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~ ~ I might have known I wouldn’t get what I had asked for! What am I talking about? The seeming inability of car hire companies to give you the car you have booked with them. This year it was the turn of Budget Car Hire at Toulouse Airport in southern France. “Sorry sir. We don’t have a new model Renault Megane available this morning. We’ve given you a Ford Focus diesel instead.” Ah well. You can’t crib really (at least not TOO much) as it does state in the hire contract that they can substitute a car in the same group as you have booked. Thus it was that the mad cabbie and family ended up driving around in a Ford Focus for a fortnight while on holiday down in the Basque region of France. (St. Jean de Luz, just south of Biarittz) Or more specifically, a brand new Ford Focus 1.8 LX TDCi with just over 1,000 kilometres on the clock. (At least, at the start of the holiday!)
~ ~ My first impression of the car wasn’t great. At first glance, the Focus looks like a small car, and this was borne out when I began to load the holiday luggage, especially my golf clubs. In my own car (Nissan Maxima) I always load my tournament golf bag first, placing it lengthways across the back of the boot, and then loading in any bags and suitcases in front of it. I can even manage this trick in my wife’s Nissan Primera. But there was no way my golf clubs were fitting into the Ford Focus in this way. Instead, I had to lower one of the rear seats, which meant they were intruding through onto the passenger cabin. This caused untold hassle throughout the entire holiday, as it meant that my (expensive) golf equipment was constantly on open view, and I couldn’t leave the car parked anywhere out of my sight for fear of theft! The Focus took the rest of the luggage without too much problem, but certainly I could never consider it as a potential purchase if for no other reason that my golf clubs simply didn’t fit properly in the boot as the car wasn’t wide enough. God only knows how you would manage if you were going on a golfing holiday with a couple of mates, and you had to fit not one but three sets of golf clubs into the back! One plus was that the car was a 5-door hatchback, and you could easily remove the shelf in the back window to give yourself a wee bit more space.
~ ~ My first impression of the car’s appearance wasn’t great either. “A tin box on wheels” was my first thought, and the rounded bonnet and general appearance of the vehicle didn’t do a lot for me, or set the old pulse racing. (Unlike the Alfa Romeo 156 I had on hire in Italy a couple of years back!) This was borne out when I actually got behind the wheel and started driving. I don’t like a car where the front of the bonnet isn’t visible from the driver’s seat, and this is the case in the Focus. It means that you are never too sure of your position on the road, and this can cause you major hassle especially when you are parking a car that you’re not used to driving. But the overall visibility
in relation to other cars was OK.
~ ~ In fairness, the interior of the Focus belies its exterior “tin box” appearance. The first thing that struck me on sitting into the car was its spaciousness, and the comfortable seats and driving position. The driver’s seat adjusts up and down and backwards and forwards, and the steering wheel is adjustable, so with a bit of fiddling you’ll soon get in a good driving position that suits you. There’s plenty of room for the driver and front seat passenger to get comfy, and my wife seemed to be happy and comfortable enough in the back seat. (At least, she said she was!) As with most cars in this class, you wouldn’t want to be going too far with three fully grown adults in the rear though, unless they were into close encounters. (It would be a VERY tight fit) But there’s plenty of room for two grown-ups with the legroom behind the front seats being reasonable. The controls were all easily accessible, and one feature I particularly liked was that the radio/cassette/CD player could be controlled from a stalk on the side of the steering wheel. Volume, station, roaming, and presets could all be easily accessed without ever having to take your eyes of the road or your hands of the steering wheel. This is a great safety feature, which Renault were first to introduce in their cars back in the 1980’s (I had it in a 1984 model Renault 25) and which many other manufacturers now appear to be copying.
~ ~ Front electric windows and mirrors were standard, and there were airbags for both the driver and front seat passenger. Mind you, the windows weren’t opened that much, as we used the (very effective) air conditioning system to keep us cool when the temperature inside the car became unbearable. A wee word of advice to anyone hiring a holiday car in a hot climate. NEVER be tempted to hire one without air-con in an attempt to save a few pounds or Euro! Air-con is an essential in really hot weather, and provides welcome relief when you’ve been trudging around somewhere in hot weather. It’s like stepping into a cold shower it’s so refreshing. Another thing I liked were the two drink holders in the front. A cool soft drink is a must on a long drive in hot weather, and my wee lass and I kept well stocked up on Fanta Orange and Diet Coke to slake our thirst. (Why does Fanta Orange taste SO much better on the Continent than in Ireland or the UK, by the way??) The Focus even had an optional drink holder located between the front seats for the rear passenger. I say “optional” as it was cleverly hidden away under the rear seat ashtray, which when removed revealed the drink holder. (My clever wee lass discovered this) It also had an extra electrical socket (cigarette lighter) in the back seat, which you can use to operate things like travelling kettles, or to recharge your mobile. (Handy) A smallish glove compartment, but it had plenty of little nooks and crannies (side of the doors, behind the gear lever) for stowing things like maps, brochures, sunglasses, mobile phones, etc.
