Upon its debut in 2000, the Ford Focus
made a name for itself among economy cars with its superior chassis tuning, which provides a much better than expected driving experience, and its rather tall body, which creates a roomy interior. Five years later, these key character traits remain, although competition has diminished the advantage. For the 2005 model year, the Focus received a minor styling makeover, inside and out, giving it a slightly more subdued, mature look. It also got an important upgrade in the form of Mazda
-sourced 2.0-liter and 2.3-liter four-cylinder engines. While the car's styling was simplified, its nomenclature became more confusing. ZX3, ZX4, ZX5, and ZXW refer to the Focus's four body styles--two-door hatchback, four-door sedan, four-door hatch, and station wagon, respectively. S, SE, SES, and ST denote progressive trim levels. The ST is not only the top-spec, most expensive version, but it's also the performance-themed model, with a more powerful engine, firmer suspension, standard four-wheel disc brakes, and sportier trim.
Despite the recent tweaks, which softened the creases in the sheetmetal and gave the lights a less severe look, the Focus design has stayed true to its original, Euro-styled form. The two- and four-door hatchbacks have an abruptly ending rear section that encloses a lot of cargo space in a small overall package. Either one would be a particularly advantageous choice for on-street parkers, people with a small garage, or anyone else for whom parking space is at a premium. Buyers who want a more traditional design likely will gravitate toward the conventionally shaped sedan or the station wagon--a rare body style among small cars.
The Focus interior is similar to that of most other Fords today: There are lots of straight lines and flat surfaces and a Volkswagen -inspired execution overall. The materials, however, generally fall considerably short of those used by VW. Leather upholstery is available for those looking to splurge, and the ST even offers a neat leather-and-suede two-tone seating option. Unfortunately, the seats under that fancy material are still too soft to offer real support on long trips. In all models, the high seating position makes the view from inside the Focus surprisingly good. The back seat is a hospitable place to stash two adults, something that cannot be said of competitors such as the Chevy Cobalt or Saturn Ion. The two- and four-door hatchbacks offer extra cargo-carrying versatility thanks to their wide-opening hatches and seats that fold down to make one large cargo area; the latter feature is also included in the wagon. Focus sedans add their own measure of versatility with forward-folding rear seatbacks and a trunk-to-cabin pass-through, which allows long cargo to stretch from inside the trunk into the rear seat area.
Anti-lock brakes and traction control are optional on all trim levels but the ST, which offers both as standard. Stability control is not available. Seat-mounted side airbags are optional on all trim levels, but curtain airbags are not offered.
Focus buyers will get one of two engines, depending on the trim level. Most models use a 2.0-liter/136-horse four, sourced from Mazda. It's well mannered, but not a rip-snorting performer. Cars sold in California, New York, Vermont, and Massachusetts, however, have a standard extra-low-emissions 2.0-liter engine, earning them the Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle rating. The other available powerplant is an enthusiastic 2.3-liter four, another Mazda engine, which packs 151 horsepower. It's found under the hood of the top-of-the-line ST only. The base engine can be combined with a four-speed automatic or a five-speed manual, the latter offering quicker acceleration and better fuel economy. The 2.3-liter powerplant comes only with the five-speed manual. Fuel economy for both engines is not as good as that of the thriftiest small cars.
Behind the Wheel
This is where the front-wheel-drive Focus really shines. The steering is pleasantly weighted, delightfully accurate, and even fairly lively. Push it hard, and the Focus will surprise with its willingness to tackle corners. And this handling prowess doesn't come at a cost of ride harshness, as the Focus blunts harsh impacts and dampens ride motions effectively. Strong brakes complete the package. The ST, with its firmer suspension and standard four-wheel-disc brakes, is even sharper and more fun to drive.
The Focus' low price generally makes it attractive to young buyers and bargain hunters. The car's fun-to-drive character is particularly appealing to budget-limited enthusiast drivers looking for a practical commuter, and it also makes the Focus an excellent starting point for people who plan to modify their car for even greater performance or individuality. We find the ST trim level, with its superior engine and driver-oriented chassis, particularly enticing, but we wish it weren't limited to the sedan only. Although beleaguered by recalls and technical service bulletins in its first years of production, the Focus now enjoys fairly good reliability, and the quality of its interior materials has improved over time. While the often-available purchase incentives may add to the Focus' appeal, be aware that these discounts have eroded resale values and have impacted overall cost of ownership to the point that pricier import-brand competitors may prove the wiser investment over five years. For these same reasons, the Focus can make for an attractive used vehicle.
Still one of the sharpest-driving--and roomiest--small, budget-priced cars available.
For 2006, Ford adds what it calls a Street Appearance Package, which creates a somewhat sportier look, with fog lamps, front and rear spoilers, a rear diffuser, and a chrome exhaust tip. This won't make your Focus drive any better, only look cooler. Unlike the sport-themed ST trim level, however, the Street Appearance Package can be had with any body style.
In an effort to trim sticker prices, the recommended anti-lock brakes and side airbags are optional. Leather seats are a nice luxury offered on the SES and ST only. A CD stereo is standard even on the base car, but music fans should give the optional Sony audiophile sound system a listen.
Others to Consider
Mazda3, Honda Civic, Pontiac Vibe