2003 Ford Focus Expert Review
Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Rock solid compact is fun to drive and practical.
The Ford Focus continues to be one of the most enjoyable compacts in its price range. It's fun to drive, with brisk acceleration performance and agile handling. It's versatile, with hatchback models with flip-down seats that quickly prepare it for large amounts of cargo. It's comfortable on long trips and stable at high speeds.
When it was introduced, the Focus won safety kudos from the federal government and product awards from automotive journalists. The Focus was named North American Car of the Year for 2000 by a group of 50 independent automotive journalists. The 2003 Ford Focus offers improved engine response and reduced interior noise over last year's model.
Ford's New Edge styling has helped the Focus stand out from the crowd. It comes in a wide variety of body styles to meet many different needs and lifestyles.
Road noise has been reduced for 2003. Additional refinement comes in the form of new interior fabrics along with changes to interior and exterior trim. New options include heated seats, a new traction control and anti-lock brake system (ABS) package. The ZX5 five-door hatchback is now available in three trim levels.
The 170-horsepower SVT versions offer thrilling acceleration performance, sporty handling, and excellent brakes, yet give up nothing in terms of practicality. For 2003, SVT versions are available in three-door and five-door hatchback styles.
Ford Focus comes in four distinct body styles: three-door hatchback, five-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and five-door wagon. All ride on the same 103-inch wheelbase and offer similar driving characteristics.
Sedans are the most popular of the Focus models. The four-door sedan is available in three trim levels: entry-level LX ($12,990), an upgraded SE ($15,005), and the 130-horsepower ZTS ($15,580).
Three-door hatchback models are available in ZX3 trim or the high-performance SVT model. The ZX3 ($12,680) is a sport compact, and comes with all the requisite hardware: the 130-horsepower twin-cam engine, 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, fog lights, and a CD/MP3 player. The ZX3 Power Premium Package 120A ($2285) includes air conditioning, six-disc in-dash CD changer, dual power mirrors, power windows (with one-touch driver's side down), power door locks, front center armrest, front map/reading lamp, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, keyless entry, cruise control, and low-profile P205/50R16 tires on 16-inch alloy wheels.
Five-door hatchback models are available in sporty ZX5 trim or SVT. The five-door hatchback is a cross between a four-door wagon and a coupe, with four doors and a tapered rear roofline leading to a rear hatch. The ZX5 ($15,385) comes standard with the 130-horsepower Zetec engine, 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps. Also standard is a CD/MP3 player. ZX5 Premium package ($1000) adds P205/50R16 tires on 16-inch wheels, six-disc in-dash CD changer, map lights, moon roof, body-color trim, speed control, and tilt/telescoping steering wheel.
Wagons are available in SE and ZTW trim. The SE wagon ($17,010) comes standard with the 130-horsepower dohc Zetec engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmission. The ZTW wagon is an enthusiast's sport wagon with 16-inch alloy wheels, leather seating, and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. A four-speed automatic is standard, with a five-speed manual optional.
SVT versions are available in three-door hatchback ($18,380) and five-door hatchback models. Both feature the Ford Special Vehicle Team's 170-j[ version of the 2.0-liter engine. Focus SVT models boast a Getrag six-speed manual transmission, SVT-tuned suspension, special trim, including a rear spoiler.
Three engines are available. All are 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines. The 110-hp 2.0-liter engine with a single overhead-cam and two valves per cylinder is standard on Focus LX and SE models. It's mated to a five-speed manual transaxle.
The 130-hp Zetec engine with double overhead-cams and four valves per cylinder is standard on Focus ZX3, ZX5, ZTS, and wagon models and optional on the Focus SE sedan. It comes with a choice of a more sophisticated five-speed manual gearbox or a four-speed automatic.
New options for 2003 include heated seats, heated mirrors, an MP3 audio system, a perimeter alarm system, and traction control.
Side-impact air bags ($350) are optional and we recommend them.
AdvanceTrac is an optional system for the Focus that can help you keep the car on the road in an emergency handling situation. The system monitors the car's behavior while cornering, checking the steering angle, lateral acceleration and yaw rate. If it senses you're in trouble it reduces power and selectively applies to brakes to individual wheels to keep the vehicle on course. AdvanceTrac uses the ABS and traction control system to help it accomplish this. The system intervenes progressively so that the drier is hardly aware that it has been activated. AdvanceTrac may be turned off by pressing a button on the instrument panel, but comes back on whenever the vehicle is started. AdvanceTrac with ABS is not cheap at $1625, but it could help you avoid an accident. Available as a standalone option for 2003 is traction control ($115), which improves stability in wintry conditions but does not offer the sophisticated accident-avoidance enhancements of AdvanceTrac. ABS, which helps the driver maintain control in a panic brak.
The Ford Focus is a wild looking car. The hatchback versions look wilder and sportier than the sedan. But all models feature edgy European styling with sweeping arcs and crisp creases.
