Brent Romans, Senior Automotive Editor
Ah yes, the good old days of naming cars. For Ford, it used to be about real-life things, like Mustang, Maverick, and Monarch. But now that we are approaching the new millennium, it seems Ford has run out of nouns. Its latest car is named after a verb. Focus, in fact. Can you name a car after a verb? Is that legal? Really, by this logic, I could name my car the Talk. Or the Burp.
Admittedly, the Focus name isn't as bad as some other small-car names that come to mind. (Top three: 1) Chevy Citation. Physically impossible to get a speeding ticket in it; 2) Toyota Starlet. Sleeping its way to the top didn't help its career; 3) Pontiac Le Mans. "Days of Thunder" had more to do about racing than this thing.) Does the word "focus" have significance for this car? Ford doesn't or won't say, but my guess is that Ford is really focused on building a good car. Or maybe it means you're supposed to focus on the car itself. Well, whatever. It does make more sense than Pinto, at least.
In a strange way, the Focus needs to thank its antithesis, the truck. mericans have bought so many F-150s, Explorers and Expeditions these past few years that Ford hasn't had a clue about what to do with all the money. It bought Volvo, of course, but it's logical to assume that some of that extra money found its way into the r&d budget for the Focus. We say this because it's Ford's best small car ever.
The Focus is a completely new platform. Going on sale in late September 1999, it's available in three body styles--a three-door hatchback aimed at a younger crowd, a four-door sedan aimed at a grown-up younger crowd, and a wagon for people with too much junk in their lives. For the different body styles, there are four trim levels: ZX3 (3-door); LX (sedan); SE (sedan and wagon); and the high-series ZTS (sedan). Although the front-end structure and design of the Focus is common to all three body styles, Ford hopes that the remaining differences will attract a broad base of paying customers.
One of the key design elements for the Focus is its intelligent use of space. Ford boasts that the car's overall design started on the inside to provide additional cabin space and comfort. The goal was to have the Focus accommodate humans ranging from a 4-foot-10-inch female weighing 95 pounds to a 6-foot-4-inch male weighing 240 pounds. Arnold Schwarzenegger to George Costanza's mom--Focus designers want to accommodate them both. At the same time!
To achieve this lofty goal, the Focus has a high roofline and a 103-inch wheelbase. The wheels are pushed towards the corners, much like Chrysler did with its LH-series of cars. The high roofline allowed Ford engineers to position the seats higher off the floor, which freed up the positive benefits of easier entry/egress, a better view for the driver, and improved leg comfort for rear-seat passengers.
Besides providing more space and comfort for passengers, the interior also contains thoughtful ergonomics. Though they still spend most of their time drinking Starbucks coffee and talking on cell phones, drivers generally fiddle with the audio controls more than the climate controls. So Ford placed the audio controls higher than the climate controls for easier access. Both feature buttons that can be easily identified by touch alone. The interior itself is attractive, and contains styling elements from both the Escort ZX2 and Mercury Cougar. The ZX3 interior, with its faux-metal highlights, looks sporty. The ZTS Sedan's plood (journalist slang for plastic wood) highlights do not look sporty. They do not look luxurious. They just look like plood.
The seats are comfortable and supportive. All Focus seats can be adjusted in height, and a tilt/telescopic steering wheel is optional. or safety, the Focus utilizes an optimized body structure, standard driver and passenger airbags, seatbelt pre-tensioners and load-limiting retractors, and optional side airbags. A three-point safety belt for the center rear seat is standard, as are child-safety-seat anchor points.
Once the comfy Mr. Schwarzenegger and Mrs. Costanza finish arguing over whether "Commando" or "Raw Deal" was a better movie, they will focus (Sorry. Won't happen again.) on the improved driving dynamics. By driving dynamics, we refer to the way the car handles, steers, accelerates and brakes. Ford was able to use the latest techniques to produce a lightweight, yet rigid chassis. This in turn enabled Ford engineers to fine-tune the front- and rear-suspension systems to deliver new levels of precision and comfort. Up front, the Focus uses MacPherson struts and new, broad A-arms located by horizontal bushings. A fully independent multi-link suspension has been adopted for the rear. Though more expensive to produce than a twist-beam axle system (such as on the Ford Escort), the multi-link IRS system is more beneficial in ride comfort, steering precision, handling, stability, noise levels and packaging.
The steering system is surprisingly quick, fluid and responsive. Fine-tuning and a careful selection of new materials enabled Ford to reduce the friction within the steering system by 20 percent. All steering components such as the seals, bearings, tie-rod joints and strut top mounts are optimized for low friction. Ford went through this effort because too much friction or resistance in the steering system can make it feel unnatural.
There are two engine choices: a 2.0-liter SOHC four cylinder or a more-fizzy 2.0-liter DOHC Zetec. While both engines can be found in other Ford products, they have been improved for use in the Focus. The 2.0-liter SOHC I4 delivers 110 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. Peak torque is 125 ft-lbs. at 3,750 rpm. The engine has been significantly upgraded to improve NVH by 30 percent and reduce weight. The DOHC Zetec has also been improved in the noise department. Ford says a full 50 percent reduction in perceived engine sound levels has been incorporated for the Focus. Horsepower for this engine is 130 at 5,300 rpm, and maximum torque is 135 at 4,500 rpm. Acceleration is acceptable with the SOHC engine and quite competitive with the DOHC. An automatic or manual transmission is available for either.
While improved steering and handling are all well and good, it's hard to impress the neighbors with them. That job is left to the styling. Whether it succeeds or not is another question. One thing is certain: The styling of the Focus is distinct and functional. Ford says its "appearance is designed to be progressive, adventurous and distinctively different from the softer, more traditional proportions and silhouettes of other small cars." Translation: You won't mistake the three-door for a Volkswagen New Beetle. The hatchback is the most distinctive and European-looking of the bunch, but all versions have an angular shape, with sculpted wheel arches, triangular headlights and taillights, and crisp lines on the body panels. Like it or not, the styling is functional. Ford says the shape provides maximum crash protection and aerodynamics. Drag co-efficient for the sedan is a low 0.31.
The sedan's trunk has an impressive 12.9 cubic feet of capacity. In-frame gas struts--designed to not encroach upon trunk space--are used to shut the trunk instead of traditional mechanical arms that may dent luggage. The rear speakers are built into the doors to prevent them from hanging down into the trunk. For the wagon, the luggage compartment holds 37.5 cubic feet of cargo and is optimized for access and functionality.
We suspect that the Focus will be a big success for Ford. It's better than the Escort, even though both will continue to sell at dealerships. And it's certainly competitive with the likes of the Dodge Neon or Honda Civic. Base retail prices range from $12,280 for the three-door hatchback ZX3 to $15,795 MSRP for the SE Wagon. Prices include the destination and delivery charge of $415. For the price, the Focus seems to have all the necessary elements--roominess, comfort, good driving dynamics, safety and functionality. And you can say what you want about the styling. But when you're strapped for cash and can't quite afford an Aston Martin DB7 Vantage to focu...er, attract attention to yourself, something that looks different than every other small econobox on the road can be quite nice.
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