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I've never been one for Ford's mid-size family car, the Focus. Built as the replacement for the hugely successful Escort, the Focus's dramatic new design left you feeling either hopelessly in love with it or slapped about the face by it.
The sharp features of its bold design, the bold lines along its profile and the high lamp positions on its posterior left it standing out from the crowd, but the looks weren't to everyone's taste.
Things aren't much better on the inside, either. The stark lines of the dashboard binacle cut into the facia, while a drooping line cuts across from the passenger side in opposition to the binacle's presence, the result of which means the two central vents are mounted one diagonally above the other and giving the interior the impression it has been slapped together by Picasso.
Combine this with Ford's rather cheap looking stereo and horribly stubby indicator and wiper stalks and, coupled with the all-too-common Ford badge, out of principle I have refused to drive one of these cars ever since they were launched.
Friends and family members brought and sold different models of Focus, almost talking about them in revered tones, while industry pundits raved about the car's performance, but still I refused to drive one.
Until now, that is. Over the past few days I've had a Ford Focus Zetec Estate on temporary loan and suddenly I can see what I've been missing; what everybody else has been raving about.
Biting my lip against designs I just abhor inside a car, I turned the key and listened as the 1.8litre engine burbled into life. A blip of the throttle and the exhaust gave off a pleasant, throaty noise while the clutch and steering seemed to be weighted almost perfectly and the gearbox felt solid and almost sporty, but without needing any effort to flick from cog to cog.
Ford's, I've found, have always had a notoriously dim green dashboard display when illuminated in the dark and it's a shame to see that nothing's changed even in their 21st century models. A 1986 Ford Capri I once owned must have used exactly the same dim bulbs as the Focus, younger by fourteen years; even with the rheostat turned to its fullest setting the dashboard display gave off an almost X-files-esque eery green glow. So when I collected this particular model late on a wintry November evening I wanted to simply get it home and wait until the daylight so I could actually work out where all the switches were.
But it was that drive home along dark and empty country roads where I suddenly discovered why people rave about the Focus so much. Even in estate-guise the car feels firm and exciting, the Zetec engine revving freely through the powerband and the gearbox snicks smoothly and firmly through the ratios. Ignore the style and you could forget you were driving an every day Ford estate. Over bumps the suspension barely gave any indication that it was being upset and the car felt solid and in control down twisty country lanes and round tight and narrow bends. The chunky steering wheel made me feel as if I was driving one of the more powerful derivatives in the Focus's range and the happy burble from the exhaust added to the effect. Even being thrown into bends the car refused to unsettle itself and you could be forgiven for forgetting that this was a rather low-key estate car...
The front-wheel-drive chassis is easy to control and although understeer is easy to induce, it's also easy to control and even in the hairiest moments you can back out of the power and regain control very quickly.
So, after six years of hating it in just ten minutes of driving it have I changed my mind?
Well, no. I can't deny that the car is superb to drive and, having driven it continuously over two days, I would be hard pushed to suggest a better car for the money in terms of performance. But in the cold light of day I'm drawn back to the interior, which is drab and plastic while the controls have a cheap look and feel to them.
This particular model is fitted with electric windows in the front and electric wing mirrors, but bizarrely the stereo is a standard radio/cassette option that *doesn't* seem to include any form of RDS/EON function. RDS/EON is the function that allows the stereo to remain tuned into one station, for example Radio 1, while you drive the length and breadth of the country, without the need for you to keep retuning; it also provides the station's name on the display, rather than the frequency you are tuned into. Such functions are standard on radios in even the cheapest of cars available today, not to mention many home radio systems, so it just seems to be an area where Ford have cut costs needlessly (and I doubt it would have made any difference to the bottom line anyway). I've never liked Ford's short control stalks on the steering column, which always leave me feeling like I'm reaching behind the steering wheel for the function I want, rather than simply moving my fingers to switch something on or off.
Similarly, despite it's wonderful ride, even for my more-than-average 5'10" frame I have found getting a comfortable driving position difficult. The steering wheel adjusts for both rake and reach, but even with the reach pulled as far towards me as I can get it - and with the seat in the perfect position for my legs - I still feel like I'm having to stretch to steer the car.
The cheapness of the dashboard controls is reflected further in the drabness of the interior, with the grey cloth seats looking tired and ancient on a car that only has 60'000 miles on the clock. The interior is roomy, however, and the seats are reasonably comfortable though I don't think I'd want to do a really long journey on them. Being the estate version an ample boot is on offer with plenty of space to load a family's luggage and, with the rear seats folded down, there's plenty of space for the weekend run to the tip, too.
Ford have recently launched a new version of the Focus, with a better quality interior and an improved ride - if such a thing is possible. The design has been softened somewhat and, in contrast to its older sister, the new Focus looks nondescript. We'll have to wait and see whether it's a better seller than the old model, but at least with the antithetic design of the original car you drove something a little different, not something that looked just like the rest of the competition...
My verdict on the Focus? An excellent all-round, budget performer but if I were to be shopping for a car in this market I think I'd pay the few extra quid and buy one of the Focus's many competitors: all offer a similar level of specification against each derivative of the Focus and, while the ride might not be as good as the Focus's, the interior is likely to wear better, look better and feel better made.
Author's note (added 12/11/04): following a member's comment that they would have preferred a review based on longer-term ownership it's important to note that this review is based on first impressions and as it's a loan vehicle will be going back in just a day or two. It is, however, based on my opinion of the car even in such a short time of driving it.
Never liked these cars until recently. They are starting to grow on me although I am not sure I would ever own one. Rich
Connoisseur_Haggler1 23.11.2004 13:15
Focus seems to be highly rated, even overrated these days! I've not had chance to try the Zetec engine -the new Focus or the old but hopefully one day will -I'm kinda interested in the new Astra, have you seen it?? BTW, how economical did you find this 1.8 out of interest? -Good initial impressions and even thogh you've not had it that long I think your analysis and summary is pretty much right! -CH (P.S. I've read reviews on here which have won awards even and the cars have never been owned for any length of time or owned at all, I think theres a place for all types of opinions long term ownership, non-ownership and just creative waffle where the real car drivers will know theres nothing of any use but its a fun or pleasurable read , I guess theres something for everyone -the beauty of consumer 'opinion'sites! Personally, I always find something useful in your opinions)
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