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First drive: Focus II free to fly

Focussed: second-gen Ford small car takes on Astra, Mazda3 and Corolla.

No longer does Ford’s sharpest suffer from leaden engines, a dated cabin and low spec

15 Jun 2005

FORD Australia has mounted its most convincing small-car challenge since the original 1981 Laser with its second-generation Focus now on sale.

Coded LS, this latest small entrant in a field of almost 20 trumps its under-performing predecessor with a much-needed power boost as well as more space, comfort, refinement and value for money.

Vitally, the latter can be achieved through its manufacture in South Africa and the more favourable exchange rates this brings. The outgoing LR was built in either Spain or Germany (Zetec and ST170).

Again engineered in Germany, Ford claims this LS Focus is nonetheless designed with the Australian market in mind.

Local personnel were involved in the development process during prototype testing conducted here and in Germany, as well as with the production ramp-up phase in South Africa.

A model rationalisation sees the slow-selling three-door variants vanish for now, leaving the range to comprise four-door CL, LX and Ghia sedans as well as five-door CL, LX and Zetec hatchbacks.

Both body styles, partly the work of Australian Ford Asia Pacific design manager Paul Gibson, are safe evolutions of the unexpectedly bold initial concepts.

They espouse the space-enhancing virtues of cab-forward body design, creating 25mm more length and 140mm greater width inside than before. The new Focus is thus meaningfully roomier than even the medium-sized Ford Mondeo of a few years ago.

Motivation for all models comes courtesy of Ford’s new Duratec 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine also seen (in altered form) in the Mazda3.

Boasting twin cams, 16 valves and a variable intake system besides others for greater flexibility, higher economy and lower emissions, this oversquare motor can easily be made to meet future Euro IV standards.

Outputs on 95 RON premium unleaded petrol are 107kW of power at 6000rpm and 185Nm of torque at 4500rpm, with 90 per cent of the latter occurring at 2000rpm. Performance drops slightly on regular 91 RON and rises with 98 RON. Knock control sensors help here.

This compares to the previous 1.8-litre (and 2.0 auto) base engine’s 85kW and 156Nm (auto: 162Nm). Even the sportier LR Zetec’s 2.0-litre could only muster 96kW/178Nm. Ford Australia’s Focus product manager, Peter Fry, said the Duratec is also lighter than before, a result of its aluminium alloy cylinder block, absent brackets for front-end accessories and composite intake manifold and cam cover.

This aids fuel consumption, down to 7.1/8.0 L/100km from 8.1/9.5 L/100km for the 2.0 manual/auto in the ADR 81/01 combined fuel consumption guide.

The Duratec is also claimed to require less maintenance, have an increased life expectancy (at least 250,000km or 10 years before ‘major work’ is required) and be much smoother and quieter.

To the latter’s end, the aforementioned aluminium also helps bolster the engine’s bending stiffness by seven per cent and reduces shaking forces by 13 per cent for a noticeable decline in noise, vibration and harshness properties.

An MTX 75 cable-shift five-speed manual, or electronically controlled FN four-speed automatic gearbox with a sequential-shift pattern and grade-control ratio-change adaptability, are the transmission choices. The latter is standard on Ghia.

Ford has also confirmed high-performance 2.0-litre variants – as well as the possibility of the company’s acclaimed TDCi common-rail turbo-diesel engine it shares with Peugeot/Citroen – are also being investigated.

Underpinning the LS is Ford’s C1 platform that shares components with the Mazda3 and Volvo’s S40 and V50.

According to Ford Australia’s Michael Stellamanns – currently Falcon vehicle engineering manager but previously part of the Focus development team – the second-generation car was devised to improve the old model’s signature dynamic characteristics while improving lagging comfort, refinement and sophistication levels.

For the first objective, a 25mm-longer wheelbase coupled with a track 40mm wider than before helps, as does the retention of a variation of the LR’s Control Blade multi-link rear suspension and a new stiffer front subframe and MacPherson strut set-up.

Two suspension settings are offered: a regular setting or, slung underneath the Zetec, a sport version which lowers the car 10mm and uses different dampers and revised springs.

The body is also eight per cent stiffer torsionally speaking than its already class-leading predecessor, while the overall ‘footprint’ is also broader for a better stance.

Ford increased the model’s camber stiffness 15 per cent and the rear subframe crossmember was up-gauged 10 per cent.

For the steering, there is the all-new electro-hydraulic power-assisted rack and pinion system (E-HPAS) – a speed-sensitive device that increases in weight and feel the faster the Focus travels, rather than in accordance with engine speed.

Ford claims it results in more a confident steering feel, offers more predictable and refined oversteer and understeer balance, has greater linearity in its yaw response, and provides increased road feel and better straight-ahead stability.

"The increased steering linearity means there is no need to re-correct in corners," Mr Stellamanns said.

27 center imageHe added that E-HPAS combines the natural feel of a regular hydraulic set-up with the fuel consumption benefits of purely electric systems found in such rivals as the Honda Civic. Parking effort is also reduced by 20 per cent.

