It all started in 2008. My parents were looking to downsize from their 300,000km old EB Falcon. The $13,990 driveaway Getz was a prime candidate, but that was $17,990 for a 5-door automatic with the 1.6-litre engine. The local Ford dealer had Fiesta’s advertised for the same price, but upon arrival at the yard ‘they’d all sold’, and new stock was $22k - the same price as the then brand new, 2007 Focus. A few weeks later Dad took delivery of a brand new auto LT Focus CL hatch with Smooth pack (cruise control, electric mirrors and alloy wheels).
So impressed with the handling and smoothness, I did the unthinkable and bought the same sort of car as my parents. A two and a half year old LS Focus Ghia sedan, which after four years I sold to my mother.
Fast forward to late 2018 and I’d just returned from overseas and decided try a carless lifestyle. Then I got accepted into the Shitbox Rally, a car rally though Outback Australia raising money for the Cancer Council. The main catch is your car must not be worth more than $1000 on the open market.
A friend of a friend of a friend was trying to give their car away, and I was offered an old Ford that was probably about 30 years old, was automatic and a hatchback. The day before collection I found out it was actually 13 and not 30 years old. Seeing it in the dark shed, the car was actually in pretty good shape - and its trade value was $700 so it met the criteria.
In the harsh light of day, pretty much every panel bar the roof and tailgate were scratched and dented, and a few panels were covered in a concrete slurry that wouldn’t come off, but aside from that it seemed fine.
It didn’t need too much for a roadworthy (the labour was donated, and parts from a wrecker were $120), but it had a number of other problems that arose in the first month of ownership. The air conditioner stopped working, one of the wheel bearings was really noisy, there was a metal dragging sound when reversing with my foot even slightly touching the brake (I think the handbrake), the power steering pump was noisy, the CD player didn’t work, and the remote central locking buttons were stuffed. With the $1000 limit, those things were left, and they didn’t really get much worse.
In the twelve months of ownership, the only costs were $78 for oil, a filter and wiper rubbers. A synthetic oil is recommended, so I decided to buy that given my intention was to do at least another 10000km in the car, with a couple of months of driving, then 7000km doing the rally and driving home.
As I’ve said before, the handling and smoothness of this car is sensational. I regularly drive some new smaller cars (Accent, Yaris, Mirage and Rio), and none felt as smooth and stable as the Focus. The Focus is also pretty safe structurally, with dual airbags standard and all models above the CL coming with ABS and side airbags (ABS was made standard on the CL in the 2007 LT facelift).
The train and bike were my main transport choices during the week, but in the 12 months of ownership before the rally, I still managed about 25,000km of mainly highway driving and consumed fuel at 6.5 and 7.5 litres per 100 kilometres. My parents both use a lot more fuel, with my accelerator-happy Dad using about 13L/100km on virtually all suburban driving.
On the downside, a lot of road noise comes through into the cabin, especially through the boot on the hatch. It’s not as bad in the sedan, and neither are as bad as in the related Mazda 3. The engine noise is also noticeable in both Mum’s and mine, but less so in Dad’s. Perhaps the facelift got better sound deadening.
This model is made in South Africa and has a bad reputation, but we’ve had a pretty good run. My old one needed a few things (rear wheel bearing, EGR module, and something else) between 155,000km and 170,000km, and it’s now done 230,000km with nothing else major (although the transmission seems to flare a bit). Dad had the trip computer (odometer/trip computer/message centre) replaced under warranty, and nothing else has happened in the 90,000km since.
The transmission in Mum’s one never felt right, always like the changes were just too abrupt, and it hasn’t gotten any better with age. Dad’s one feels fine. The hatchback given to us was somewhere in between.
Living with both the LS and LT, you get to appreciate some of the small improvements, and some of the cost cutting made on a facelift. Dad’s is the facelifted LT model, exact same trim and options as mine, but the LT model brought ABS as standard, deleted the side protection mouldings, had a larger door mirrors, a brushed silver grille surround instead of the chrome of the LS, and had a new front bumper and an instantaneous fuel usage function on the trip computer.
Their poor reputation means abysmal resale, not helped by the Powershift issues of the next generation which hamstrung their resale, pushing down this generation even further. So they’re quite plentiful at wreckers leading to a good supply of cheap parts. They’re also an excellent first car, being very affordable and safe - although repairs can easily be more than the car is worth.
I think the sweet spot of the range is the LX. It came with ABS, four airbags, alloy wheels, steering column audio controls, cruise control, and global opening (open/close all four windows from the keyfob, an amazing feature as you’re approaching the car on a hot summer day).
The Shitbox Rally is the biggest fundraiser for the Cancer Council that’s not run by the Cancer Council, and to celebrate the tenth anniversary, two rallies were run in 2019 (raising a combined $5 million for cancer research). Teams are encouraged to decorate their cars, but aside from that leave them as original as they can. Half the fun is getting them to the end.
Six months before the rally we decorated the car in a Piet Mondrian theme (coloured boxes). Similar to before painting it, from a distance it actually looked pretty good, but get within 3 or 4 metres and the house paint and rollers that we used left a less than professional impression. Surprisingly driving around in a decorated car didn’t draw as many looks as I expected.
About six weeks before the rally I got the car on a hoist to change the oil and look at what sort of underbody protection we could fit. The air conditioning compressor was the lowest hanging thing (fortunately unnecessary), but the sump was low, the oil filter hung down front and centre, and the plastic fuel tank was low with no protection. But there wasn’t anywhere easy or non-plastic to fix protection to, so we decided to leave it as is.
How did a slightly clapped out $700 South African-built Ford hatchback handle 3782km driving from Melbourne to Townsville via Birdsville, driving mainly on unsealed roads and tracks? The car handled it very well - but us not so well without air conditioning.
We managed to avoid rocks big enough to kill the fuel tank, sump or oil filter. We had a run in with some bulldust that saw dust get into everything under the engine bay, even under the engine cover onto the tops of the coils, and into all the belts creating an interesting harmony. The only other casualties were three flat tyres.
I had intended on driving the car back, taking 10 days for a quiet solitary drive along the coast and moving it on to another rally team for a future rally. But it had copped an absolute beating, and after driving a week without air conditioning, I could only think of one thing worse than turning around and driving another week without air conditioning. And that was cleaning the car. There was dust everywhere, and the dust on the seats was combining with our sweat to create mud.
At the end of the rally, teams have the choice of buying their cars back or putting them up through auction (all funds go to the Cancer Council). Prior to the rally most teams intended on driving back, but in the end most teams had similar thoughts to me and put it up through auction. Most cars sold for $150-$250, mainly to wreckers. Our car sold for $200 and I’m guessing it’s now been broken up into bits so that other Focuses can live.
Would I buy another? I thought not, but after deciding I couldn’t really go car free when I got home, one of the cars I was seriously looking at was an LW Focus LX manual hatch, to me the perfect model of this generation Focus. My parents are both hanging onto theirs for as long as they last.