Ford Focus

When Ford discarded the long-serving "Escort" name for its family hatchback, you know this car must be a revolution. Yes, the new Focus is the most radical car in this class I have ever seen, bar the Mercedes A-class. It has eye-catching New Edge styling, it has a revolutionary rear multi-link suspension, it offers class-leading interior space wrapping in a well-finished package, it has handling and ride to insult Volkswagen Golf.... No wonder Ford gives it a new name.  


Ford says the Focus offers 44mm and 77mm more front and rear leg room respectively than the Escort, while exterior dimensions just rise fractionally - 10 mm in length and 10 mm in width. Forget this, if you remember how dull the old Escort was. What I care is how the new car compares with the best rivals from Volkswagen, Opel, Peugeot etc. Here Ford give us some data : 

Length (mm)
Width (mm)
Height (mm)
Wheelbase (mm)
Weight (1.6 version)
1077 kg
1130 kg
1120 kg
1150 kg
Clever packaging gives Focus an edge in wheelbase over its rivals, yet it is considerably lighter.  

Looking at the Focus from outside, you may wonder how brilliant the New Edge design is. Normally, cars in this class are bounded by strict exterior dimensions while they have to optimize the interior room. The result is a boring shape. With New Edge, Focus looks very different from others. Its actual shape is still strictly defined by the practical needs, but all the attention is drawn to the eye-catching edges which look as aggressive as sports car. In particular, the upper edge of side windows curved steeply towards the tail, this delivers a strong sense of coupe. The triangular headlamps also adds the aggressive feel, although not necessarily suit everyone's taste.  


Focus has a competitive range of engines. The marvellous 1.4-litres Zetec-SE four has been tweaked to 74 hp (down from Fiesta's 89hp) in order to optimize fuel economy and low speed torque (up 10%). Next up is a new 1.6 version of the Zetec-SE, with 99 hp and 105 lbft. It is no more powerful than rivals, but its smoothness, quietness and responsiveness are unmatchable, especially in high rev, thanks to its Yamaha-developed origin. Most people will chose the 1.6-litre.  

Then there are two Mondeo-derived Zetec-E engines. 1.8 litres and 2-litres output 113 hp and 128 hp respectively. Not as sweet as the Yamaha engine, though.  

Handling and ride  

Ford claims Focus's chassis as 15% more rigid than its rivals. This gives it an edge in handling and ride. For the suspensions, Focus introduced a revolutionary rear suspensions called "Control Blade Suspension", which is a derivative of multi-link suspension. Unlike conventional multi-link, there is a wide, pressed steel trailing arm with cum hub carrier does the job of two longitudinal locating rods, also takes the place of an expensive cast knuckle. This allow the suspension to offer the same level of body control in a lower cost. While all other rivals employed half-independent torsion beam suspension (except Honda Civic), Focus has a decisive advantage in handling and ride.  

Test drive the Focus in Ford's test track reveals its great ability - great body control, sharp and accurate steering regardless of the car's attitude, absorbent and quiet ride in bumps. As Autocar said, Focus has become the class leader in this area, beating the long-time leader Peugeot 306 and the amazing new Opel Astra.  


Open the door and you'll be impressed by the easy access, thanks to the low door sill and big (yet light) doors. The cabin is very spacious, especially the generous leg and head room for rear passengers are unseen in this class. Golf, once again, loses painfully in this respect. Even the previous leader Renault Megane finds itself inferior.  

The half-bucket front seats are just as comfortable yet supportive. Driving position is as superb as sports cars. There is an eye-catching silver colour panel on the central console (just like Puma and Ka), whose shape is the most stylish I've ever seen in a family car. On which all the controls are placed ergonomically for easy getting used to. Surround the whole cabin are big windows which help all-round visibility.  

The only down side is the average-sized boot and, arguably, its high standard of build quality still lags behind the mighty Golf. Who else is not ?  


For many many years, we are waiting for a perfect family car. Every time we were disappointed, because there are too much compromise in this kind of cars. Cost, for example, is a constraint. Styling is another, since everybody wants to play safe. I highly admire Ford's determination and courage displayed in this project. Like Mondeo, the company spends a lot of money on Focus, to make it the class leader in styling, handling, ride, engines, refinement, other words, to make it the best in all areas. It succeeded. May we wish the Focus to be as successful in the market as Ford planned - 1 million units global sales annually. Hard work always worth rewarding. 

The above report was last updated in 1998. All Rights Reserved.

