Numerous Recalls Call Into Question the Future of Focus
December 30, 2002
Chicago Tribune/Motor Trend
With the two recalls announced Nov. 4 by Ford Motor Co., the Focus has earned the distinction of being mentioned in the same breath as the Chevrolet Citation.
The 2000 Focus has been recalled 10 times, once more than the 1980 Citation, one of the problem-plagued General Motors X-body cars that highlighted the quality gap between domestic and Japanese auto manufacturers.
While the Citation was recalled twice in its second year, the 2001 Focus has been recalled six time. Not all Focus models are affected by every recall, but some 2000 models have been recalled four times or more for safety defects.
The latest recalls affect 572,795 vehicles from the 2000 and 2001 model years. One is to inspect front suspension wear and the other to reroute or replace battery cables that could cause fires in the engine compartment.
Focus, a compact car designed by Ford of Europe, debuted in the United States in 1999 to critical acclaim. In 2000, its first full year on the market, Ford sold 286,166 Focuses, making it the fifth most popular passenger car. Sales slid 8 percent in 2001 and have dropped 10 percent this year, to 211,126, through October.
Art Spinella, general manager of CNW Marketing/Research, says the mounting list of recalls may be driving the Focus into a ditch it cannot get out of.
"It becomes a reputation you never get rid of," Spinella said. CNW's research shows that consumers steer away from cars repeatedly recalled for safety defects, fearing they will be unreliable.
"Once has no impact. Twice can move a particular product down a full notch on the shopping list, like from first to second," he said. "Three recalls and you're usually out of the top three on the shopping list. If it's not in the top three, it's rarely chosen."
Edgy styling and reasonable prices made the Focus a hit with younger buyers, fulfilling one of Ford's goals when it replaced the Escort as the company's volume small car. Nearly half of buyers are younger than 35, and about 15 percent are buying their first new vehicle.
Brian Bauer, a 24-year-old programmer from Palatine, Ill., owned a 2000 Focus SE sedan that was recalled three times and required four other repairs under warranty, including a leaking oil pan, in the two years he owned it.
Bauer sold the Focus for an Audi A4 not because he was fed up with the Ford's chronic problems but because he fell in love with the Audi at the Chicago Auto Show.
"The Focus was a great car to drive," Bauer said, calling his frequent trips to the dealer for repairs an annoyance.
"I didn't think any of those recalls were serious problems that would put it out of commission," he said. "I just had to make the every-other-month trip to the dealership to get it repaired. If you're willing to put up with the minor inconvenience, it's really a good car to drive."
Spinella says most others may not be as forgiving.
"People love the design of the Focus, the roominess, all of those things, but the cornerstone of any vehicle's reputation is whether it's reliable," he said.
Ford maintains the Focus' quality has improved since its bumpy launch and is posting better scores in Ford's internal ratings and the J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study, though it doesn't rank among the top cars in its class. The 2002 model has been recalled once, affecting 534 vehicles.
Power does not release scores on all models, but spokesman John Tews said the 2001 Focus improved 7 percent on the IQS and the 2002 model 17 percent. The Focus remains "slightly below" the industry average of 133 problems per 100 vehicles, he said, and ranked 10th out of 28 compact cars in 2002.
"We had a rough start, but we've steadily improved since then," Ford spokesman Todd Nissen said. "We're certainly not proud of having to recall them, but we're committed to fixing problems as we spot them."
Numerous Recalls Call Into Question the Future of Focus
Ford has conducted all the Focus recalls voluntarily, though some were announced after the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration initiated investigations into possible safety defects.
There have been no deaths or injuries from either of the latest defects. Nissen said the front suspension recall was initiated after Ford received 36 complaints from customers and reports of two accidents.
"The chances of these issues occurring were really pretty small," he said. "We thought it was necessary to put our customers' minds at ease and recall the vehicles."
More recalls may be yet to come. NHTSA has five open investigations into possible safety defects on the 2000-2002 Focus, though Ford believes the most recent recalls will resolve two of them. A NHTSA spokeswoman said that has not been determined.
Among the current investigations, NHTSA is looking into engine stalling, defective rear-wheel bearings and burns and fires caused by deploying air bags.
Focus is not the only model to be recalled several times early in its design cycle. GM has recalled the 2002 Chevrolet TrailBlazer sport-utility vehicle six times, and Honda has recalled the 2001 Civic, a car with a reputation for bulletproof reliability, five. The Civic recalls include two for incorrectly manufactured rear seat belt buckles and one for possible fuel leakage after a collision. The TrailBlazer's include suspension control arm brackets that could fracture and a fuel filter fitting that could become disconnected, resulting in the risk of a fire.
The Focus recalls, however, come at a time when the second-largest automaker is trying to rebuild a reputation for quality and regain profitability.
Quality gaffes on the Focus began showing up around the time Ford had to defend the Explorer against allegations that its design contributed to rollover accidents that killed more than 200 and injured hundreds of others. Ford blamed the accidents on Firestone tires. And though NHTSA did not cite the Explorer in its findings, it also did not put all the blame on Firestone.
Ford launched the Escape SUV about a year after the Focus and has recalled the 2001 models five times.
"There is a different climate these days both from consumer expectations and the regulatory environment," Nissen said, adding that Ford is being more proactive in fixing safety and quality problems.
Vehicles whose reputations are marred by poor quality or safety concerns are often replaced and renamed because automakers decide to start over instead of trying to repair damage. GM, for example, dropped the Citation in 1985, and Audi discarded the 5000 name because it was linked to unintended acceleration, though NHTSA exonerated Audi.
Has Focus reached that point?
"It may not be time yet, but they're getting close," Spinella said.
Ford denies it is considering such a move, and insiders point to the Explorer as an example of why such talk may be premature. Sales declined after the Firestone tire recall but are up more than 4 percent this year, and the Explorer has remained the best-selling SUV.
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.....