A Low-Cost Model Is a Big Headache for Ford


By DANNY HAKIM
New York Times
November 6, 2000




DETROIT, Nov. 5 - The Ford Focus might be the most error-prone car in the industry.

The low-cost car, which was introduced in 1999, has had a total of 11 safety recalls and is the subject of five defect investigations by federal regulators. And two new recalls this week, including a wiring problem that could, in worst-case situations, cause engine fires, raise even more questions.

The five pending investigations into the Focus account for at least 7 percent of the entire defect investigation caseload of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, according to official documents. The two most serious investigations involve a suspension problem that causes a loss of steering control and a problem with the fuel tank that leads to stalling.

Officials at the Ford Motor Company say the two latest recalls, which they initiated, will address some of the problems, including the suspension defect. Company executives have acknowledged that the Focus has had problems since it was brought over from Europe in 1999, but they say newer versions of the car are much improved.

"It didn't do as well as it should have when it came over from Europe, but we concentrated a lot of resources into improving the quality and reliability," said Todd Nissen, a Ford spokesman. The number of warranty repairs has fallen 40 percent since the car came to the United States, Mr. Nissen added, and one Ford measure says defects are down 35 percent. To reassure new customers, Ford has started offering five-year, 100,000-mile power-train warranties for 2003 models. (The standard bumper-to-bumper warranty is three years, 36,000 miles.)

"Early on it had problems," Mr. Nissen said. "We are still dealing with those problems. These recalls affected the first two model years, but we've improved since then."

Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer advocacy group, said Focus was the second-most recalled automobile in the industry's history, after the General Motors X-Car in the 1980's, though Ford officials questioned his calculation. The traffic safety agency does not compile recall data that way.

Mr. Ditlow also believes Focus could potentially be vulnerable to aggressive "lemon laws" in Arkansas, Kansas and Ohio.

"When you have a car that has so many safety recalls that it might fall within lemon laws, you have a seriously defective vehicle," he said. "It is one of the worst launches of all time."

Problems for the Focus add to Ford's troubles, from plummeting market share to the ravaging effects of a price war, a sinking stock price and lowered credit ratings. It is also trying cut billions of dollars in annual costs while restocking its product lineup and mending its battered reputation on the quality front.

Focus, the 11th-best-selling automobile in the nation last month, is a cornerstone of Ford's product line. William Clay Ford, Jr., the chief executive and Ford family scion, made a personal pitch for Focus in one of his recent TV spots, comparing it to none other than the venerable Model T.

The company pitches Focus as a first purchase for young people, but for some young buyers it has not made a good impression.

Two years ago, Scott Robinson, a 30-year-old intern at an architectural firm in Hawaii, bought a green 2001 Focus ZX3. It was his first new car.

"I knew it was out in Europe and got really good reviews," he recalled. "I test-drove it and it handled real nice and drove real nice and it seemed like a real nice car. But it turned out to be the car from hell."

His Focus is due back in the shop this week; his visits are so commonplace he is on a first name basis with his dealer. First, there was "the classic brake problem, squealing."

"Then there was the stalling problem," he said. "It stalled twice on the highway. Then I was having problems with the fuel economy. I was only getting 175 miles a tank as opposed to 250 or 300."

He continued.

"My front disc brakes, my first set wore out in 12,000 miles and now I'm going on my second set and I only have 24,000 miles on my car. Then my front rotors warped; I had to get those changed. And the suspension is making weird noise. But that's the second time I've been in for that."

After all that, Mr. Robinson said that when the car worked "it's a really fun car to drive."

Indeed, many customers and reviewers praise Focus for ride and handling beyond its starting price of less than $13,000.

"This is one of only a few economy cars we look forward to driving," wrote Csaba Csere, the editor of Car and Driver magazine, in a review that named Focus one of the 10 best cars in the industry.

For Ford dealers, plenty of problems with Focus mean extra profits from repairs, with Ford paying the bill for recalls and warranty work. But that hardly means they are content.

"Going back to Firestone, the dealers made money on the recalls," said Jerry Reynolds, owner of Ford dealerships in Texas and Oklahoma and former chairman of the Ford National Dealer Council. He was referring to the safety problems involving Ford Explorers and Firestone tires.

"But also, that's not the way you want to make your money," he added. "You lose customers over it, and you have to do a lot more selling when customers come in to convince them these cars are good cars."