6 September 2004

How do you follow up a trend-busting best-seller? Ford has been pondering that question since the launch of the revolutionary Focus six years ago. This car is its answer: it's more luxurious, better quality, better built, and Ford promises that it will be even better and cheaper to run when it arrives next January.

Even before the original Ford Focus had notched up more than a few thousand of its eventual four million sales, the teams of designers and engineers charged with launching its successor at the back-end of 2004 knew that this would be one of the hardest Fords of modern times to replace. The first Focus had made such a quantum leap over the honest-but-dull Escort in styling, packaging, driving quality and manufacturing efficiency that the new Focus team members - many of whom had only just finished putting their finest efforts into the original - knew instinctively that however well it turned out, the Focus of 2004 would have to be a progression, not a re-invention. Especially since the company could not afford to renew all that pioneering ’98 Focus engineering in a single generation.

This is not exactly how things have worked out. Ford has now acquired Volvo and cemented its relationship with Mazda. It has invented and refined the concept of ‘global shared technologies’ (GST) which allow similar-sized cars of different marques to share major components, at huge cost savings, without losing their separate identities. It has launched the Focus-based C-Max people-carrier as the first model to embrace the GST principle, and has swiftly launched the Mazda 3, the Volvo S40 saloon and the V50 estate.

So the new 2004 Ford Focus models, revealed here in exclusive detail, are far from just reskinned versions of the distinguished originals. The car market has moved on. These cars are the latest and best-selling examples of a generation begun nearly two years ago by the C-Max, and they show how big-selling Fords will be made in the future. True, the new Focus shares most of its engines, transmissions and running gear with the outgoing car, but most of its fundamental dimensions are different.

It is better-built and roomier than the old car, and if marketing whispers are right, it will cost very little more. On the road, its engineers say, it is just as nimble and steers just as well as the class-leading original, but is quieter and more stable, with a better ride. Ford has put the new Focus through a very thorough development process.

Design and engineering

The Focus is a slightly bigger car now, but its proportions are quite different from the outgoing car’s. Its wheelbase is 25mm longer (shared with C-Max), its track is 40mm wider, it offers a roomier interior, and its exterior proportions are quite different, thanks to the fact that the centre of its windscreen has been pulled forward by a remarkable 140mm. The Focus’s already generous front overhang is maintained, but it looks shorter, thanks to significant rounding of the corners by the body designers. Most of the body’s extra length goes behind the B-pillar. Knee-room grows by 8mm. The boot is 113mm longer and offers 10 per cent more volume at 385 litres. The glasshouse looks much larger now and the whole car has a snub-nosed, forward-control, fastback look because its A- and C-pillars are much more steeply raked. Even in five-door form, the shape has a much sportier aspect than its predecessor, and the three-door (which shares the five-door’s silhouette) looks so much like a fastback coupé that it’s hard to believe there is a proper - let alone enlarged - accommodation package inside. The new three-door Vauxhall Astra does the same thing: big firms have adopted this strategy to protect their three-door hatchback versions from ‘poverty model’ associations.

Design director Chris Bird says the aim is to give the new Focus a more mature, grown-up look; to maintain the impression of cabin space but better reflect the car’s build quality, maturity and dependability through ‘a sense of order’. At the same time, Ford has enhanced the car’s sportiness as a way of visually reflecting its cars’ increasingly admired driving dynamics. Ford has moved on from the the we’re-doing-it-differently days of New Edge design, which produced cars that were a little too raw for modern tastes. The ‘chopped oval’ grille stays, but to this eye at least, it’s the Focus’s least successful styling feature. Ford has a strident, straight-bar grille on hold in the US, and we believe its day is coming. There’s a close engineering relationship between the C-Max, Volvo V40 and Mazda 3 in the main structure of the Focus’s steel monocoque body, but Ford’s body engineers have taken a good deal of licence to make their own car. When you see the new Ford, it never occurs to you to think of the others. The old Focus structure was admirably stiff, so even though the latest one is torsionally 10 per cent stiffer, most of the talk this time concerns the importance of ‘local stiffness’ where the suspension subframes and other key components meet the body, both to aid handling and keep noise low. There’s also extra stiffness in the subframes and suspension parts themselves. A key aim has been to improve so-called ‘rolling comfort’, one area where the previous Focus was beaten by its rivals.

