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Ford Focus


As the motor industry knows to its cost, building an image is one thing: preserving it is something else. Putting everything into neat, tidy boxes may be the ideal but the reality of life isn't that simple. When Ford launched the original Escort car in 1968, the situation was clear-cut. The competent, conservatively designed smallish model replaced the Anglia that had nine-year lifespan after it

Like the cheap and cheerful Prefect, the Anglia and Escort were ideally-sized models for markets like Britain and New Zealand and they sold like wildfire.

Indeed, the Escort would appear in several modes and last a good deal longer than the inside-out back-windowed Anglia.
When the Focus replaced the Escort in Europe and North America in the late 1990s, it seemed a natural progression. A time-honoured pattern was continuing.

But New Zealand's love affair with the Escort had been diluted much earlier.
Currency switches and other economics saw Ford adopt a version of the Mazda 323 in 1981 for Asia/Pacific markets that include New Zealand and Australia. The rebadged and slightly re-styled 323 became the Ford Laser.

The Escort was banished from our shores as Ford strengthened a Japanese alliance that extended into the medium size sector, where the Mazda 626-based Telstar replaced the Cortina.

But European connections were maintained by the Sierra station wagon and limited imports of the Sierra hatchback.
When Ford launched the Focus in Europe more than five years ago it was an instant success. But we didn't see the model until last year by which time the Laser had vanished.

Our market had also had a small and far from exciting encounter with the last of the front-drive Escort models.
So the Focus is here, admittedly somewhat late in model life, yet the market isn't making much fuss of it.
Local apathy to the car is somewhat surprising. I was with a group of middle-aged blokes the other day and they asked me what I was driving.

They're not dedicated car enthusiasts but know enough about the industry to be fluent on Falcons, Holden Commodores and the new Nissan Maxima.

I told them I was driving a Focus and every one of them was unsure what it was. Telling them it was a Laser replacement partly explained matters.

They were amazed to learn the Ford they knew nothing about has been the world's most popular car for two years, has topped British market for the fifth consecutive year and is the only car to be selected as the North American and European Car of the Year in the same year.
 Later, a Ford dealer, best left un-named, told me he thought the car ought to cost less and suffered from having to compete with the huge array of Japanese used imports. Funny, that's a story I've heard many times before.
But is this mediocre response to the Focus more a matter of Kiwis being unsure of Ford's local small car programme?
The Ka is still here, but not for long with the impending arrival of the Fiesta.
The Fiesta is a fine car that should do well but it's already being talked down by some observers who believe small cars are small beer in New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the Focus, which fits the New Zealand environment like a glove, was such a good car at its 1998 European launch that it still looks smack up to date six years later.

The high-performance ST170 version came a lot later, retaining styling that didn't need revising.
At just on $40,000, this three-door descendant of the Escort Twin Cam, Escort RS2000 and Escort XR3i is also the dearest Focus sold here. It encounters five other compact front-drive hot hatches, and its power output is bettered only by the 141kW Toyota Corolla GT. The Corolla is also cheaper at $37,150 and is the only one in the group with five doors.

Both the Peugeot 206 GTi ($34,990) and Mini Cooper S ($44,900) are smaller and produce 100kW and 120kW respectively.
You'd have to agree the Mini makes a good job of beating the Focus for fun factor, and the lively Renault Clio Sport ($37,990), with 124kW, is about 75kg lighter than the Ford.

Variable inlet valve timing, an improved inlet manifold and new cylinder head with bigger inlet valves, lightweight pistons and more efficient exhaust boost the Focus' 2.0-litre Duratec twin cam engine to 127kW (or 170bhp which gives the car its ST170 name).
A lack of low speed grunt, especially off the line, is partly a reflection of peak torque (196Nm) being realised at a high 5500rpm, but the engine is crisp and responsive.

After a few days with a mainstream five-door Zetec Focus, it soon became apparent just how different the ST170 is. It's the same car in essence but has a completely different character.
Though its lock is poorer, the steering is sharper, the clutch and brakes are much heavier, the suspension is firmer and the six-speed gearbox gives more scope to play with the power.
Add in the brilliantly supportive and comfortable Recaro bucket seats with leather side bolsters, close your eyes and you'd never believe the ST170 is the same car as the Zetec.

 Of course it isn't, and you shouldn't be driving with your eyes shut.
With a top speed of 216km/h (134mph), and the ability to rip from a standstill to 100km/h in 7.9 seconds, the ST170 certainly gets the job done, even if it isn't the quickest car in the class.

Though most of the hard work is between 3000 and 4000 revs, the engine performs best when exceeding 6000rpm, and the redline isn't reached until 7350rpm.

By then the exhaust note is becoming somewhat intrusive.
Third and fourth gears are extremely close, but sixth is highly useable, even though the car is geared to an easy 2250rpm in this ratio at 100km/h.

Snick the precise Getrag gearbox back to fifth at the same speed and the revs climb 650rpm.
Mid-range response is strong and, compared to the less powerful Focus models, fuel economy is hardly impaired.
In the highway cycle, the ST170 averages 7.2 litres/100 km (39.2mpg) against 7.0 litres/100 km (40.3mpg) for the 2.0-litre Zetec. Like the 1.6 and 2.0-litre models, the ST170 needs premium fuel.

The standard car's already outstanding dynamics are further improved and though the ride is firmer, it's still comfortable, especially at touring speeds.

Front-end grip is tenacious, aided by wide 215/45 WR17 low profile tyres and 10 percent stiffer springs.
Push hard and the Ford remains neutral with nary a trace of understeer. The anti-roll bars are unchanged from other Focus hatchbacks. Superbly progressive and powerful brakes add to your overall confidence in a car that feels both predictable and safe.
The ST170 looks up to the task, with the handsome multi-spoke alloys, large honeycomb mesh radiator grille, white instrument dials, the sports seats and nifty projector-style fog lights.

Yet there is no brash body kit with deep spoilers. This is a restrained sports model that merely enhances the fine lines of the Focus.
For the ultimate performance package, the RS Focus is the one to have but at this stage it is an expensive non-starter for New Zealand.
The ST170 is a more restrained high flyer, blessed with solid levels of refinement for the class and none of the boy racer crass.
It may sound trite but this is a classy car that mixes high performance with sophistication.
- Donn Anderson


Auto Trader New Zealand