Large pie-section headlamps give the front end a distinctive appearance, and painted gray headlamp surrounds upgrade the appearance for 2003. Several models have fog lamps in the grille opening below the front bumper. There's a similar, but smaller opening above the bumper that houses the turn signals. Both are outlined by arcs. The front and rear fenders are highlighted with geometric curves creased into the sheetmetal.
The roofline is highly arched, particularly noticeable when parked next to another car. The roofline is truncated just aft of the rear axle line. Wedge-shaped tail lamps set in the C-pillars enliven an otherwise plain rear end of the ZX3 and ZX5. Ford claims the tail lamps are more noticeable in that location and reduce repair costs in minor accidents. However, the sedan and wagon have conventionally placed tail lamps, so we'll accept the unique shape and location as distinctive and effective styling.
Lower bodyside PVC coating provides protection from stone dings on all models, and the underbody gets PVC coating as well. Clearcoat paint is standard across the board.
ZX3 and LX have black rather than body-color bodyside protective molding, but this is offset on the ZX3 by black rocker panels. The door handles on all models are black as well. The door handles on black cars blends in, but black also masks the distinctive lines of the Focus that are accentuated by the brighter colors. High-series models get new body-color decklid trim for 2003.
The 2003 Ford Focus rides more quietly (by a significant 2 decibels) than last year as a result of improved body sealing, sprayed on underbody sound deadening, and thicker carpeting. New seating fabrics and trim details upgrade the interior further for 2003.
The Focus is designed from the inside out for maximum interior space within the confines of a compact body. Its raised roof is designed to provide room for today's taller average heights. Elevated seating height adds comfortable legroom.
The front seats are cushy comfy, well bolstered for side support. The seats have an exceptionally high hip point, 20 inches above the ground. The advantages of this seating include a better view down the road, plus more effective leg room front and rear. The high roofline provides lots of head room and makes entry and exit easier. Manual height adjustment allows almost everyone to find a comfortable position behind the wheel and an easy arm's length away from the manual shifter. Sporty woven seat material is designed for younger drivers, while a textured velour fabric is designed for a more upscale ambiance. Ford says it tested both fabrics extensively for color and wear durability, simulating 10 years and 100,000 miles of use and exposure to the sun.
The dash is a collection of arcs, a theme that reinforces the exterior design. The instrument panel is covered by an asymmetrically curved and sharply creased bezel. High series models feature a silver instrument cluster. The fuel gauge has a small arrow pointing to the right, to remind you where the filler is located. A 7000-rpm tachometer flanks a 140-mph speedometer in the ZX5. Both instruments are round and easily readable, clearly marked with white numerals on black, though the tach has no redline.
The center dash panel is formed by an arc that sweeps upward across the dash to the right side of the car and an inverted parabola. In the ZX5, ZTS, and ZTW it's finished in brushed aluminum instead of black. The radio fits into the top of this area. ZX3 and ZX5 models come standard with MP3 players. Also available is a six-disc CD player. Snuggled into the top left is a 12-volt power outlet and trinket tray. Circular ventilation controls feature the edgy styling with buttons styled to fit the room available. The trunk release, on the left end of the dash, is triangular as well, shaped to fit into the intersection of the arcs outlining the instrument panel.
With its asymmetrical design, the interior looks both informal and rich at the same time. Control knobs all have distinctive shapes for easy identification. Rotary controls are rubberized for pleasing soft-touch operation. The steering wheel on the ZX5 is leather-covered and satisfying to touch. Even the plastics used on the dash and door panels have a finger-friendly soft-touch feel. Our only quibble is that the inside door releases don't feel as substantial as they should.
The ZX5's rear couch is entered easily through the rear doors. The back seat of the ZX3 three-door hatchback is best accessed by the young and agile, however. Once there, rear-seat riders have lots of legroom, thanks to widely spaced runners under the front seats, plus adult-sized head and shoulder room. Rear-seat air ducts add comfort winter and summer.
Fold the back seat of either the ZX3 or the ZX5 and there's 18.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Access to this area is easy through the big rear hatch. The versatility of the hatchback design is lost on many Americans, who prefer the more formal sedan profile with its conventional trunk. But hatchbacks are making a comeback in America, and the design is hugely popular among Europeans for its practicality. The sedan trunk, on the other hand, can hold two standard-size suitcases and comes with 60/40 split fold-down rear seats.
The Focus wagon offers the largest cargo capacity in its class, more than a Volkswagen Jetta wagon. Fold the rear seats down and there's 55.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity, 37.5 c.
Behind the wheel, the Ford Focus is an enjoyable car. All models are fun to drive. The Focus is smooth and stable at high speeds with responsive steering and excellent brakes.