This, in turn, also helps achieve the second objective of comfort.

Reduced wind noise was realised via thicker front door glass and double door seals, while road roar was reduced with the employment of a semi-isolated front subframe and an optimised floor panel swage pattern.

Revised brakes with larger discs reduce stopping distances.

Side front airbags, pedal intrusion reduction, anti-submarining front seats and a pedestrian-impact designed bonnet are part of the increased safety in the new Focus.

Curtain airbags may arrive later. Ford says it is in discussions with the South African plant. However, it has deleted stability control due to a low take-up rate in the previous model.

Besides room, presentation is another cabin highlight, with soft-feel plastics and conservative, symmetrical design replacing the old car’s unusual slash lines and hard plastics. It’s now much more in the VW Golf idiom.

All models include dual airbags, air-conditioning, keyless entry, power front windows, a CD player with MP3 connectivity, and a driver’s seat height adjuster.

The base CL offers a Safety Pack for $1190 (anti-lock brakes and front side airbags) and an $890 Smooth Pack with power mirrors, cruise control and alloy wheels.

2005 Focus pricing:

CL sedan/hatch$20,990 (down $1670 with air-con included)
LX sedan/hatch$24,990 (down $1280)
Zetec hatch$27,490 (down $1070)
Ghia sedan$30,990 (down $480)
(Auto adds $2000)

Serious about sales

With one-in-three new car sales (approximately 180,000 units) now made up of the 19 or so small car segment entrants, Ford Australia cannot afford to stumble with the latest Focus.

It describes the outgoing LR version’s sales performance as "unacceptable" and, stung by the embarrassment, Ford is forecasting shifting 1200 new Focuses monthly, placing it fourth behind the two-pronged Holden Astra assault, the Mazda3 and Toyota’s ageing Corolla.

That’s about 30 per cent up on the outgoing model. But Ford really hopes for volume that puts the new LS in the 2500 territory enjoyed by the others.

In fact it says the Focus’ newfound performance, pricing, specification and design competitiveness means it is now capable of catching the still-hot Mazda.

Ford believes the model now has much more private buyer, or retail, appeal than before. This is important because it makes up 71 per cent of small car buyers.

Focussing on younger and predominantly female buyers in their 20s and 30s as its core group, followed by Empty Nesters (40 year old-plus couples) and mostly younger males seeking performance orientated vehicles, Ford claims it’s now pitching the Focus correctly.

"Smooth As", with references to the car’s German engineering, is the tag line for the TV, Internet, billboard and magazine media to be mobilised.

Media celebrities Jackie O and Andrew G will appear in some ads peppered with humour and pop-culture references from the film Legally Blonde and Apple’s iPod.

Almost 60 per cent of sales are expected to be that of the base CL (against the LR CL’s 74 per cent), followed by 22 per cent LX (LR: 19), 11 per cent Zetec (LR: five per cent) and eight per cent Ghia (LR: two per cent).

This reflects Ford’s desire for the Focus to appeal to the premium end of the small car field. Top-end Fiesta light car versions are presumably covering the base Corolla and Astra Classic competition.

Ford Australia hasn’t had a small-car hit for 15 years.

The previous Focus’ sharp styling and sophisticated engineering may have opened the doors for bolder small cars (for proof look to Renault’s Megane) as well as global sales-charts domination, but for Australians it was under-specified, undernourished and over here.

By late 2002 the LR’s 1998-era design, dated cabin presentation and low base engine outputs proved inadequate against most rivals’ efforts.

Compounding this was Ford’s beleaguered dealers, who seemed more interested in making the just-released BA Falcon a success after years of battling the high-flying Commodore with the unpopular AU model.

Ford now acknowledges that it made a mistake launching the first Focus and BA at the same time. It also almost delayed releasing last year’s Fiesta in March because the Territory was just three months away. Both have since exceeded sales forecasts.

And prior to 2002 Ford was dealt a triumvirate of dud Laser hands after the halcyon days of the 1980s when the locally made KA-through-KE models regularly secured 30 per cent of all small-car sales.

The 1990 CT20 KF model that was so obviously designed in Detroit for American tastes was a shocker to Australians, with its ugly styling and high prices charged just as the recession started to bite.

Its failure led to the cessation of Australian Laser manufacture in late 1994 for the Japanese-made KJ.

But by then unfavourable exchange rates led to Laser prices virtually matching the Falcon’s, and sales continued to plummet.

By then the cheaper South Korean-built WB Festiva was starting to fire anyway, in part due to its stylistic similarity to the 1985 KC Laser ‘Bubble Back’.

It was a case of third time unlucky for Ford in 1999 when the fifth-generation KN Laser’s dowdy design just couldn’t cut it against a reborn Holden TS Astra and rejuvenated Toyota Corolla, prompting Ford to pull the plug after 21 years of Laser in 2002.

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