A dramatic entrance, for which the not-the-new-Escort's encore was to win the 1999 European Car of the Year Award, by a very large margin. No automotive platform is ever rock solid, but that performance lays the strongest foundations a manufacturer has enjoyed for some considerable time for the launch of a new family of vehicles.
Three-door and five-door hatchbacks set the stage, with 1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol engines, great handling and stunning styling. Estate and four-door saloon variants are now on the Focus choice list, which will shortly expand further to include the option of a 1.8-litre direct injection turbodiesel, fresh from Dagenham Engine Plant in Essex.
These form the second phase of Focus. Subsequent mutations could see a cabriolet, a hot hatch to cash in on World Rally success, a mini-MPV, a recreational 4x4, and an estate-derived van - not that Ford officials were giving much away about future plans when they introduced the latest Focus batch to British motoring journalists at Europe's film festival capital, Cannes, last week.
They were instead concentrating minds on how successfully the Focus development was reflecting the company's efforts 'to exceed competitor capabilities and customer expectations' of this class of passenger car.
And while a little less than four months is a short time in fleet life, we would agree that Focus has far exceeded our expectations in dynamics, and buyers' feedback to Fleet NewsNet shows scant evidence of discontent with design or build quality - we've heard the odd gripe about restricted luggage space, lack of knick-knack stowage, rear seatbacks which don't fold flat, and an isolated report of a Ghia delivering a light dusting of industrial dandruff from the headlining.
After accepting the Car of the Year award (it beat its nearest rival, the Vauxhall Astra by 172 points) Jim Donaldson, president of Ford of Europe, said the panel of voting journalists from 21 countries 'had endorsed Ford's new direction'. In Focus terms, this means the stiffest, lightest body structure in its class (hence the superior driving dynamics and significant fuel savings), a long wheelbase and high roofline to provide the most spacious interior available without increasing the car's footprint, and forecast lowest ownership costs in its segment.
All Focus models share New Edge design - emphatic arches and sharp intersections which line up in confrontational style on Ka, Puma and Cougar, but which when applied to the Focus hatchback give the meanstreamer the ability to look subtly, rather than radically, different to its rivals.
Front on, both saloon and estate have 'the look', but the rear sections have more conventional treatments. Neither, however, is an Escort with a Focus bonnet stitched on. Following its launch flurry, (October fleet sales 1,750, November 3,427, December 1,485) Focus dropped out of the UK overall top 10 chart in December, when new car sales as a whole rose 13.8% to 96,346 compared with the 1997 figure of 84,634. This may reflect a division of loyalties between the new lower medium arrival and the retiring Escort, which totalled 113,560 units to take the No 2 spot behind Fiesta's 116,110 in 1998.
According to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, prospects for 1999 are 2.05 million registrations - 8.8% below 1998. Whether Focus and Escort sales together help Ford retain its overall 1-2-3 lead remains to be seen, but main indicators will be seen in March and September, the revised plate-change months.
As far as fleet is concerned, the five-door hatch is expected to remain Focus' best-seller, at least 20% with the new 57.6mpg combined TDdi. Estate, aimed at the C segment family loadlugger, could achieve double percentage figures, while the three-door and the four-door saloon will remain distinctly niche.
THERE'S a compelling reason for buyers to choose Ford's Enduro 1.8-litre direct injection diesel engine in the Focus: in the fleet-favoured five-door models it can deliver more than 57mpg over the combined cycle.
It looks impressive in estate format, too - 55.4mpg, which compares to the 43.5mpg from the 1.4-litre petrol Zetec, 40.9mpg from the 1.6, 37.7mpg from the 1.8 and 33.1mpg from the 130bhp 2.0-litre.
This is class-leading economy, and Ford is confidently predicting that 20% of new Focus registrations will have TDdi badges. Developed at Dagenham, the inter-cooled turbocharged four-cylinder engine produces 90bhp at 4,000rpm and maximum 147lb-ft of torque at 2,000rpm. Acceleration from 0-62mph takes 12.4 seconds.