American Focus

European Ford must be proud to see its Focus took not only European Car of the Year award (1999) but also North American Car of the Year (2000), which was elected by 47 American and Canadian auto journalists.  

American Focus differs a little bit from its European origin because of the unique requirement of American road users - more steering assist and softer damping. Inevitably, those revisions softened the trademark handling sharpness of the Focus - I heard at least a couple of journalists dislike the over-assisted steering and soft suspension, although they still regard it handles the best among its competitors. 

Most American customers will choose the 3-box sedan version, which looks by far the ugliest from the lineup consist of also the 3-door hatchback (Ford USA could it "ZX3 Coupe", believe or not !) and the Wagon (estate). 5-door hatchback is not on offer as American prefers 3-box than hatchback.  

American Focus also differs from its origin by engines : the base 1983 c.c. straight four, with alloy head and iron block, single-cam, 8 valves only, was carried over from the old American Escort. In other words, it was developed from a Mazda 323 engine dated more than a decade ago. The 110 hp / 125 lbft unit is not our choice even with cheaper price being considered. The right choice is the 16-valve twin-cam version, which develops a healthy 130 hp and 135 lbft. Don’t confuse it with the European’s 1989 c.c. Zetec unit, although this one also calls "Zetec". The European Zetec was carried over from Mondeo while the American Zetec is donated by the Escort ZX2 coupe. In other words, it is also a development from Mazda’s design. It’s quite punchy and quiet. 

Apart from handling, American journalists were also impressed by the roominess of cabin and good ergonomics of control (e.g. telescopic steering), as well as overall refinement. Cabin space is particularly important to the American public. With a class-leading interior room, hopefully Focus will not repeat the failure of Contour. 

The above report was last updated on 15 Jan 2000. All Rights Reserved.

Focus ST170 (SVT Focus)

Since the retirement of Peugeot 306, the crown for hot hatches has been shifted to Honda Civic Type R. European car makers are of course displeased, as hot hatch was the invention and the strength of European. If any one is qualified to challenge Type R, it must be Ford Focus. Since Focus stormed the world in 1999, it was seen as a true driver’s car as well as a sales winner - 2 things rarely compatible. What a pity, a high performance version was originally not in the plan. It was not until the car was proved successful in both continents that Ford started thinking of a hot version. Anyway, late is still better than nil. This car finally made its world debut in early 2002. It is available in both USA and Europe, being called SVT Focus and Focus ST170 respectively. For your information, SVT (Special Vehicle Team) is the performance division of Ford Detroit and 170 implies its maximum horsepower. Can it finally gun down the Type R ? 

Technical View 

As I know, the car was mainly developed by SVT in USA. Although European Ford was responsible for the whole Focus project, they were busy developing Focus RS and Focus Cosworth, both are regarded as greater challenges. However, SVT also seek help from Cosworth for developing the 170hp engine, therefore the car is actually a multi-national hybrid - German basis, British engine plus American tuning. 

Focus is a perfect basis for hot hatches. Its control-blade rear suspension, like the Type R’s double wishbones, is one of the few fully independent ones in the class. This give engineers higher degree of freedom for improving handling without sacrificing ride quality. What did they do ? front and rear springs have been stiffened by 10 and 20% respectively. Damping and rear anti-roll bar have been recalibrated after repeated testing to optimize handling. New power steering pump reduces assistance and improves feel. Brake discs have been upgraded to 300mm and 280mm diameter for front and rear respectively. 17-inch wheels are wrapped with 215/45 rubbers, wider than Type R’s 205/45.  

Comparatively, power-train caused more headache to Ford. Basically, the standard Zetec 2.0 is aging and leaves not much potential for improvement. A better alternative could be the new generation Duratec HE, as used by Mondeo and the forthcoming Focus RS. However, cost reason led to the decision to stay with Zetec, though asking Cosworth for heavy re-engineering. The cast iron block remains unchanged, but the head has bigger valves, higher lift cams, a continuous variable valve phasing at intake side (Ford claimed it as its first VVT, although I know the Yamaha-engineered Puma 1.7 and the Tickford-developed Falcon XR6 VCT also employ that) and a 2-stage variable intake manifold which switches to short runners from 6000rpm to redline 7200rpm. Both VVT and variable manifold help achieving broader spread of torque while improving high-speed breathing, hence ultimate power. Similarly, larger bore exhaust has been used to reduce back pressure. As for moving parts, forged connecting rods have been employed to handle extra power without increasing inertia. New cast aluminum pistons are not only lightweight but are also shaped to increase compression ratio from 9.6 to 10.2:1.  