For 2003, the 110-hp engine has a new dual-mode crankshaft damper for refinement, a recalibrated engine management system, and 150,000-mile spark plugs and camshaft drive belt. It delivers an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg City/Highway.
We prefer the 130-hp 2.0-liter 16-valve double overhead-cam Zetec engine over the 110-hp engine for its improved performance, though highway fuel economy suffers by 2 mpg. The 130-hp Zetec starts instantly and rewards drivers with an almost imperceptible idle, smooth and quiet. Slam the gas pedal down and it responds with surprisingly rapid acceleration, a benefit of a lightweight car with well-developed torque characteristics. Torque is that force that propels you quickly away from an intersection. Fully 80 percent of the Zetec's maximum torque is available from idle to 6000 rpm, and peak torque of 135 foot-pounds comes at 4500 rpm.
Making the Focus even more satisfying to drive is Ford's excellent control of noise, vibration and harshness in this engine. Forget the usual inexpensive four-cylinder harshness; this pup loves to run and doesn't complain about visiting the upper reaches of the tachometer. Ford revised the 130-hp Zetec for 2003. A new throttle body offers improved part-throttle response for improved drivability around town. Greater fuel efficiency comes from a new cylinder head, new valve springs, and a freer exhaust system.
Given a choice, we'd rather have the five-speed manual than the automatic. It's easy to shift. Clutch take-up is good and easy to modulate. Shifting into first gear reveals a rubbery feel to the linkage of the long-shafted shifter. It feels like a Saab shifter; it's precise but not inviting.
The four-speed automatic is slow off the line. Left in Drive, it operates like a conventional American automatic. That is to say it's as dependable as sunrise, but not as exciting. The shifter does include an overdrive-off button, plus D2 and D1 slots, but it lacks the sporty feel and effect of the manual gearbox. Also, fuel economy drops from an EPA-rated 34 mpg on the highway with the manual to 31 mpg with the automatic.
The ZX5 does not act like an economy car. It accelerates and turns much more quickly, making this one of the most enjoyable cars in its class to drive. Response through the rack-and-pinion steering is quick and precise, and feedback is excellent. The car feels like it is leaning in corners more than it actually is because the driver is sitting higher in the saddle. The standard 50-series (16-inch) tires sharpen handling response. The power rack-and-pinion steering is precise, with good road feel and little kick-back or torque steer from the front-drive system.
Out on the interstate the ZX5 is a born cruiser. The engine is quiet and wind noise is absent even up to 75 mph. Speaking of cruising, the cruise control system holds a set speed even on the steepest Interstate grade; with Braille bumps on the steering wheel hub, it's easy to use the cruise control even in the dark (it's not illuminated). Ordinary roads feel smooth, while well-maintained superhighways feel velvety. Some road noise does filter up through the cargo area.
Even more fun are the SVT models. The SVT Focus offers thrilling acceleration in the mid-speed ranges. It'll rocket out of an on-ramp. The SVT engine develops 170 hp and 145 lbs.-ft. of torque. It's an extensively modified version of the Zetec. SVT used high-compression pistons (10.2:1 vs. Zetec's 9.6:1). Breathing is improved through a high-flow aluminum cylinder head with bigger intake ports, stiffer valves, and variable cams. A dual-stage intake manifold improves low-speed torque. SVT's 4-into-2-into-1 headers and a big exhaust pipe reduce backpressure.
The SVT Focus is easy to shift and goes quickly through the gears. The standard s.
The Ford Focus continues to be the world's best-selling small car. It's inexpensive yet long on style, practicality and fun.
The Focus comes in a wide variety of body styles to suit all types of lifestyles. The sedans are comfortable and move people efficiently. The ZX3 hatchback proves economical and practical yet can also be sporty and fun. The ZX5 hatchback makes it easier for rear seat passengers to join in the merriment. The wagons can carry a ton of cargo.
SVT brings stellar performance to this class. The Ford Focus SVT is up to the challenge of other sport compacts with strong acceleration performance, agile handling, and excellent brakes.
Ford says it has been working hard to improve the quality of the Focus. Ford has conducted seven U.S. safety recalls of the 2000 Focus, three recalls of 2001 models and one recall of the 2002 Focus. But quality appears to be improving every year. Comparing the 2002 and 2001 models, the Focus improved 17 percent in problems per 100 vehicles after three months in service, according to a J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. The Focus now falls 'just slightly below' the industry average of 133 problems per 100 vehicles, J.D. Power said.
ZX3 3-door hatchback ($12,680); ZX5 5-door hatchback ($15,385); LX sedan ($13,835); SE sedan ($14,660); ZTS sedan ($15,580); SE wagon ($17,010); ZTW wagon ($17,820); SVT 3-door hatchback ($18,380); SVT 5-door hatchback.
Wayne, Michigan; Hermosillo, Mexico.
Options As Tested
Audiophile system ($395).
Ford Focus SVT 3-door ($18,380).
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