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First Oz drive: Focussed Ford

In Focus: after years of waiting, Ford's Euro-sourced Focus is nearly here.

Ford's new Focus is no cellar dweller, more a small car for mountain roads

Ford logo20 Aug 2002

IF you're in the market for a small car and you can wait until October 1, that's when Ford's Euro-sourced Focus goes on sale in place of the venerable Laser.

That might sound a while, but considering Focus was launched in Europe way back in 1998, then the middle of spring is not so long really.

But the good news is if you want to drive one you only have to wait until September 10 when stock starts arriving in Ford dealers. Why the 20-day gap between deliveries and on-sale? Because Ford really wants you to drive and drive this car.

The Blue Oval is convinced driving Focus will make you fall in love with it.

Just as well, because you won't be attracted to it on price. If the folk at Ford are not telling porkies, then not even the base model will retail for under $20,000.

Derisively referred to as the Falcon car company in the past for its ability to sell only its locally built big car in big numbers, Ford now faces the challenge of convincing us that an expensive small car is what we want.

The sales target is Laser volumes initially - that's about 1300 cars a month - and within three years to be at level-pegging with the Toyota Corolla and Holden Astra, both of which consistently sell beyond 2000 per month.

Ford Australia president Geoff Polites says his company will sell the Focus the same way Holden sells the Astra, as a great car, and then adds "and this (Focus) is a better car than Astra".

"Price has not been an issue for them (Holden re Astra) and it shouldn't be an issue for us," he said.

"Part of what you have to do is create the desire for people to want to buy the car, so we have to do a good job in marketing and getting it out amongst the target market.

"But at the end of the day, if we have to sell this car on price we have failed in that task and we will fail in terms of volumes because we won't be able to sell them on price."The Focus is the first of several vital new cars that will transform the Ford line-up in Australia. Close on it heels comes the BA Falcon, in 2003 the long-wheelbase variants of same and in 2004 both the E265 cross-over vehicle and, almost certainly, Focus's little brother - the Fiesta.

The marketing of Focus has already begun with examples suspended from cranes in Sydney and Melbourne hot spots, promotion on street furniture, the web and radio. There's also teams wandering the streets of Sydney and Melbourne showing the car to the young professional audience Ford wants to attract.

The Australian Focus range will kick off with the CL four and five-door. Climbing through LX in the same body style, then comes the Zetec three and five-door hatches and finally - for the moment - the Ghia sedan.

In the first quarter of 2003 comes the ST170 hot hatch and maybe one day the RS, the turbocharged version which has just been launched in Europe.

The CL and LX come with the choice of 85kW/156Nm 1.8-litre four-cylinder engines mated to a five-speed manual transmission, or a 85kW/162Nm 2.0-litre four-cylinder mated to a four-speed eletronically controlled automatic.

The Ghia gets the 2.0-litre auto only, while the Zetec gets a 96kW/178Nm four-cylinder matched to its manual and auto transmissions. All these engines come from the Zetec DOHC 16-valve family - yep, same name as the car. Confusing, isn't it?The ST170 will feature a 127kW/196Nm 2.0-litre called Duratec ST, mated to a six-speed manual transmission. The CL, LX and Ghia use regular unleaded fuel, while the higher-tuned Zetecs and ST170 use premium.

The other vital ingredients in that driving experience are a MacPherson strut front suspension, multi-link rear (Control Blade just like the forthcoming BA Falcon), power-assisted rack and pinion steering and disc brakes all-round.

There's plenty of detail still to be filled in by Ford, but we can tell you the CL comes standard with remote central locking, a CD player, steering column-mounted audio controls, a fully adjustable steering column, lap-sash belts all-round and driver's airbag.

But you'll have to go up to the LX if you want standard air-conditioning, power front windows, 15-inch alloy wheels, dual airbags, a centre rear head restraint and anti-lock ABS braking with electronic brake force distribution.

Apart from more power, the Zetec also has sports suspension, 16-inch alloy wheels, a chrome-tipped exhaust and a level of interior equipment identical to LX. Options include a stability control system called VDC AdvanceTrak, 17-inch alloys and a bodykit.

The Ghia is distinguished by a colour keyed grille treatment, velour trim, faux woodgrain and chrome headlights. Equipment includes cruise control, automatic climate control, a six-stack in-dash CD player, power rear windows and standard side airbags.

Ford is forecasting hatches will account for 60 per cent of sales from launch (leaving the ST170 out for the moment) and sedans the rest. The CL/LX will account for 45 per cent of sales, the Ghia only 6-7 per cent and the Zetec all that?s left.

DRIVE IMPRESSIONS:

THERE'S no doubt this car is already loved in Europe and other parts of the world as well, because 800,000 of the things are sold annually.

It also won the European car of the year award in 1999, North American Car of Year in 2000 and has been the basis of Scotsman Colin McRae's World Rally Championship antics, both in real-life and computer games.

But should we love it? Well, love is a pretty strong word, but a long and challenging drive through the hills north-east of Melbourne established this is a car well worth liking.

Its angular styling is at its best in the spunky, sporty three-door Zetec and at its dowdiest as a sedan. The five-door hatch sits comfortably in between. Distinctive without being odd.

Inside, it's the same story with a real attempt made at individuality. There are lines and angles everywhere from the dash to the A-pillar, but it all works and seems to fit together pretty well.

There's also a fair degree of sense about it all, with rear seat passengers benefitting from both reasonable leg and headroom thanks to the 2615mm wheelbase which is longer than either Astra and Corolla.

We sampled LX, Zetec and Ghia and found even the latter with its emphasis on comfort over ride to be a fun drive, with communicative steering, neutral chassis behaviour and a compliant ride that soaked up even large potholes. Only some tyre roar on coarser surfaces upset progress.

The LX was perhaps a tad more focussed and the Zetec certainly another step up, but all three were enjoyable. The Zetec in three-door form though, with its flat ride, direct steering and crisp engine power, is certainly the choice of the group for sporting drivers until the ST170 arrives.

But on the downside none of the cars overwhelmed us with exceptional power. Indeed, pulling power at lower rpm was actually lacking in the 1.8, with the LX manual almost giving up the fight to get up one short, steep pinch in second gear.

Torque shortage or tall gearing? We're not sure where the problem lies as yet, but it didn't feel strong enough to match the Astra let alone the more powerful Corolla.

The engines were smooth enough, however, as were the automatic gearboxes we sampled. And the brakes provided strong response without grabiness.

Overall, we are impressed. As a replacement for the Laser the Focus is undoubtedly a significant stride forward in terms of refinement, styling and chassis performance. Only the 1.8-litre engine seemed to slow things down.

We await the pricing with interest.

GoAuto can help you buy a new Focus

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