Expert Review:New Car Test Drive
New Car Test Drive
Smooth and comfortable with sporty performance.
Ford Focus continues to be one of the most enjoyable compacts in its price range. Overall, it feels cushier than other compacts, both in terms of its comfortable seats and its soft suspension. It's fun to drive, however, with agile handling. It's comfortable on long trips and stable at high speeds. The Focus is among the best of the compacts in terms of ride quality and has been lauded by the enthusiast publications for its handling. For 2004, Ford has revised the steering and suspension to further improve the ride and handling.
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. It's a versatile car, particularly the three-door and five-door hatchback models with their flip-down seats that provide lots of cargo space.
The 130-horsepower engine that comes on most models delivers brisk acceleration performance and was revised for 2003 for improved response and quieter operation. For 2004, a larger, 2.3-liter engine is also available that produces 145 horsepower and lower emissions. The 170-horsepower SVT versions offer thrilling acceleration performance, sporty handling, and excellent brakes, yet give up nothing in terms of practicality. SVT versions are available in three-door and five-door hatchback styles.
The Ford Focus lineup is extensive with four distinct body styles, three trim levels, and four engines to choose from. Most models come standard with a manual gearbox, but four-speed automatics are available for all models. The three-door hatchback, five-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and five-door hatchback all ride on the same 103-inch wheelbase and offer similar driving characteristics.
Anti-lock brakes ($400) and side-impact airbags ($350) are optional and we highly recommend them.
Four-door sedans are the most popular. The entry-level LX ($13,185) comes with a 110-horsepower engine, a single overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder with two valves per cylinder that delivers an EPA-estimated 27/36 mpg City/Highway. LX comes with wind-up windows and does not come standard with air conditioning. SE ($14,915) comes with the 130-horsepower twin cam engine with four valves per cylinder and adds air conditioning, power windows, power locks, remote keyless entry, a CD player with MP3 playback capability, variable intermittent windshield wipers, and body-colored trim. The sporty ZTS ($15,535) is equipped with the 145-horspower 2.3-liter engine, driver's lumbar support, aluminum wheels, speed control, a tilt-telescoping steering wheel, and nicer trim.
ZX3 ($12,725) is a three-door hatchback equipped as a sport compact car with the 130-horsepower twin-cam engine, 15-inch aluminum alloy wheels, fog lights, and a CD/MP3 player. Several packages are available, the most elaborate of which is the ZX3 Power Premium Package 120A ($2,545), which comes with the 2.3-liter engine, air conditioning, power windows, dual power mirrors, power locks, rear stabilizer bar, 205/50R16 all-season with 16-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps, remote keyless entry, front center armrest w/storage, AM/FM/CD/MP3 with four speakers, map light, speed control, leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel. For 2004, the ZX3 is available with leather seating surfaces.
ZX5 is a five-door hatchback, 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 ($15,035) comes standard with the 130-horsepower Zetec engine, 15-inch alloy wheels, fog lamps. Also standard is a CD/MP3 player. ZX5 Premium package ($1755) adds the 2.3-liter engine, P205/50R16 tires on 16-inch alloy wheels, rear stabilizer bar, dual power mirrors, fog lamps, AM/FM/CD/MP3, power windows, power locks, map light, body-color trim, speed control, and leather-wrapped tilt/telescoping steering wheel.
Wagons are available in SE and ZTW trim. The SE wagon ($17,130) comes standard with the 130-horsepower dohc Zetec engine and a choice of manual or automatic transmission. The ZTW wagon ($17,745) is an enthusiast's sport wagon with 16-inch alloy wheels and a six-disc in-dash CD changer. A four-speed automatic is standard, with a five-speed manual optional. Leather seating surfaces ($695) are optional.
SVT versions are available in three-door hatchback ($18,590) and five-door hatchback ($19,090) models. Both feature the Ford Special Vehicle Team's 170-hp version of the 2.0-liter engine. Focus SVT models boast a Getrag six-speed manual transmission, SVT-tuned suspension, and special trim, including a rear spoiler. A new European package ($3,410) includes black leather Recaro seats, special wheels, the Audiophile System, the Cold Weather Package, high-intensity discharge headlights, and a moonroof. Competition Orange and Screaming Yellow are among the new colors.
Ford Focus features edgy styling with sweeping arcs and crisp creases. Large pie-section headlamps give the front end a distinctive appearance. 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. 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.
Ford designed the Focus from the inside out for maximum interior space within the confines of a compact body. The high roofline provides lots of head room and makes entry and exit easier.
The front seats are comfortable, cushier than those in other compacts, and are bolstered well with side support. The seats have an exceptionally high hip point, providing a better view down the road and more leg room front and rear. 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. Two types of cloth upholstery are available, a sporty woven material designed for younger drivers and a textured velour fabric designed for a more upscale ambiance. Leather upholstery is also available.
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 could.
The rear seat of the five-door hatchback is entered easily through the rear doors. The back seat of the 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 the hatchbacks 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 the hatchback design is hugely popular among Europeans for its practicality. The sedan's 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 in a Focus wagon and there's 55.8 cubic feet of cargo capacity, or 37.5 cubic feet with the rear seats in place.
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. The Focus feels softer and smoother than most compacts. It leans in corners, but the tires generate a lot of grip.
The 130-horsepower 2.0-liter Zetec engine that comes in most models 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 and 80 percent of the Zetec's maximum torque is available from idle to 6000 rpm. Torque peaks at 135 foot-pounds 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. It features 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 six-speed manual transaxle was developed by the German manufacturer Getrag. It uses clever design to deliver the performance advantages of a close-ratio six-speed in a remarkably compact and lightweight package.
Handling is tauter, yet the SVT Focus rides very nic.
The Ford Focus is inexpensive yet long on style, practicality and fun. It's available in a wide variety of body styles to suit all types of lifestyles. The sedans are comfortable and move people efficiently. The three-door hatchback proves to be economical and practical yet sporty and fun. The five-door hatchback makes it easier for rear-seat passengers to join in the merriment. The wagons can carry a ton of cargo.
The SVT models bring 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.
While we recommend the Focus, it has been hampered by recalls, most of which involve 2000 and 2001 models. Ford says all the problems have been fixed and owners should not experience problems with 2004 models. Recalls don't cost owners out of pocket per se, but sometimes involve inconvenient trips to the dealership. Overall quality of the 2003 Focus was about average, according to owner surveys conducted by J.D. Power and Associates.
Focus LX sedan ($13,185); SE sedan ($14,915); ZTS sedan ($15,535); ZX3 3-door hatchback ($12,725); ZX5 5-door hatchback ($15,035); SE wagon ($17,130); ZTW wagon ($17,745); SVT 3-door hatchback ($18,590); SVT 5-door hatchback ($19,090).
Wayne, Michigan; Hermosillo, Mexico.
Options As Tested
Audiophile system ($675) includes 80-watt system w/four 2-way speakers.
Ford Focus SVT 3-door ($18,590).
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