However, 10.2:1 is still a modest number, a far cry from Civic Type R’s 11.0:1, not to mention Integra Type R’s 11.5:1. This imply either it was designed to drink lower octane fuel available in the USA or Ford did not work hard to improve its knock control. Nevertheless, official figures are rather impressive: 170 horsepower at 7000rpm and 145lbft at 5500rpm. Although this is still 30hp shy of Honda, it runs extremely close to Renault Clio RS (172hp at 6250rpm and 147lbft at 5400rpm). Ford also claims a flat torque curve which sees at least 85% of maximum torque available from 2200rpm. Problem is: in reality it does not feel that strong. We shall see later ... 

As Focus is a C-segment car, to keep pace with the B-segment (e.g. smaller) Clio it has to employ a 6-speed gearbox. The problem is that it does not have a lot of space, therefore it chose a compact Getrag 6-speeder which also serves Mini Cooper S. This clever unit employs twin shafts and 2 different final drive ratios to obtain 6 forward speeds, that is, a 2.88:1 final drive for 1st, 2nd, 5th and 6th and a 4.25:1 for 3rd, 4th and reverse. 

Unlike Type R, the hot Focus does not employ limited-slip differential. Renault has already proved that a 170hp machine does not really need such things. 

Sometimes too much technical stuffs may be boring. Now let’s see the real thing ... 

On the Road 

Having changed so many things under the skin, it is disappointing to see both SVT and ST170 differ so little from the regular Focus, especially the European version. Ford might want to fool insurance companies, or deliberately tone down the ST170 to avoid stealing the limelight from Focus RS. There are a few subtle tweaks to air dam, skirts and tail spoiler, but only the 17-inch wheels catch eyes, yet they do not look as smart as Type R’s in design. It is interesting to compare them: the Honda is a boring design fully transformed by some clever tweaks. In contrast, the Focus is a sharp-looking design without proper beef-up. More embarrassing is that Ford also offers ST170 in the form of 5-door and even Estate, ruining its driver-focused image.  

However, the cockpit is free of criticism. As before, the driving position is perfect, unlike many newer hot hatches that mount seats too high. Optional Recaro front seats offer superb lateral support. Facing the driver is white-face gauges, sporty steering wheel and black center console. Focus is always a roomy hatchback, so all passengers enjoy good comfort. 

Better still is handling and ride. Focus did not let us down, it knocks out Civic Type R thoroughly in this round. On the one hand, ride quality is surprisingly supple, absorbing bumps and potholes brilliantly and gives the occupants a comfort rarely found in hot hatches, just like the mighty 306GTI. On the other hand, it steers beautifully. We have seen so many modern hot hatches steer numbly, Type R and Clio RS included. In contrast, the Focus provides truly involving steering feel. It loads up when approaching corner, telling the driver what’s up at the front wheels. It was this kind of communication that made the Peugeot 306 a better driver’s car than others. Now it finds a worthy successor.  

The talents of Focus are not just limited to ride and steering. It shines in every aspects - grip, braking, gearshift, and most notably, chassis balance. Few hot hatches can trim its line by applying throttle like it. Even fewer can do four-wheel drift as calmly.  

Unfortunately, it lacks a great heart. No matter what the spec. suggest, the Zetec engine still feels relatively reluctant. From as early as idle you can feel some roughness, this does not die throughout the range. While Honda’s i-VTEC is turbine smooth and becomes explosive at above 6000rpm - think about 200hp at 7400rpm, while Renault Clio RS feels torquey all the time, the Zetec lacks both real power and eagerness. Moreover, being heavier than rivals (1208kg for ST170 or 1245kg for SVT Focus, versus 1200kg for Civic Type R and 1060kg for Clio RS), no wonder Car And Driver found it accelerated from 0-60 mph in 7.8 seconds, some 1.1 seconds slower than Type R. By the time it reached 100mph, it was already a massive 6.4 seconds behind ! in fact, the magazine found a 160hp Civic Si actually matches the Focus. 

Performance deficit is also due to inadequate gear ratio - the first is still too high, probably because the compact gearbox cannot accommodate a larger cog. Nevertheless, shift quality is as good as Honda’s, with slick action and short throws.  

Given a better engine, Focus ST170 and SVT Focus would have been world-beating. But until now it is only the best handling and riding hot hatch in the world. Civic Type R is still the overall winner. 

