2005 Focus ST: A 2nd Shot at Stardom for a Star-Crossed Car

August 20, 2004
By CHERYL JENSEN
New York Times
    
WHEN Ford introduced a high-performance version of its compact Focus in 2002, it achieved something rarely accomplished by American automakers: a small car that was also great fun to drive.

Of course, it was too good to last. The SVT Focus, which had received its "tuner" treatment from the Special Vehicles Team - Ford's in-house performance-tuning shop - was discontinued early this year. And the departure of that car, an exceptionally bright spot in a Focus line marred by quality glitches and serial recalls, was another in a series of disappointments for those had seen great promise in Ford's small car.

But all is not lost: with the release this year of the 2005 Focus ST, Ford is making amends. While not quite as sharp-edged as the SVT, the new ST is a credible stand-in.

And there is more good news on the Focus front. The entire lineup has been revamped for 2005, giving Ford a second chance to satisfy customers disgruntled by problems with the first-generation car. Count me among those who need some convincing, since I have had more than my share of frustrations with the 2000 Focus ZX3 three-door hatchback that I bought in 1999.

The Focus arrived in the United States that year after its initial success in Europe. Not only was it practical and roomy, it handled well and was fun to drive. It was, perhaps, a benchmark for low-price front-drive compacts.

One of its strengths was a suspension that delivered tight handling, a comfortable ride and a remarkable amount of interior space. The price was reasonable, too: my own nicely equipped ZX3 was only $14,500.

But the car's quality was poor, at least initially. My beloved little Focus turned into a time share - I settled into joint custody with my local Ford dealer, as the ZX3 shuttled back and forth in an effort to address one recall after another.

In all, there have been 13 recalls in the 5 years since the car went on sale, including some for such serious matters as under-hood fires and roof pillars that fell short of federal safety standards. Most of the recalls affected 2000-01 models; there have been no recalls of 2003, '04 or '05 models.

Now, as Ford is bringing out the reworked, more refined line of '05 Focuses, it is admitting past sins and trumpeting quality improvements (although I have yet to see a line of Ford executives bowing to atone for mistakes, as Mitsubishi officials did recently in Japan).

There are signs of improvements beyond the promises and hoopla that one might expect from Ford. For instance, until this year Consumer Reports had never given the Focus a "recommended" rating because of its poor showing in reliability surveys. But the magazine noted in its April auto issue that the quality of 2004 models had improved to average.

Ford has also noted the Focus's improvement in the 2004 J. D. Power Initial Quality Survey, which measures customer satisfaction with vehicles in the first 90 days of ownership. The Focus was seventh in the segment with 112 problems per 100 vehicles, an improvement from 122 problems in 2003. (The average for both the overall industry and for compact card were 119 problems per 100.)

The 2005 Focus lineup includes the three-door ZX3 hatchback, the four-door ZX4 sedan, the five-door ZX5 hatchback and the ZXW station wagon. The sporty ST comes only as a sedan. Base prices range from $13,550 for the base ZX3 to $18,250 for the ST and $18,450 for the wagon.

Ford has updated the car's sharp-edged look, but the changes are more than skin deep. To improve the ride and handling further, Ford installed larger shock absorbers, and it made 15-inch wheels standard on all versions except the ST, which has 16-inchers.

The interiors are more refined across the lineup. Gone is the kooky pod in the center of the dash that housed the radio and air-conditioning controls. The seat upholstery also has a more expensive look - no surprise, since the mouse-fur fabric on the early models could hardly have looked cheaper.

Functional changes range from improved air flow for the air-conditioning to better cup holders.

The enthusiasts' choice, the ST, has a suspension inspired by those in the old SVT Focus and the Focus sold in Europe. The ST's ride closely controls the body motions, such as the lean of the car in a tight turn. But while the ride is not as comfortable as that of my more mainstream ZX3, the engineers have managed a surprisingly compliant and considerate suspension, one that is taut without being stiff. This is a driver's car without a lot of hard edges.

The steering on the new model is great, a careful balance of feeling, weight and precision. The ST goes into turns without the nose-heavy feeling that characterizes many front-drive cars, making it a surprisingly fun and satisfying companion.

The ST is not let down by the engine compartment either. It gets Ford's new 2.3- liter Duratec, a four-cylinder engine that Ford says has more power and less vibration, while producing fewer pollutants.

The ST is rated at 151 horsepower and 154 pounds-feet of torque. That means the Duratec 23 has less horsepower but more torque than the SVT.

But because almost 90 percent of its torque, or pulling power, comes in at a low 2,000 r.p.m., only the most power-crazed enthusiast is likely to feel let down. The ST went from a stop to 60 m.p.h. in 7.9 seconds in testing by Car and Driver magazine, making it only two-tenths of a second slower than the SVT.

But enthusiasts might miss the six-speed manual of the now-defunct SVT, since the ST comes with a 5-speed manual only. (Other models offer a four-speed automatic.) on the plus side, the new shifter engages gears more precisely.

Only the ST gets the Duratec 23. Choose a different model (S, SE or SES) and there are two other Duratecs: a 2-liter with 136 horsepower (23 percent more than last year) and lower emissions, according to Ford.

The other is a 2-liter PZEV (partial zero emissions vehicle) engine that meets California's very stringent super-ultra-low-emissions standard, and also has almost zero evaporative emissions. This engine, which is standard on all models except the ST in states like New York that adhere to California's clean-air rules, is so clean that it rivals hybrid gas-electric cars in its low emissions of smog-producing pollutants.

Fuel economy is respectable, too. The ST is rated at 23 m.p.g. in town and 32 on the highway. The other models carry a rating of 26 m.p.g. in town; the highway ratings are 35 m.p.g. with manual transmission and 32 m.p.g. with the automatic.

Ford says the 2005 Focuses are also quieter and, compared with my ZX3, the ST was a silent runner.

All in all, an impressive package, but the Focus still has some unfortunate historical baggage. In addition to the recalls, some owners have complained that the company has not satisfactorily resolved problems involving two specific, recurring problems: failures of the ignition locks, and fuel pumps on 2000-01 models that tend to clog, causing hesitation or stalling.

Ford has conceded that it has a problem with the ignition locks, but the company has not ordered a recall. Nor will it replace the lock unless the vehicle cannot be started - leaving owners stranded.

As for the fuel pumps, Ford is extending the warranty and replacing the fuel pump, but only after it fails.

Despite the glitches I've endured, the dynamics of my Focus ZX3 still enchant me- I actually enjoy the frequent drives back and forth to the dealer - and the new ST sedan is captivating. As for quality, I only hope that the various signs of improvements will be verified by long-term experience.