LESS than a year after the radical Ford Focus was unveiled to the public in 1998, while people were still getting used to its appearance and some versions of the Ford Escort were still on sale, the Blue Oval began work on its replacement.
At the time, as the car was a marked departure for the traditional lower-medium hatchback, Ford could not have expected the Focus would end its run with more than 50 consecutive months at the top of the UK sales charts.
While many people took time to warm to its appearance, it was generally accepted as a class benchmark for ride and handling and became a strong presence in the fleet sector where it also dominated sales.
In 2003, the best year for the Focus, the car sold 130,000 in the UK, and this year it is on target to achieve 120,000 and take something in the region of a 5% share of the entire new car market. But the traditional volume lower-medium sector has come under threat from the growth of the small MPV, as well as the increasing numbers of premium manufacturers making their brands more accessible through smaller vehicles.
And while the Focus was a benchmark for ride and handling, and its design stood out from the crowd of more sober looking vehicles, it was the Volkswagen Golf that was still the ultimate aspirational car in the lower-medium sector.
Ford has decided to tackle the challenge from the Golf head-on, and while it would never claim to be in the same area of the market as BMW and Audi, the company is convinced it has come close to their levels of quality in the new car.
The range structure has been revised, and while the entry level Studio (a replacement for CL) and LX models are slightly cheaper than before, Zetec and Ghia models are more expensive, but have more equipment as standard.
A new Sport model has been introduced between LX and Zetec with user-choosers in mind, offering sportier styling and special steel wheels which are more resilient than alloys to scuffs, but look similar.
Lighter colours are also available inside which contrast with the darker dashboard top, steering wheel and door pulls.
The new range-topping model, sitting above Ghia, is called Titanium and is aimed at those who find the more contemporary luxury found in Audis preferable to the traditional wood and velour of the Ghia.
But it’s not just what you can see that has a hallmark of quality. Ford has taken a leaf out of Volvo’s book and used similar high-strength steel components in the structure to improve the car’s crash performance.
And while the ride and handling of the current Focus is still better than in many rivals, Ford’s engineers aimed to move the new Focus further ahead, but improving comfort and stability without compromising its agility.
Ford expects 70% of Focuses to be sold with one of four petrol engines available, while the remainder will be diesel, a fairly low number considering the fleet market’s current obsession with diesel.
A four-door saloon will join the three-door, five-door and estate a month after they go on sale in January, with nearly three quarters of sales expected to be the five-door hatchback, the estate taking 12%, the three-door making up 10% and 5% of customers choosing saloons.
Also appearing in February will be a 90bhp version of the 1.6 TDCi and a four-speed automatic version of the 2.0-litre petrol variant.
About 45% of Focuses are expected to be LX or Sport variants, with Zetec taking 25% of sales, Ghias 20% and Titanium and Studio making up 5% each.
Ford is aiming to manage residuals of the new Focus better than the current model and hopes the range structure and quality upgrades will provide three-year/60,000-mile figures around the 35% mark, still behind the seemingly untouchable Golf but taking a ‘best of the rest’ position.
Behind the wheel
WHEN the Focus was first launched, it stood out in an array of conventional looking lower-medium hatchbacks.
Now, it appears to have become conventional when there is a fair share of more outlandish designs, including the Renault Megane, Mazda3 and Peugeot 307.
But shutlines are narrower than before, the rear is neater and the front end looks more like the current Mondeo than the previous Focus. It is less dramatic than the original was in 1998 and is bound to take some criticism for it, but the overall impression is that the Focus has grown up into a classier car.
Inside the dashboard is slush-moulded for a premium car feel, grab handles and glove box openings are damped and the whole dashboard offers a clearer view of instruments and controls and seems more upmarket.
Much of the interior is similar to that found in the Focus C-MAX, including the steering wheel with its contoured spokes, but the Focus retains oval air-vents that were seen as one of its trademarks.
Driving the 2.0-litre petrol variant, it became obvious that much work had been done to make the driving environment quieter than before. The engine purred away quietly until it ventured into the upper reaches of the rev range, and wind noise was muted below 70mph. It was tricky to tell how much road noise was created by the 16-inch wheels on our test car, as much of the test route was on freshly surfaced roads and was as smooth as a billiard table.
What became apparent very quickly, however, was that Ford’s engineers had done their homework on the chassis.
The new electro-hydraulic power steering offers plenty of feedback on the behaviour of the front wheels while still being light and precise. Body roll is almost non existent, and the tyres grip gamely even when they start to squeal, but the Focus still provides a smooth and supple ride. The car seems to respond intuitively to steering inputs, almost pre-empting your next command and confidence in the car’s ability grows rapidly.
Our test route over two days contained more hairpins and tight turns than I think I had ever encountered in my life while the Focus seemed to keep begging for more.
The 1.6 TDCi with the CVT automatic (which will only meet Euro III emissions levels from launch, unlike the Euro IV manual) proved livelier than expected although CVTs still suffer from a half-second or so delay when starting from rest. The manual mode offers seven pre-set gear ratios and the car will sit happily at 70mph showing about 2,000rpm, which bodes well for real-world fuel consumption.
The 2.0 TDCi comes with a six-speed manual transmission as standard and while the diesel engine makes itself heard approaching the 3,000rpm mark, it offers effortless performance and has a frisky mid-range response for safe overtaking.
Boot space is greater than mainstream C-sector cars (the Skoda Octavia offers significantly more litres of storage, though) and rear passengers have excellent legroom although headroom is tight for six-footers.
FIRST impressions of the Focus indicate it is ready to ambush both the Volkswagen Golf and Vauxhall Astra in the areas where they are strongest. With a premium car feel and the best chassis of any front-wheel drive production car, the new Focus will surely be another class leader and another best-seller.
|1.4||1.6||1.6 Ti-VCT||2.0||1.6 TDCi||2.0 TDCi|
|Max power (bhp/rpm):||79/5,700||99/5,500||113/6,000||143/6,000||107/4,000||134/4,000|
|Max torque (lb-ft/rpm):||91/3,500||111/4,000||114/4,150||136/4,500||177/1,750||136/2,000|
|Max speed (mph):||101||111 (auto: 106)||117||127||116 (113)||125|
|0-62mph (sec):||14.1||11.9 (13.6)||10.8||9.2||10.9 (11.5)||9.3|
|Fuel consumption (mpg):||42.7||42.2 (36.9)||43.8||39.8||58.9 (51.0)||51.4|
|CO2 emissions (g/km):||159||161 (180)||155||170||127 (146)||148|
|Fuel tank capacity (l/gal): 55/12.1|
|Transmissions: 5-sp man; 6-sp man; 4-sp auto (1.6); CVT auto (1.6 TDCi)||On sale: Early 2005|
Sample prices (OTR): Studio 1.4 3dr £10,895, LX 1.4 3dr £11,945, LX 1.6 TDCi 110 5dr £14,345, Sport 1.6 5dr £13,320, Sport estate 1.6 £14,170, Sport estate 1.6 TDCi 110 £15,770, Zetec 2.0 3dr £14,195, Zetec 2.0 5dr £14,795, Ghia 2.0 5dr £16,770, Ghia 2.0 TDCi 135 5dr £17,070, Titanium estate 2.0 £18,225, Titanium estate 1.6 TDCi 110 £18,425