Review and road test of the Ford Focus (1998 - 2002)
BY GRAEME ROBERTS
Unlike its predecessor, the Escort, the Ford Focus wowed the critics immediately when it was launched in October 1998. The new family Ford attracted praise for its crisp 'New Edge' styling, funky interior, great 'zetec' engines and, most of all, its class-leading handling and ride. No competitor has yet got close.
Soon after launch the Focus shot straight to the top of the UK best-sellers charts and is likely to remain there for quite some time yet. With something like 12,000 being sold new each month, plenty have now found their way onto the used market where a vast choice of models and sensible pricing makes Ford's finest family range an excellent buy.
3 & 5dr hatch, 4dr saloon, 5dr estate: 1.4, 1.6, 1.8, 2.0, 1.8 turbo diesel [CL, Zetec, LX, Ghia, ST170])
Ford launched a wide Focus range in October 1998 though it took about a year before all variants were available. That means that models like the sporty two-litre Zetec and 1.6-litre automatics are still rare on used car forecourts.
There was a choice of three and five-door hatchbacks, a stylish saloon (which you'll find only with plush Ghia trim) and an estate. Engines were 1.4, 1.6, 1.8 and two-litre Zetec petrol units and a 1.8-litre direct injection turbo diesel and all bar the 1.6 came only with five-speed manual transmission. Trim levels were CL, Zetec, LX and Ghia and there were a variety of option packs that are worth seeking out on used examples. These included Style (alloy wheels and metallic paint), Reflex (anti-lock, traction control and side airbags) and Climate (air conditioning, heated windscreen and mirrors).
March 2000 saw the introduction of an entry-level three-door 1.4CL hatchback and some price reductions for mainstream 1.4 and 1.6-litre models.
Launched in October 1999, the 1.8-litre Millennium five-door hatchback special edition was painted in (very) bright yellow with black leather upholstery and top-of-the-range equipment including air conditioning, CD player, power windows, dual airbags and unique alloy wheels. It's worth about 3% more than a Ghia.
Zetec Collection special editions were launched in May 2000. Based on the supposedly sporty three and five-door Zetec models they came with Ford's entire RS body kit fitted as standard - including bumpers, spoiler, chrome exhaust trim, a mesh grille and unique 3x2 spoke, 15-inch alloy wheels. The call for a sportier Focus model was finally answered in February 2002 when the ST170 model was launched. This month also spelt good news for diesel customers with the excellent 115bhp TDCi common rail engine being fitted to the affordable Zetec trim level. In summer 2002 the TDCi engine was also offered in a slightly detuned 100bhp form. The range-topping Focus RS was finally launched in September 2002 and the limited run was sold out by late 2003. An estate version of the ST170 was introduced in April 2003.
What You Get
Arguably the most stylish and best handling (and riding) family hatchback you can buy. This is a car into which you can load the family and still enjoy such mundane trips as the supermarket run. It's little wonder that waiting lists formed at launch time and that most versions are still in strong demand. Whichever body style you opt for, the Focus is a stylish car with excellent engines and road manners and a well laid-out interior that provides plenty of room for a family.
There are a lot of used examples about so take your time and choose carefully. Choose a Zetec or LX with a popular option pack or two so you get items like electric windows, air conditioning and Ford's clever Quickclear self-de-icing windscreen. Desirable equipment like this will make selling on easier in two or three years' time.
What to Look For
Ford's 'zetec' engines are, on the whole, reliable, so give the car the usual once-over looking for signs of wear and indications of hard fleet, company or rental car use. Worn carpets, and scuffed trim are the usual clues. Test drive the car for around 10 miles on a main road. As you come to a roundabout be prepared for the car to stall. It is probably the idle speed control valve that needs replacing. If you are planning to have this problem repaired, negotiate a discount of around £150.
Check that all the electrical items work properly, ensure that the air conditioner delivers chilled air soon after the engine is started and remember that a full service history always helps when selling on, too.
(approx based on a Focus 1.6) As you might expect, parts are plentiful and relatively inexpensive. A clutch assembly will be around £100 and an alternator should be close to £140.
Brake pads are around £25 a front set with rear shoes around £45, a replacement headlamp is close to £80 and a manual door mirror should be in the region of £50. A full exhaust is about £200 and a catalyst is about £240. Dampers are around £40 each and a radiator about £100.
On the Road
When you'll really appreciate the Focus is when there's no one in it but you. Under the skin lie a host of engineering novelties that together, enable it comfortably to take the honours as the best driver's car in the class. The body for a start, is 100% stiffer than that of the Escort and 15% stiffer than its nearest rival. The gearbox is slick enough to make you want to change up and down just for the sake of it. And the fully independent suspension attains a level of sophistication previously unheard of in this class.
We're not just talking about tyre-squealing qualifying laps around your favourite country B-road test route either. Ford's engineers have tuned the Focus to compensate for the times you and I get brain fade; you're lost, it's dark and chucking its down and the kids are screaming in the back. The corner you just entered too quickly is getting sharper and you do exactly the wrong thing; you stamp on the brakes. This car will deal with that: no fuss, no problem.
Performance is reasonable - though not exceptional, with the 1.6-litre engine most will choose making sixty in 11.2s on the way to 114mph. Its fuel economy (41.5mpg on the combined cycle) comfortably beats all comers, however, and there are major components everywhere designed to need minimal or no maintenance.
The Focus is, quite simply, the best family hatchback on the used market if you take into account the huge dealer network, affordable part prices and the vast choice offered at sensible prices.
Streets ahead of its dull but worthy Escort predecessor, this is the car to buy if the budget will stretch.
20th March 2009
Ford Focus (1998 - 2002) review by GRAEME ROBERTS