- The Washington Times - Friday, June 22, 2001

When the Ford arrived for testing, a printed message hung from the rearview mirror:

"This vehicle has been inspected and is equipped with tires not included in the Firestone tire recall."

The note would allay the fears of anyone about to test-drive a Ford Explorer shod with Firestone tires, but the vehicle parked in the drive was a 2001 Ford Focus ZX3 coupe.

I hadn't spent serious time with Focus since the preview in 1999, when the sedan/coupe/wagon lineup was introduced to the media for the 2000 model year.

It had faults then, one of which thankfully has been corrected: The addition of traction control.

And it's not just simple traction assist to help get you going on slippery roads, but full-scale traction/ stability control to get and keep you going.

In addition to engine fuel flow and anti-lock brake management, the system incorporates yaw control to keep understeer or oversteer from sending you into a skid or slide.

Such a stability system, at a hefty $1,225, usually is reserved for luxury cars. Nice touch in an economy model, which Ford says was done because about 25 percent of Focus buyers are 18 to 25 years old and tend to drive "enthusiastically" and could use the added insurance of stability control.

Next up for the traction system is the 2002 Ford Windstar minivan.

Another problem was solved almost. Focus initially had no moon roof, and now it does as a $495 option. But it's manually operated and has to be cranked open. No power roof as yet. Ford says one is coming, but it won't say when.

But some gripes remain, namely no power driver's seat, only a manual one with hand crank and lever and getting to them is cumbersome. No power seat is planned.

And those who choose the base 2-liter, 107-horsepower, single-overhead cam four-cylinder rather than the 2-liter, 130-horsepower, dual-overhead cam version will still find that the 107-horsepower four is anemic, especially when asked to climb hills.

One previous gripe the novel styling doesn't bother me like it did at first. Rather, give Ford credit for taking a risk to be different from the crowd.

Focus is offered as LX, SE and ZTS sedans, ZX3 coupe and SE wagon, the latter designed to provide the platform for a small sport utility vehicle for 2002 called the MAV, which "has dropped off the table" and isn't in future product plans.

The ZX3 coupe, with its 2-liter, 130-horsepower DOHC 4 is sufficiently energetic but a little noisy until engineers figure out how to make a four-cylinder run as smoothly and quietly as a V-6.

The 25 mpg city/31 mpg highway rating with optional ($815) four-speed automatic more than offsets any annoyance with loud operation. Actually, the little four-banger probably doesn't make any more commotion than consumers do when forced to load up with $2 a gallon gas.

Focus is an economy car in terms of mileage and price but not in room or comfort.

The suspension, the same on all Focus models, does an adequate job of keeping road harshness from filtering into the cabin. Lateral control is noteworthy for a low-price compact. Focus doesn't wander the road. With stability control, Focus has excellent road manners for a car whose primary goal is to spend minimum time resting at the pumps. The optional 16-inch, radial tires and quick-reaction power-steering system certainly helped.

Among other noteworthy features are second-generation depowered driver/passenger front air bags, side air bags ($350) and anti-lock brakes ($400).

Other nice touches: large, easy to see and reach controls with large letters/numbers for quick deciphering, a feature that aids older drivers but should be equally appreciated by youthful buyers; a hatchback-release button housed on the dash where it is easy to reach; and a slot in the instrument panel to hold gum or coins along with cup holders/pen or pencil holders in the center console.

Some annoyances: Rear seats fold, but not flat, to add cargo; and Focus employs Belt Minder, a series of nerve-stunning chimes every few minutes to warn when you don't have your safety belts on.

The front-wheel-drive Focus ZX3 starts at $12,125, but to keep the base price down, most essentials and amenities are optional.

Standard equipment includes air conditioning, AM/FM stereo with single CD player, tinted glass, integrated fog lamps, rear window washer/wiper/defroster, split/ folding rear seats, visor vanity mirrors and front and rear floor mats in other words, the bare necessities.

Plans to add a convertible were shelved. Chances are remote. Instead, Ford plans to add limited-edition "lifestyle" packages every few months as momentum builders, such as Sony, Kona and Street Edition Focus models with others planned: an S2 in July with a European handling suspension and an SVT, or Special Vehicle Team, rendition in the fall with performance suspension and a beefed-up 2-liter DOHC that develops 170 horsepower teamed with a six-speed manual only. About 5,000 to 7,500 will be built.

KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE NEWS

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