U.S.A:New, fast Focus doesn't drive like an eco-car
by James R. Healey
The Ford Focus has been an appealing small car hurt by an appalling string of recalls early in life and undercut by mediocre engines.
However, the car's been recall-free since 2001, federal records show, and it scored a little better than average in the latest J.D. Power and Associates survey of new-vehicle problems. It also has a nice, new, optional engine with satisfying urge that makes Focus easier and more fun to drive.
As a bonus, that optional 2.3-liter, four-cylinder produces exceptionally low pollution. That's the model we'll consider here. The 2.3-liter engine was designed to be especially clean-burning and is the heart of the Focus PZEV package.
That stands for partial zero-emission vehicle. It means the car is so nearly pollution-free, it earns Ford special clean-air credit toward meeting ever-tightening auto pollution standards in California and Northeast states that use the California rules: New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine. (Story: Cleaner cars on way?)
The 2.3-liter version was introduced in California and New York earlier this year as an '03 PZEV. For '04, all 2.3-liter Focuses sold nationwide have the full California PZEV hardware and tuning. That's the first time such low-pollution cars have been sold nationwide.
You need California's low-sulfur gas to get full anti-pollution benefits. But on typical U.S. gasoline the PZEV Focus still has only about one-fifth the tailpipe pollution of a regular car.
Not only is the 2.3-liter Focus a two-fer — more power, less pollution — but it's just $115 more than the dirtier, slower 2-liter Focus.
The new engine is rated 145 horsepower and 149 pounds-feet of torque, up from 110 hp and 125 lbs.-ft. for the standard 2-liter engine and 130 hp, 135 lbs.-ft. for the optional 2 liter.
The test car was a 2003 ZX5 four-door hatchback from the California fleet, leathered and lathered up to $19,445. It provides a chance to review the PZEV that's been on limited sale, and preview the one soon available all over. The verdict: It's good — maybe the best small car on the market if Ford has truly solved the quality and reliability issues. And there's no apparent performance trade-off for the low-pollution benefit, as used to be the case.
The bigger engine finally makes Focus a well-integrated automobile instead of a brilliant chassis with subpar engines.
The test car had a five-speed manual transmission, and the 2.3-liter's extra power made it quite easy to drive. The car piddles along in the wrong gear comfortably in stop-and-go traffic and starts uphill from a dead stop without fear of killing the engine. Kick the gas pedal hard and the new engine revs pleasantly, promptly pulling the Focus up to brisk speed. It's not breathtaking, but qualifies as strong and fun.
What comes into, uh, focus during vigorous driving is the miserable center armrest. Hardly a minor matter, it interferes with your shifting arm regardless of how you position the armrest. It is a good height and position for resting the arm but has no business in a car with a manual transmission.
Focus gets a mild makeover next spring and becomes an early-introduction '05 model. Let's hope that the armrest issue is solved.
Another seemingly small mistake with big potential consequences is the design of the outside mirrors. They're too small for proper rear vision.
Lovely steering — good feel, good straight-ahead accuracy — and a chassis that'll dance any step you wish through corners make the Focus a delight in otherwise dreary daily duty as well as on your favorite back road. The tidy handling demands no compromise in ride comfort, which is nice engineering magic. As with most small cars, there's some thunking when the front hits potholes.
Leather seats in the test model seemed unusually comfortable — not always so with Ford's leather upholstery. The quirky dashboard remains a delight. The shape of the car still is distinctive. Even if you hate the Focus appearance — many do — you have to acknowledge that it provides a jazzy alternative to the conservative Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla and Chevrolet Cavalier, the small cars that outsell Focus in the USA.
One of Focus' selling points has been relative roominess. But the back seat in the test car seemed unusually tight when the fronts were adjusted for normal adults. Rear legroom is listed as 37.6 inches — generous in a universe where 36 is about the dividing line between tight and comfy. Perhaps if the backs of the front seats were scooped out more or there was more toe room under the front seat, the back would sit as commodiously as it measures.
If the combination of more performance and less pollution appeals to you, don't tarry. The 2.3-liter engine won't be the nationwide PZEV engine when the '05 Focus goes on sale next spring. Instead, a 2-liter derived from the 2.3 engine is the PZEV. The 2.3 gets power upgrades and surrenders the expensive hardware needed for PZEV credentials.
Despite exceptional driving appeal, Focus is the automotive version of the town delinquent who appears to have been rehabilitated. You admire the effort, hope the new leaf is permanently turned over, but aren't sure you'd hire the kid to work in your store.
Last April's Consumer Reports auto issue notes the dilemma: "The agile, fun-to-drive Focus handles like a true sports car. ... Unfortunately subpar reliability continues to prevent our recommending it." The magazine's editors are candid in saying Focus would be their top small-car choice if its reliability record were at least average. Instead, Focus earns the magazine's worst-possible rank for reliability and for owner satisfaction.
Depreciation, interestingly, doesn't suffer unduly. It's average.
Focus has hung onto the attributes that make it a delightful small car. Ford would argue it's also shed those that have tainted it. Only time will verify that. Either way, the 2.3-liter engine's extra power, smoothly delivered, supplies the piece that's been missing.
Ford Focus 2.3-liter PZEV
•What is it? Improved-performance version of the sporty-handling, front-wheel-drive small car, available as a conventional four-door sedan with a trunk, a station wagon, a two-door hatchback and a four-door hatchback.
•What's the big deal? It's the first PZEV — partial zero-emission vehicle — to be sold nationwide. PZEV denotes the least-polluting gasoline-power vehicles under California's strict air-quality regulations. All 2004 Focuses with the new, 2.3-liter engine have the PZEV hardware.
•How soon? The '04s go on sale next month. Some '03 2.3-liter PZEVs still are available in California and New York, which shares California's clean-air regulations.
•How many? At least 42,000 PZEV versions annually, Ford forecasts.
•How much? Depends on where you buy. The 2.3-liter PZEV package is standard on all models in California, New York and, for '04, Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont. Cheapest: $13,385 including destination charge.
In other states, the PZEV package is available only on mid- and top-level Focuses and is a $115 option. Cheapest nationwide model with PZEV package: $14,915.
Typical would be a four-door sedan with 2.3-liter engine, automatic transmission, anti-lock brakes, fancy stereo and other accessories, priced at $17,285 and selling for an average $16,728, Edmunds.com says.
Generally, expect to pay $750 to $910 more than dealer invoice price, depending on region, says CarsDirect.com.
•What's the powertrain? The PZEV engine is 2.3-liter four-cylinder, rated 145 horsepower, at 5,750 rpm, 149 pounds-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. Five-speed manual transmission is standard. Four-speed automatic is optional.
•What's the rest? PZEV models have the same features as other Focus models. Details are available at Ford.com.
•How big? A little smaller than a Honda Civic. Focus sedan and hatchbacks are 168.1 inches long. Wagon is 178.2 inches long. All models are 66.9 inches wide, 56.3 inches tall on a 103-inch wheelbase.
Passenger space is listed as 96 cubic feet on wagon, 94 on others. Cargo space is listed as 35 cubic feet behind the back seat in the wagon, 19 in the hatchbacks, 14 in the sedan's trunk. With the back seat folded, wagon cargo space is 73 cubic feet, hatchbacks, 28.
Weight is listed as 2,606 to 2,702 pounds, depending on model. Maximum towing is listed as 1,000 pounds.
•How thirsty? 2.3-liter with manual transmission is rated 25 miles per gallon in town, 33 on the highway.
•Overall: Hits the small-car sweet spot, but are its troubles really over?
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....