~ ~ On our first night in France we were hit by a thunder and lightning storm while we were out at dinner. Even with the blower on full and the air-con working the windscreen was still badly affected by condensation, making driving difficult due to the poor visibility. But this is no problem with the Focus, as it’s fitted with a heated windscreen as well as the standard heated rear window. A flick of the switch, and the glass both front and rear was as clear as a bell. This is the first time I’ve had to use this feature on a car, and I was VERY impressed. Less impressive (at least at first) was the lever to open the bonnet. Or should I say, the LACK of a lever to open the bonnet! We ran out of windscreen washer fluid, so I filled a large plastic bottle one morning and went down to refill it. After a fruitless hunt all around the cabin for the bonnet release switch I had to eventually admit defeat, and resort to looking it up in the owner’s manual. No luck there, as it was all in French, and I simply couldn’t work it out. (Stupid mad cabbie!) Enter my wee lass, who discovered that it’s operated by a hidden lock under the little Ford logo badge on the front grille of the car! I was fit to be tied by this stage, but on reflection have to admit that it’s a clever idea, and could possibly stop your car from being nicked, as it would be very hard for a potential thief to discover unless they were familiar with this particular model of car.
~ ~ OK. What was it like to drive? Let it be said from the outset that (unlike most taxi drivers!) I’m not particularly a big fan of diesel-powered cars. I prefer the extra “oomph” you get with a petrol engine, and am quite happy to pay the extra cost of the fuel in order to achieve this. But I have to admit that of all the diesel cars I have driven the Ford Focus has to be one of the best. You still get that slightly tractor-like growl when you first start it up, and the engine noise is fairly harsh for the first few miles until the engine warms up and reaches its optimum running temperature. But after that you would be hard pushed to even realise that it was an “oil burner” you were driving. Even on a French motorway at speeds in excess of 100mph (OK, I know!) you could hold a conversation with ease without shouting at each other the engine noise was so unobtrusive. Also, the wind noise from the doors and windows was practically non-existent.
~ ~ Engine power was great. It has to be noted that this is a 115bhp, direct injection, 1.8-litre (1753cc) turbo-charged diesel engine, but even having said that I was a bit surprised at just how responsive it was, and the good acceleration. Diesel engines tend to have a wee bit more torque (pulling power) than their petrol equivalents, and the Focus had it in spades. If you felt like giving it a rip, you could reach the 60mph mark in less than 11 seconds, (10.74 to be precise) and it would carry you onto a top
Pictures of Ford Focus 1.8 Duratorq TDdi
Focus Exterior View
speed in excess of 120mph. 122mph is the quoted top speed, although I never tried to prove it. (Although I did hit 110mph or thereabouts on the odd occasion!) The Focus has a highly versatile 5-speed manual gearbox. I say versatile, because it was just as happy chugging along at 25mph in fifth gear as it was at over 100mph. And the pulling power was great right through all the gears, especially if you were overtaking. Drop it into fourth and floor the pedal and it blasted past nearly everything in sight. (OK. Maybe NOT the Ferrari we spotted in Biarittz. Heh, heh) Front wheel drive (most cars are these days) so the road holding was grand, although it has to be said I’m not really inclined to take corners like Michael Schumaker. But certainly I always felt totally in control, and never at any time in danger of losing the run of the car.
~ ~ Now comes the good bit. This car will run practically forever on a full tank of diesel! OK, obviously that’s a slight exaggeration, but you WILL be getting out your wallet far less frequently with a diesel than with a petrol car, at least to fill it with fuel. Quoted consumption figures are somewhere around the 40 miles plus per gallon around town, and about 65 miles per gallon on a long run. This gives an average fuel consumption figure of around 51 miles per gallon. Even driving it very hard on the French motorways, I reckon I was averaging about 45 miles per gallon. This is cheap motoring, considering a gallon of fuel in France is about 12 cents a litre dearer than here in Ireland. The drawback to a diesel engine (if you own the car) is that servicing costs tend to be a bit higher than with a petrol engine. The oil and filter have to be changed about twice as frequently. (My taxi driver friends do this every 5,000 or 6,000 miles) So the best thing is to shop around until you find somebody that will do this for you at a good price. (Or do it yourself!) Another advantage to owning a Ford is that there are a LOT of them around, so that if something major goes wrong in the engine, you can often pick up second hand parts at a breaker’s yard (from a crashed car) or buy “spurious” (copied) parts in a motor factors. (But watch the quality of the parts you buy!)
~ ~ Pricewise (in the UK) you can expect to pay in the region of around £14,300 to about £16,000 for a new model Ford Focus 1.8 LX TDCi. (Prices sourced at Autotrader) Used you can pick up a 1999 model for about £3,500 upwards. One thing to remember when shopping for a Ford Focus is that it’s one of the most popular cars in its class, and tends to have high residual values, (holds its price well) so you’ll pay more for a Focus second hand than you will for say a Vauxhall Astra. (Or equivalent car) This is good if you are buying a Focus new, but bad if you are in the market for a used car.
~ ~ Would I personally buy a Ford Focus diesel? Well, no, but only because I have a preference for larger cars. I would certainly give it a strong recommendation for anyone who is in the market for a car of this size and type. Four stars out of five from the mad cabbie.