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The Focus Impressed Everybody When It Launched. But Does It Pass The Test Of Time?

When you think of a small family car, what the first vehicle that comes to mind? It’s probably the Ford Focus. Ever since the car was released more than 20 years ago, it’s become a staple of our roads, proving to be exceptionally popular among working families trying to break into the middle class. In many ways, the Ford Focus was the new Mondeo of its era, as the traditional saloon declined in popularity at the end of the 1990s. Can the car still stand up in today’s much-changed market and hold its own? 


The Focus has always been a particularly good looking car. Even the original, with its relatively basic styling, beat out the competition from companies like Citroen and Renault. The Focus had a simple elegance combined with a striking design that was hard for anybody to emulate or compete against. What was more, the car looked mean and bulky. Yes, it was a hatchback, but there was somehow more to it. While you might have been pushed around on the road driving a Fiesta, people generally didn’t mess with those behind in the wheel of a Focus. It was a grown-up’s car. 

Over the years following launch, Ford did a remarkably good job at making sure that the Focus remained stylish and relevant. They didn’t want the car to go the way of the Doblo. The updated ST version of the car suddenly gave it an aesthetic many people didn’t think was possible to have on a hatch. It looked sporty and mean like it was going places. Compared to the Golf RS, the Seat Leon and the Peugeot 308, it was in its own league. 


So the looks passed the test of time. Even an original Focus from 1998 still doesn’t look out of place or particularly aged on today’s roads. But that’s not all people buy a family hatch for. They also want them to provide them with enough space for all their family activities. 

This is perhaps the biggest problem with the Focus. For all the styling and great looks, the car itself tends to lack boot space. It appears Ford was willing to sacrifice the trunk in favor of providing passengers in the cockpit with added leg and headroom. It’s a great vehicle if you want to transport five six-foot-plus men, but not particularly useful if they want to bring any luggage with them. 

Compared to competitors in the space, such as the Vauxhall Astra and the Skoda Octavia, boot space is lacking. What’s more, even though the volume of the boot is lower than rivals, the shape restricts the amount of space on offer even further. The angle of the rear seats makes it difficult to transport large, square objects, like suitcases and boxes. Of course, if you do want to open up space in the car, you can fold down the rear seats, but transporting luggage like this isn’t ideal, and not practical if you also intend to transport the entire family. 

The Ride 

So, luggage space isn’t amazing. But what about the ride? Was the Focus a secret “driver’s car.” Apparently so. Thanks to its great seat position and adjustable lumbar support, drivers could enjoy sitting in the cockpit for hours on end without feeling any discomfort. What's more, the ability of the car to soak up bumps and potholes on the road was excellent, so long as you opted for the non-sports suspension which could be a little rough sometimes. 

What about noise inside the cockpit? Ford did a good job on the car’s aerodynamics. So good, in fact, that you could actually appreciate the sound system while driving on the motorway. Rather than sounding garbled, both the treble and bass are clearly audible when driving at speed. Finally, a car where you don’t have to turn the stereo up to maximum just to listen to your favorite music. 

The Dashboard 

Ford has always been a company that focused on making cars, not gadgets. The Focus reliable, making it one of the most popular used cars on the secondary market, but it doesn’t have the bells and whistles of many of its rivals. The original Focus launched without any kind of dashboard display at all, with just a dot-matrix display on the stereo unit. Since then, Ford has updated the central console, but not significantly. It’s still small and relatively tacky. It feels cheap, and it isn’t particularly intuitive to use or good to look at. Most drivers say that Ford’s attempts have fallen short of their expectations and that they would prefer something which was easier to touch and control. 
Another common complaint has to do with the heating system. Drivers say that it can sometimes be difficult to understand how to operate the fans. Rather than going for a simple approach, Ford has tried to give drivers flexibility in how their heating system works. But in the process, they’ve made it very complicated, especially since many of the buttons don’t actually do anything on low-end versions of older models. Then there’s the problem of dual-zone heating on more expensive models of the car. All these additional features make the interior extremely hard to navigate. 

In general, it appears that Ford had to cut corners somewhere to keep the price of the Focus down, and they decided to do it in the car’s interior. Not only is the layout counterintuitive, but it’s also surprisingly tacky, even on higher end models. Though the interior is better than the bargain basement Skoda Octavia, it’s not exactly what we’ve come to expect from Ford, a company which has always pushed the envelope in mass-market cars. 

Driving Experience 
How does the driving experience of the car stack up? There’s a reason you don’t often see many learner drivers in the Focus. The car has some pretty substantial blind spots thanks to its wide shoulders, meaning that you really have to crane your neck to check that there’s no one besides you if you want to change lane. Though forward visibility is good - and was ahead of its time when the car first released - side visibility is generally poor and requires extra effort on the part of the driver. 

Then there’s the engine. Most Focuses shipped with the 1.6-liter petrol variety. Although 1.6 litres is standard on most small cars, the Focus was supposed to be a hatchback-plus and, as a result, many drivers wound up disappointed. The car just lacked any ability to put the power down. The good news was that Ford offered two turbocharged engines, a 1.0 liter and 1.5. Both of these engines offered a lot more performance and helped assuage drivers who otherwise might have been disappointed with the cockpit. 

The latest versions of the Focus come with a host of important safety features, building on technology developed over the last couple of decades since the original Focus was released. New models will even part themselves for you, no driver input required. 

Is The Car Reliable? 

To say the Focus was an unreliable car over the long-term would be a little harsh. But to say it was reliable would be dishonest. As a car, it’s somewhat middling in the reliability stakes. According to the JD Power satisfaction survey, the Focus ranked 55th out of 109 for reliability, putting it squarely in the middle of the pack. 

Compared to other vehicles in its class, its performance was also average. According to customer reports, reliability isn’t as good as the Golf or Leon. But it’s better than cars like the i30, which many assumed would outperform the Ford. 

Ford does offer a three-year warranty on new Focuses, but this still doesn’t bring the car up to the high standards set by Kia and Toyota, both of which offer warranties in excess of 5 years. 

What About The Fun Factor? 

So why did the Ford Focus become so popular? It’s not particularly powerful. It’s not particularly reliable. And it’s not even incredibly practical. How did Ford manage to shift so many of the things in practically every market they entered? 

It all comes down to fun in the end. The Focus had an uncanny ability to put a smile on the face of even the most jaded, depressed family man. Though the Focus was often a consolation prize, it was also a wolf in sheep's clothing. It masqueraded as a family car, but really it was a playful thing under the bonnet. For those who love cars, it was an easy sell, apparently being all things to everybody. The car lover in the family got a drivers car, while everybody else got something which would take them from A to B and generally do the job. 

If you chose the right engine model, power output was also good, and many drivers have a lot of fun pushing the car to its limits in corners. The ST version of the car was the crowning achievement of the series, making the Focus into the beast that it was always destined to be.

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