It's funny how history repeats. Ford currently promotes its “One Ford” ideal, where one model is developed to be used around the world. In the mid-1990s Ford was embarking on a similar path. In Europe it was selling a small sedan badged the Escort. In Australia and Asia Ford took a Mazda, changed some bodywork and whacked a Laser badge on. This may have been more efficient than developing a car from scratch but it still left the question, “Why develop two cars when one will do?” The answer to this was to develop the Focus. In 1998 it was released to the public where the combination of sharp design, roomy interior and updated engines was generally praised by the motoring world.
Unfortunately for Australians it took four years for Ford to import the Focus. It's a shame as the aging Ford Laser was struggling in the sales race against the likes of the Corolla and Astra. With high hopes of competing Ford finally imported the vehicle in 2002 where, like the Laser, it also failed to set the sales charts on fire.
This 2002 Focus Zetec was the sportier model of the Focus range. A warm-hatch if you will. With lower, firmer suspension, larger alloy wheels and factory tinting it looks the part. With a naturally aspirated 2.0 litre engine and sharp handling it has the ingredients for another well sorted hatch.
Driving the vehicle today what stands out is how well the design has aged. Even the polarising dash with its diagonal slash looks stylish in this combination of dark plastic and alloy highlights. The steering wheel feels solid in your hands and there is impressive leg, shoulder and head room for a car the size of a modern Fiesta.
Firing up the engine there's a slight growl from the exhaust, reminding you this isn't the base model. The engine's idle is slightly lumpy but the cabin is well insulated from any vibrations. Making 97 kW and 172 Nm of torque, it looks underpowered on paper but with a low kerb weight it has sufficient hustle to get in front of all but the most determined drivers at the traffic light grand prix. In this day of turbo-charged, small displacement engines the naturally aspirated Zetec motor is very linear in its power delivery. There is no kick in the back as it hits its stride, it revs cleanly and smoothly up to redline.
Sadly the four speed auto transmission is a letdown. It may have been adequate in 1998 but today is antiquated. With few cogs to choose from it rarely puts a foot wrong however the transmission holds revs for too long when put under load. An extra gear would make a world of difference and the five speed manual is the better option.
Handling has been a strength of Ford's vehicles for many years. The Focus is no exception with sharp, direct steering that is well weighted, although heavier than modern hatches. It is light enough to park yet still highly communicative. A highlight is the multi-link rear suspension, giving the car impressive levels of grip even when pushed on bumpy, slippery roads.
Opening the boot is a revelation, with a long, low boot with a wide opening. Even with the paraphernalia toddlers require there was enough room for my family of three to take a 3000 km road trip. This small car puts many current SUVs to shame when you consider the luggage space available.
As with all cars there are weaknesses. The downside to the large boot is the space-saver spare tyre. Whether this is an issue would depend on your circumstances. For city slickers like me it's adequate. The air conditioning works well but ensure it is working, as a new compressor will set you back $2000. The automatic transmission also does not enjoy high ambient temperatures and can flare between gear changes when hot. Changing the transmission fluid every two years has protected the transmission from any damage but it's something to consider if you live in a warm climate.
After 13 years it is safe to say that Ford's Focus is still a great option for those wanting a small family hatch. While no hot hatch it is still an enjoyable, safe, well sorted car. Maintenance costs may be higher than some competitors but with a lower buying price it is good value for money for a vehicle that still makes you smile when the road turns twisty.