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Ford Focus Zetec 2.0


As the saying goes, first there's the good news, then there's the bad news.

You could apply a variation of that saying to Ford's newly-launched Focus range.

Good news applies perfectly; but it's more a case of disappointing than bad. And disappointing doesn't apply to the car itself.

The good news is that the Focus is a very good car indeed, well deserving of the huge sales it has racked up in Britain, Europe and the USA.

The disappointing is that the Focus has taken four years to get here, and is around 18 months away from being revised extensively.

For years Ford executives parried questions about when the Focus would be introduced to New Zealand. The sticking point was said to be cost: the car would simply be too dear for the NZ market.

And the Australians didn't seem interested in the Focus, preferring instead to continue with the Laser, a badge-engineered version of Mazda's 323.

But the end of the line for the 323 and Laser forced Ford Australia to reconsider the Focus.

And now here it is. Ford is selling four variants here: the 1600cc five-door, 2.0-litre Zetec and Ghia five-doors, and the sports-oriented ST170 2.0-litre three-door.

Prices start at $26,990 for the 1.6 manual and peak at a reasonable $39,990 for the highly-accomplished ST170 warm hatch.

Our test car, the Zetec five-door manual falls roughly in the middle of the range, at $32,490.

We've driven two Zetecs extensively, both of them British-spec cars with miles-per-hour speedometers (local cars, of course, will have km/h speedos).

They also had traction control and heated windscreens which will be deleted from NZ-spec models.

The Focus is a neatly-styled five-door with lines that echo themes introduced on the Ka mini hatch. There's a family link to the Mondeo, especially in the grille.

Like the Mondeo's, the Focus' bonnet is opened with the ignition key, using a keyhole hidden behind the Blue Oval badge in the grille.

We particularly like the rear-end treatment with its C-pillar mounted, radically-styled taillights. The rear-end is enhanced by a neatly-designed spoiler at the top of the rear screen. It's standard on NZ-spec Zetec five-doors.

The Zetec uses a multi-point fuel-injected 1998cc Zetec four cylinder motor (the ST170 has a 2.0 Duratec with Variable Valve Timing).

It develops maximum power of 96kW at 5500rpm. Peak torque is 178Nm at 4500rpm.

It's a willing, free-revving engine, maybe a little raucous at high revs. But its major strength is the generous torque band.

The car will pull strongly from low speeds in fourth gear, and on the open road that minimises gear-changing.

The car will corner and accelerate strongly in fourth gear where you'd normally use third. If you want real spark out of those corners, shifting down to third will provide it, the meaty torque propelling the car vividly. But in all bar the tighter corners fourth will more than do.

The same is true of corners in which we'd usually change down to second. That wide and solid torque band means you need shift down only to third.

On the motorway the car will accelerate in fifth for passing moves.

The torquey engine makes the car a pleasure to drive on the open road and in city traffic.

So does the slick-shifting five-speed gearbox. The gearshift is light, precise and reasonably quick.

The power-assisted steering - controlled by a nicely-sized four-spoke wheel - offers good feel and is accurate.

The car turns-in to corners crisply and with a neutral feel. Pushed hard in tight and winding corners there's a degree of understeer, followed on the tightest corners by a satisfying oversteer feel as the weight transfers to the outside back wheel. It makes the chassis feel lively and makes the car lots of fun to drive.

Roadholding is exemplary. The Zetec rides on 16-inch diameter alloy wheels shod with 205/50 R16V tyres. The package fills the wheelarches nicely.

The British-spec test car ran ContiSport Contact tyres which provided excellent dry and wet road grip. The only time they were a little tricky was on thickly-gravelled roads in the central North Island where the wide, low-profile rubber would skitter around a little before biting.

Initially cars sold here will be fitted with Continental or Michelin tyres.

Overall we rate the Focus Zetec as one of the best-handling cars we've driven this year, and exceptional for a standard sedan. It's so composed that on major State Highways it seems almost to drive itself, capable of handling all but the tightest corners at a steady 100km/h without the slightest hint of drama. In fact, aside from intersections or the occasional need to throw out the picks to deal with the unexpected, we used the brakes very little.

On state highways at 100km/h, the Focus Zetec is totally unchallenged and provides the driver with very little to do.

You find yourself detouring on to minor roads where the corners are more demanding so that you can enjoy the superb chassis and agile handling to the full.

The composed handling isn't achieved at the expense of ride quality. The Focus rides comfortably and absorbs bumps well.

Disc brakes are fitted to all four wheels. They provide strong stopping power and even after getting a reasonable caning on a twisty road, retained good performance. The pedal softened a little, but there was no pad odour and virtually no fade.

Fuel economy is a Focus Zetec strong point. On an open road journey of just less than 1000 kilometres we averaged 34mpg. On a pure touring section we achieved 34.8mpg. We were pleased to discover that dropped only to 33.36mpg on the next section of the trip which included a lot of third and fourth gear running, hard braking and hard accelerating on twisting, rising and falling back country roads.

The Zetec's cloth-upholstered front seats are comfortable and well-shaped and provide surprisingly-effective lateral support - much more than their styling would suggest. That's just as well, given the cornering g forces the Focus can generate.

Rear cabin legroom is good and there's plenty of headroom, a legacy of the high-roofed styling.

Luggage space is generous and there's a standard boot cover. The rear seatback can be folded forward to increase luggage space.

Standard gear includes air-conditioning, electrically-wound windows on all doors, chrome-tipped exhaust pipe, electrically-adjustable door mirrors and a six-disc Compact Disc sound system. There's a shortage of storage space for the CD covers, though. The glovebox is on the small side and the cases rattle around in the good-sized door pockets. There are storage pockets in the back of both front seats.

The Zetec has remote-control central door-locking and the doors are fitted with double locks.

The steering wheel is telescopic and tilt-adjustable and the driver's seat is height adjustable.

Safety equipment is comprehensive. The composed chassis and effective brakes (they have ABS and electronic brake force distribution) provide good active safety. Passive safety gear includes dual front and side airbags, side impact door beams and lap/sash seatbelts for all five occupants. All occupants also get headrests.

With the arrival of the Focus, Ford has an impressive range of European-developed cars, from the quirky-looking yet practical and fun-to-drive Ka to the multi-award winning Mondeo, the 2001 NZ Car of the Year.

Our only real criticism of the Focus Zetec is that it has taken too long to reach here.

NZ motorists have been missing out on the chance to drive and own one of the world's best five-door small cars.

The Focus Zetec passes the acid test. Would we buy one if we were in the market? You bet your life.

Story and photographs by Mike Stock

Auto Trader New Zealand