wagon.
Sadly, the best-looking version of the car is the Europe-only four-door hatchback. But Ford of Canada had enough trouble convincing the hatch-hating Yanks to bring the two-door to these shores — and only in sporty trim as a replacement for the Escort ZX2 coupe.
Inside, sweeping, angular panels, unusual shapes and odd intersections are vastly more interesting to look at than just about anything on the road at any price, even if the colour schemes on lower-spec models are a bit drab.
This design required an entirely new platform, and the bodyshell is twice as stiff as the Escort, yet is the lightest in the class.
Apart from styling, the most radical aspect of Focus is its rear suspension. Essentially a three-link design, its most unusual feature is a sheetmetal trailing arm that looks for all the world like a dull rotary lawn mower blade. Its main benefits are compactness and low cost. The wagon gets unique rear suspension bits, to allow a low, flat floor.
Focus's other mechanical components are more prosaic and familiar.
The front suspension is MacStrut, as it has been on all small Fords for the last 25 years. It has been refined, with reduced friction being the major objective; likewise for the standard power rack-and-pinion steering.
Brakes are discs at the front, drums at the rear. ABS with electronic brake-force distribution is available.
At first glance, the base SPI (for SplitPort Induction) 2.0 L single overhead-cam eight-valve engine appears to be a carry-over from Escort.
But Andrew Shackleton, head of Focus' powertrain team, says, "Our aim was a dramatic improvement in powertrain refinement."
The output numbers, 110 hp at 5000 rpm and 125 lbft of torque at 3750 rpm, are the same as last year's Escort. But details like a structural cast aluminum oil pan and lighter valve train contribute to a quieter drive.
The optional engine also displaces 2.0 L; it's the twin-cam 16-valve Zetec, formerly used in Escort ZX2 and Contour/Mystique. A more refined engine to begin with, it has also been massaged for smoother, quieter running. Output remains 130 horses at 5300 rpm, and 135 lbft of torque at 4500 rpm.
Shackleton summarizes that the SPI is optimized for torque and economy, while the Zetec is tuned more for performance.
A five-speed manual transmission is standard on all models; a Mazda-built four-speed electronically shifted automatic is optional.
You can't accuse Ford of picking its spots when it came to showing Focus to the press — the roads in New Hampshire and Vermont are beautiful and challenging.
They proved that Focus's dynamics are indeed excellent for a small car — heck, for any car.
There is lots of room in the fore-and-aft and top-to-bottom directions, but two beefy riders may find their elbows getting a bit more intimate than they'd like.
There are three seat belts in the rear, but they had better be used by skinny people.
Also, there's huge volume in the sedan's trunk and the hatch and wagon's cargo areas. The rear cushion on all models flips forward and the seatback split folds in 60/40 proportion.
A manual seat height adjuster is standard, a rare thing for an entry-level car. I found the seat cushion too flat, but I almost always do. The seat is also very firm to first buttkiss, despite having been softened for the North American market.
But the longer you drive, the more you'll appreciate it.
One drawback of the interior: getting out of the car, I invariably whacked my ankle on the fore-and-aft seat adjustment lever that protrudes from under the left side of the seat cushion. Ford invented the best adjustment system on Taurus: a full-width bar under the seat that can be reached with either hand and has no sharp edges to attack your body.
Both engines provide good performance; the twin-cam Zetec is quicker, but you'll no longer beat yourself up for having chosen the SPI version, if that's all you can afford.
The manual gearbox shifts well, although there's a 1000 rpm drop from fourth to fifth — a pretty big hole. Clutch takeup is excellent.
Most buyers will go the automatic route, which works well.
Ford also showed its confidence in Focus by turning us loose at the Louden, N.H., NASCAR racetrack, against toprank competition. Yes, they had a Toyota Corolla, but it pretty much sat. The new Chrysler Neon and Honda Civic provided the litmus test.
And here, Focus really shone. There's an all-of-a-piece quality to the car that belies its price. Steering is light, but accurate and precise no need for constant corrections in corners. Believe it or not, BMW owners may be just a wee bit surprised.
Body roll is remarkably low. This was a serious concern for Dr. Franz Laermann, who led the engineering development team, because the higher seating position exaggerates any body lean.
But they nailed it.
Some of Focus's handling prowess is due to large, relatively high quality tires: 185/65R14 Goodyear Eagle GAs on base cars, 195/60R15 Goodyear RSAs on uplevel cars.
In contrast, Civic throws away its major suspension advantage by fitting shipping-material, rim-protector tires. The Civic felt like it could be fast, but the Firestone rubber gave up too soon.
The Neon did feel quick on both the road circuit and the slalom course, thanks to a punchy engine. But Focus was in fact faster, not because of power but because of handling.
Five years ago, Ford tried to sell Contour based on vehicledynamics. Sadly, it was to a customer base dominated by buyers who obviously didn't care a great deal about that and weren't prepared to pay the premium Contour demanded.
Escort-class buyers may not care much, either, but if they can get a better car for the same price, they won't refuse it because it's good. And Ford is selling the base but nicely equipped Focus LX sedan at $14,895, exactly the same as last year's Escort LX.
Way more car; no more money — what's to argue about? Still, Corriveau expects LX to account for only 8 per cent of Focus sales, predominantly in Quebec and the Maritimes.
The SE adds aircon, power locks, remote keyless entry and variable intermittent wipers the stuff most people want for $16,595, just $200 more than the 1999 Escort equivalent.
The wagon is available only in SE trim, at $1,000 more than the sedan, which seems rather a lot, since the only extra stuff you get is a cargo cover, roof rack and rear wiper/washer.
The SE sedan should make up the lion's share 40 per cent of sales, with the wagon doing about 20 per cent.
Both body styles are available with a Sport package that brings the Zetec motor, aluminum wheels and fog lights, which adds $1,500 to the sedan sticker and $1,300 to the wagon.
An all-singing all-dancing ZTS sedan — with BBS-style wheels, ABS, CD player, and fake wood trim — rolls out for $19,695 and a projected 15 per cent of Focus sales. Ford figures that owners of four-cylinder Contours won't feel hard done by moving to a car that has more room, better handling, same engine, lower price.
Only V6 Contour owners will have nowhere to go, and Ford hopes they can convert most of them to a Taurus.
Finally, that cute little hatchback will be offered as the ZX3, with the Zetec motor, 15-inch aluminum wheels, AM/FM stereo radio with CD player, leather steering wheel and sporty seats but not standard air, for $16,595, which seems excellent value.
Corriveau may be underestimating this car, at only 17 per cent of sales.
The autobox is $1,100 on all models, ABS a how-can-you-refuse $400.
Corriveau notes that last year Escort and Con/Tique combined sold just under 37,000 units.
But in the heyday of Tempo, a perennial top seller, Ford of Canada moved as many as 53,000 cars in these two classes. It may not happen this year, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to see Focus become Canada's best-selling car in 2001.
It has that sort of jam.
Anybody got a farm they want to bet?
Freelance journalist Jim Kenzie prepared this report
based on sessions arranged and paid for by Ford of Canada.
Email:jbkenzie @ interhop.net