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Car reviews - Ford - Focus - Zetec 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Styling, handling, steering, brakes, safety
Room for improvement
Performance, seatbelt warning chime, sharp dash edges

Ford logo11 Apr 2003

By TIM BRITTEN

FORD'S discovery of "new edge" styling in the 1990s has brought mixed fortunes for the company.

Following the corporate "jellybean" shape characterised most alarmingly by the short-lived Taurus in Australia, the new edge theme was destined to filter through to practically all Ford products.

We saw it in full bloom in the Cougar coupe, then it appeared in the Ka and, reportedly as a last-minute styling re-think, in the AU Falcon.

But there appears to be no general consensus that new edge is a good thing.

Styling is of course the most subjective aspect of any car, but it could never be said the Cougar, or the Ka - or, especially, the AU Falcon - were warmly received.

But the Focus arrives here backed by favourable reviews in other parts of the world - particularly the UK - and, as the replacement for the Mazda-based Laser, it should be an important car for Ford Australia.

It comes in hatchback and sedan form, offering the choice of three or five doors in the former, and is priced competitively against natural competition such as Holden Astra, Toyota Corolla or Nissan Pulsar. The $20,000 entry-level CL model, like the Astra, lists air-conditioning as a $2000 extra.

The interesting thing will be to see whether or not Ford can convince Australian buyers of the inherent value in the Focus and whether, this time, new edge is warmly embraced.

The general consensus, particularly following the favourable overseas reports, is that the Focus is a good-looking car, especially in three-door Zetec form and even more especially in our test car's Capri Blue - a stunning, brilliant hue that matches the semi-sporty Zetec image perfectly.

With the imminent arrival of the six-speed, 127kW ST170 model, the Zetec's role as the sportiest Focus is only short-lived, but it still manages to fill a suitably aspirational role.

Using the bigger, 2.0-litre version of the new four-cylinder Focus engine, it extracts reasonable performance and propels the 1200kg three-door body quickly enough to avoid embarrassment.

And the handling, sharpened up with tighter spring and shock absorber ratings, is very nimble - well ahead, it might be said, of the performance capabilities.

And the interior, in a package that approximates, say, the Holden Astra in most important dimensions, is quite spacious with reasonable legroom for rear-seat passengers and a decent hatchback boot made more useful through a double-fold, 60/40-split rear seat.

The Zetec driver is confronted by a sweeping, heavily stylised dash layout that actually works well in an ergonomic sense.

The shapes might be bordering on outrageous, but everything is placed pretty much where you'd expect it to be - except the bonnet release, which is hidden behind the bonnet badge and actuated only by the ignition key.

If you want some of the things that Ford reckons make Focus stand apart from the rest - like park-distance control, traction control or, in the Zetec, a bodykit that includes bigger 17-inch wheels - you will have to pay extra. Even the alloy gearshift knob on our test car was listed as an option.

And if you must have cruise control, side airbags or climate-control air-conditioning, you'll need to step up to the $31,000-plus Ghia sedan.

But the Zetec looks well enough kitted out, with tangibly high-quality trim materials and well-shaped front seats (although both lack adjustable lumbar support). The driver's is height-adjustable, via a winder in front of the cushion, but there's no cushion-tilt control.

The Focus steering wheel adjusts for reach and height and on a stalk to the left of the driver there are remote controls for the single-CD sound system.

With the sweeping side window line that stretches back almost impossibly into the rear C-pillars, there's good all-round vision although the view is getting a little tight by the time the rear and side windows intersect.

On the road, the Zetec (with optional 17-inch wheels on our test car) has a nice, tight feel that is complimented by quick, well-weighted steering.

At just 2.9 turns from lock to lock there's no frantic arm twirling and the response is sharp and precise. The big, 45-section tyres emit some noise but this will probably be entirely acceptable to those who choose to go the fat-tyre route.

Considering its sporty pretensions, the 96kW Zetec engine is a bit of a mixed bag. In fact, the on-paper figures reveal fairly well what can be expected from it: 96kW isn't anything stupendous from 2.0 litres and the also average 178Nm of torque comes in at a fairly high 4500rpm.

The engine, especially with the air-conditioning turned on, needs a good rev to give its best. The only anomaly is that the cylinder stroke is greater than its bore - a configuration usually considered a good way of maximising low-end torque.

Still, the alloy-headed, cast-iron, twin-camshaft, 16-valve four-cylinder sounds crisp and efficient, and does return handy fuel figures - even if high-octane fuel is its recommended diet.

The five-speed manual gearbox moves quite easily from ratio to ratio and the movement is short enough, but the ratios are relatively wide, even though they are closer-spaced than regular Focus gearboxes. This means the engine's slight torque reluctance creates a lag in acceleration when shifting up through the gears.

Any enthusiastic driving is therefore best directed at winding, narrow roads where the sharp, flat handling and the effective all-disc, four-channel anti-lock braking system - complete with electronic brake force distribution - can be exploited.

The ride is firmish but not jarring and the all-independent suspension uses MacPherson struts up front and a version of Ford's Control Blade independent rear suspension to keep the Focus tracking straight when the road surface roughs up. There's no doubt the Zetec is a fun car.

So, apart from the slightly disappointing engine what didn't we like about the Focus?

Very little, in fact, apart from the shin-biting sharp edges of the dash often encountered when entering the car, and the piercing warning gong that advises the driver the seatbelt has not yet been clamped in place.

It rates well on safety, with dual front airbags standard, and the body is claimed by Ford to be exceptionally strong. Anti-submarining front seats and front seatbelt pretensioners are nothing new, nor are the all-lap-sash seat belts, but at least it's got them.

And an optional stability control system - VDC AdvanceTrac, which will be standard on the ST170 - is on the way for manual-transmission Zetec models.

Once again, Ford has a good product in its new small car. It's well priced and well specified, thoroughly competitive in its category and it feels strong and well put together.

With Ford's extensive dealer coverage throughout Australia, there appears to be no reason - other than supply shortages - why Focus shouldn't be among the top-selling small cars in the country.

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