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Second-hand: Ford Focus

Ford's compact stormed the market when it arrived in 2000, but once they brought them home, consumers noticed the Focus didn't quite live up to the hype.

Remember when Ford had game?

“Excellent vehicle offerings have set global sales on a soaring trajectory that could put this No. 2 automaker ahead of General Motors within a few years,” Car and Driver predicted in October 1999.

What prompted this giddy forecast was the stunning Ford Focus R hatchback that graced the magazine’s cover. The Cosworth-powered show car was a Europe-only model, but it was the perfect halo car for the Focus’s North American launch.

Ford’s front-wheel-drive compact stormed the market when it arrived here for 2000, winning over the automotive press and earning Car of the Year honours.

But once they brought them home, consumers noticed the Focus didn’t quite live up to the hype.

Owners’ mailboxes started to fill up with recall notices and the cars themselves exhibited mechanical glitches such as rapidly worn brakes, wheel bearing failures, broken transmissions, faulty air conditioners, bad fuel pumps and a host of electrical problems.

The teething pains caused a lot of anguish for owners and dealers as word got around that the European-designed Focus was, well, unfocused.

CONFIGURATION

With its avant-garde styling and premium materials, the Focus aspired to be more than just an econobox. It was a ball to drive, too, thanks to its stout platform and sophisticated suspension geometry.

And there was choice: the 2000 Focus came as a four-door sedan, five-door wagon and three-door hatchback. A five-door hatch would soon follow.

Buyers could choose from two familiar four-cylinder engines: the SOHC 2.0 L from the Escort, making 110 hp and 125 lb.-ft. of torque, and the DOHC 2.0 L Zetec (130 hp/135 lb.-ft. of pull) out of the defunct Contour.

Thanks to its tall greenhouse (8 cm higher than the Escort’s), the car boasted a roomy interior. Driver and passengers sat upright in chairs, rather than reclined in seats just off the carpet.

The wagon was especially spacious, and made the Focus distinctive among non-wagon competitors like the Honda Civic and Chevy Cavalier.

The performance-oriented SVT Focus was introduced for 2002, sporting a 170 hp version of the 2.0 L Zetec engine (hotter cams, low-restriction exhaust, etc.), six-speed manual transmission and athletic suspension.

Ford worked diligently to exterminate the Focus’s mechanical bugs.

One step in the right direction was the adoption of Mazda’s new 2.3 L four-cylinder engine for 2004. Making 145 hp, the optional motor could be mated to either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission.

The Focus was thoroughly renovated for 2005. Gone were the bold, contemporary lines inside and out, replaced by a more conservative cut that echoed the new Five Hundred snoozemobile.

Ford had dumbed down its small car in an attempt to win over more mainstream consumers – instead of adopting the second-generation Focus that’s selling like hot crèpes in Europe.

At least there was more power: the DOHC 2.0 L four-cylinder now made 136 hp and 133 lb.-ft. of torque. The ZX4 ST sedan, propelled by the Mazda four (upgraded to 151 hp), replaced the sporty SVT hatchbacks.

The first-generation Focus was refreshed again for 2008. Another opportunity seemed to be lost.

ON THE ROAD

For a small car assembled in Michigan and Mexico, the European-designed Focus never forgot its French lessons.

Suspension travel was long, absorbing bumps with aplomb. There was plenty of body lean during cornering, yet it remained well-planted. The Focus sedan generated 0.81 g on a circular skidpad, despite its all-season tires.

A 2002 Focus ZX5 hatchback with the DOHC four and manual transmission could sprint to 96 km/h in 9.0 seconds. Add almost a second for the automatic and two for the SOHC motor. The Mazda-powered version could do it in 7.9 seconds.

The SVT Focus provided more of a good thing: 0-to-96 km/h came up in 7.8 seconds, the brakes were strong (112-to-0 km/h in just 52 metres) and grip tenacious at 0.91 g.

As composed as the front-wheel-drive Focus was, some owners reported white knuckles in winter driving conditions.

“One quirk with all these cars has to do with the tires or suspension setup or both. I live in the snowbelt and these cars must have snow tires,” reader Jim Quigley warned, having owned three Focus wagons to date.

Another weakness is the car’s thirst for fuel. Many owners complained that the Focus doesn’t get nearly as good mileage as its competitors, particularly with the automatic transmission.

WHAT OWNERS REPORTED

In terms of reliability, the Focus got off to a rough start in North America, and it’s generally agreed used-car shoppers should avoid the 2000-year models; maybe the ’01s, too.

Newer Focuses (Foci?) are more reliable, but it doesn’t mean they’ll never know the cold grip of a hydraulic lift.

The most common problem involves faulty ignition switches.

“Ignition switch broke at 50,000 kilometres. Key would not turn, could not start. Ford refused to pay for fix,” read a blog.

Owners are forking out up to $500 for a new switch. Some have taken to carrying a rubber mallet; a light tap is usually enough to dislodge the key.

The Focus eats brakes, so be prepared for frequent service. A malfunctioning air conditioner may be traced back to a leaking compressor shaft seal. Other headaches include short-lived alternators, window regulators and automatic transmissions (in small numbers).

The best advice comes from this owner: “My model is the `premium’ ZX3 with the 2.3 L engine. If you don’t have this engine, you are missing out … it really makes the car.”

We would like to know about your ownership experience with these models: Hyundai Elantra, Buick Rendezvous and Volvo S60. Email: toljagic@ca.inter.net.

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