But the TDdi is more evolutionary than a revolution. It is based on the 1.8 diesel still used in Fiesta and Mondeo, and Ford has indicated that it will continue along the direct injection path rather than move into common rail territory being opened up by the majority of mainstream manufacturers.
Andrew Shackleton, Focus powertrain systems manager, said: 'We don't see common rail as the panacea for diesel. The technology is not proven, and refinement and economy are not right. We've got the best in class with our TDdi and while common rail has its place, we feel it is not best for our customers. Just saying it's got common rail doesn't give the customer anything.'
Shackleton said he believed common rail had greater potential with larger diesel engines - in excess of 2.0 litres - but he added: 'It's a time-related issue.'
A new cylinder head, two-valves per cylinder design and drive-by-wire fuel injection control have contributed to economy improvements - up to 13% better than the Escort IDI. The manufacturer also says maintenance requirements are fewer and durability is extended, but there's no disguising the TDdi's parentage, despite wide-ranging measures to minimise perceived noise (50% less, apparently) and boost refinement.
Rattle and hum have been reduced significantly, benefiting from a torque roll axis system common to all Focus models. This involves rubber to metal mounts to control engine movements and a bushed link to an ultra-stiff mounting point on the body to absorb torque reactions and reduce powertrain shake.
An aluminium ladder frame has been inserted between the engine block and crankcase, boosting drivetrain stiffness by 30%.Idle may be less clattery than in the Escort and Mondeo, and there's a welcome muting at cruising speeds. Under heavy acceleration, though, and in stop-start motoring it sounds and feels its age. There's no doubting the TDdi's economy credentials, but Focus is expected to exceed customer expectations, and the new diesel just falls short of the necessary quantum leap.
LOAD carrying capacity and useable volume were fundamental to the Focus estate design, but that had to be achieved without detracting from the hatchback's winning qualities - ride comfort, steering precision, handling, braking, vehicle stability and low noise, vibration and harshness levels (NVH). Ford achieved a volume of 1,580 litres with a flat, unimpeded load area by installing the rear suspension dampers at an angle and using a straight lateral control arm.
Both were made possible because of the estate's higher rear floor section. In other Focus models the arm, which helps maintain stiffness, is curved to avoid contact with the body. Different, three-rate springs are also used at the rear to cope with the higher capacity and to react to different loading conditions. The full-width rear tailgate release is positioned high on the instrument panel and close to the door, and two recessed tailgate grab handles are provided. Roof rails are a £250 option (see panel on right) across the range, which starts at £14,000.
In the cargo compartment full carpeting, additional illumination, load tie-down loops and a tonneau cover are standard. Ghia models also get a cargo net. Sidewalls of the loadspace area feature hooks to secure shopping bags. The estate is the longest in the Focus range at 4,438mm and has marginally better rear headroom (1,104mm) and rear legroom (945mm) than the other models.
JUST two per cent of Focus buyers in the UK are expected to opt for the new, four-door saloon bodystyle. The Zetec 1.6, 1.8 and 2.0-litre petrol and the new 1.8-litre direct injection diesel engines are available, but there's only one trim level - Ghia, entry price £14,500. Reasoning behind Ghia only for the saloon was offered by John Rogers, Focus brand manager. He said: 'The saloon will appeal to the more conservative buyer, and it is likely that buyer will be downsizing from a larger car and will expect the levels of luxury Ghia offers, along with quiet, comfort and high levels of safety.'
The saloon - 210mm longer than the three-door and five-door hatchbacks - has a slightly softer ride than the hatchbacks and estates.
Four-speed automatic transmission is to be introduced later in the year, along with electronic stability program (ESP). Meanwhile standard equipment includes wider seats, leather trimmed steering wheel and gear knob, wood-effect finish on the instrument panel, console and door trim, chrome door handles, a 60/40 split rear seat, fold-down centre armrest height adjustable head restraints, ABS with electronic brake-force distribution and traction control.
A CD autochanger is also provided in Ghia, along with air-conditioning, sunroof and 15in alloy wheels. Luxury packs cost £1,500 extra and include full leather trim. Ford describes the saloon's boot space as 'generous', although we found the high sill and curved lower opening awkward for loading and unloading heavy or bulky objects.