The above report was last updated on 24 Mar 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Focus RS

Power. More power is what Focus need to make itself a world-beating hot hatch. Therefore Ford gives it a 2-litre turbocharged engine, 215 horsepower and 229 pound-foot of torque to out-perform its hot hatch rivals. Wait a minute - the price is also up to £20,000 in UK, inevitably lifting it to a higher segment and faces the mighty Japanese 4WD fireballs ranging from WRX to Evo VII. In contrast, the Focus RS - note that without "Cosworth" - relies on the front wheels and a mechanical LSD to put down all the power to ground. Can FWD beat 4WD?  

Before answering this question, we examine what modifications have been done to the Focus RS. First of all, the engine. Base on the 2-litre 16V engine of the regular Focus, Ford replaced its internals with stronger and lighter forged aluminum pistons and forged connecting rods, then turbocharged it with a Garret GT25 turbocharger which is water-cooled and mates with an air-to-water intercooler. The GT25 generates more than 1 bar at peak, but turbo lag is largely reduced by a re-circulating valve which allows the turbine to pre-spin - a forgotten technology introduced as early as 1975 by Porsche 911 Turbo. 

The engine is very strong in mid-range. From 3000-6000rpm it provides non-stop stream of torque. So torquey that a 5-speed gearbox is deemed to be sufficient. The RS is also pretty lightweight (1278kg), thus it beats WRX convincingly to 100mph and leads even more in mid-range acceleration. You can easily feel it is quicker and more powerful than WRX. 

The question is how to transmit all the torque to front wheels without wheelspin and torque steer. Ford has a few weapons - firstly, the engine management limits the amount of torque to no more than 177lbft when 1st or 2nd gear is selected. Secondly, it employs a Qualif torque-biasing limited slip differential (a kind a Torsen) to split power between the two front wheels. Thirdly, the suspensions are stiffened by 50% by using stronger springs and Sachs dampers. More negative camber is also used in the suspension setting. Besides, the steering is tuned heavier.  

Now you can see Focus RS is not just more powerful than Focus ST170, but it is a much more serious driver’s car. In fact, you can already see this from the aggressive look of the RS - 65mm wider tracks by flared wheelarches, huge 18-inch wheels, wide and low-profile 225/40 tyres... if you have good eyes, you can see a huge Brembo brakes (325mm front; 280mm rear) through the 5-spoke alloys.  

Drive the RS on tracks, you will be amazed to learn this is a FWD. It corners so precise, resisting understeer so well. Its steering is so sharp - not as feelsome as Impreza but is heavier and confidence inspiring. Its body control is superb, thanks to the stiff suspension setup. It can carry huge speed into corners and brake very late, thanks to the titanic stopping power from the Brembo brakes. Put it this way: Focus RS is the closest thing to racing car in this segment, something like the outgoing Racing Puma. If you do not believe, read these figures: it was tested by Autocar in Goodwood, lapping the high-speed race track in 1:33.9, some 2 seconds quicker than European Impreza STi (265hp) and Lotus Elise 111S. Evo VII won’t be easy to beat it. 

What about on road? unfortunately, the suspension setup is so stiff that it makes Evo VII appear to be comfortable. On twisty B-roads, it not only suffers from harsh ride but also bump-induced torque steer and steering kickback. You have to fight with the steering with strong hands. So disappointing. Hot hatches should be born for twisty roads, but this one actually prefers glass-smooth surfaces. Yes, it has power, it has performance, it has the most beautiful look among hot hatches, and even first rate handling on track. It just fails to deliver on where it is supposed to deliver. 

The above report was last updated on 30 Sep 2002. All Rights Reserved.


Focus 1.8
SVT Focus (ST170)
Focus RS
Front-engined, Fwd
Front-engined, Fwd.
Front-engined, Fwd.
Size (L / W / H / WB) mm
4152 / 1699 / 1430 / 2615
4170 / 1699 / 1430 / 2615
4183 / 1762 / 1440 / 2615
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, VVT,
variable intake.
Inline-4, dohc, 4v/cyl, turbo.
1796 c.c.
1988 c.c.
1988 c.c.
114 hp
170 hp
215 hp
116 lbft
145 lbft
229 lbft
F: Strut; R: Multi-link
185/65 R14
215/45 ZR17
225/40 ZR18
1223 kg
1245 kg
1278 kg
Top speed
118 mph*
134 mph (claimed)
144 mph (claimed)
0-60 mph
9.5 sec*
7.8 sec**
6.3 sec* / 5.9 sec***
0-100 mph
30.5 sec*
22.6 sec**
16.4 sec* / 14.9 sec***
* Tested by Autocar
** Tested by Car And Driver
*** Tested by Evo

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