Engines and transmissions

The new Focus pioneers Ford’s use of a new variable valve timing version of its ‘heartland’ 16-valve 1.6-litre petrol engine, now producing peak power of 113bhp at 6000rpm (up 14bhp), along with peak torque of 114lb ft at 4150rpm. It delivers about five per cent better fuel consumption in normal use, Ford engineers say. The engine’s secret weapon is that the timing of its inlet and exhaust cams can be altered independently of one another, hence its somewhat convoluted name: Duratec Ti-VCT, for ‘Twin independent Variable Cam Timing’. The result, engineers say, is considerably better torque at higher engine speeds. The engine has ‘a sporty kick’ at the top end, despite its greater efficiency. The 98bhp non-VCT 1.6-litre petrol engine stays in the range, and there are two other petrol engines familiar from other Ford applications: a 78bhp 1.4-litre and a 143bhp 2.0-litre. There are two ‘Duratorq’ turbodiesels, both already offered in the C-Max: the impressively frugal 108bhp 1.6-litre, and the 134bhp 2.0-litre, whose outstanding claim is its peak torque of 236lb ft at 2000rpm. Both have exhaust particulate traps.

The new Focus buyer gets a choice of four transmissions, depending on engine. With the 1.6-litre diesel, buyers can choose a continuously variable transmission (CVT) which Ford has developed with ZF and is already offering in the C-Max. The staple gearbox is a five-speed manual, which is standard issue with all engines except the 2.0-litre diesel, which comes ready-fitted with a six-speeder. Those who want a conventional automatic can select it with the standard 1.6-litre petrol engine. Ford admits the combination of a sharp clutch action and imperfect mapping of the fly-by-wire throttles made take-off from standstill ‘a little bit critical’ in outgoing models, so they have refined the throttle mapping and modified both clutches’ flywheels in D C the new model. As well as their attempts to cut engine noise, engineers have also been trying to shape it. According to Ulrich Kosters, the powertrain project manager, the task was been to make a Focus ‘purr’ at low speed, to reflect refinement in normal driving, and ‘sound addictive’ when being used hard. Road-testing will tell if they’ve succeeded.

Suspension, steering, brakes

On paper, the new Focus’s suspension sounds just the same as the old one’s: independent by MacPherson struts at the front, independent by the specially developed, cheap-to-make ‘Control Blade’ suspension at the rear. The outgoing car’s suspension - and its high dynamic standards - is still much admired, so Ford’s work this time has been to advance them beyond the levels of their opposition (VW Golf, Vauxhall Astra and Renault Mégane, principally) while improving ride comfort, reducing road harshness and increasing stability.

The new model’s wider track and longer wheelbase improve stability at a stroke, the engineers say. The subframes which carry the suspension and secure it to the main structure are both stiffer now, and subframe-to-body mounts have been improved, too. The front suspension’s lower A-arms are now 20 per cent beefier, and bigger front shock absorbers reduce camber compliance to make the car steer more accurately. Every suspension bush has been redesigned, and Ford has come up with a system for reducing friction in the workings of its front and rear anti-roll bars to allow better roll-control and lower ride harshness. Finally, to preserve its reputation for steering precision, the new Focus adopts the C-Max’s electro-hydraulic power steering, rather than the less precise purely electrical systems which some rivals have been using.

Interior, equipment

Ford knows it has to fight off the premium manufacturers who are now reaching right down into its mainstream segments, and believes the way to do that is by improving the quality and convenience of its interior materials and design: a strategy that has worked well with the C-Max. So the top of the dash has a soft moulding, and a two-colour fascia will be available (with a new, modern-looking blue upper accent colour, if the customer requires). The dashboard has a ‘cockpit’ design, and there’s a new three-spoke sports steering wheel with a lot of emphasis on the grip and shape of the rim. Right through the cabin, convenience is improved: there’s more room (8mm more knee-room, 40mm more shoulder width) and there’s now an extra 77mm of fore/aft movement on the driver’s seat, plus extra adjustment on the steering column. Electrically adjustable pedals are coming early next year, to provide short drivers with 50mm more travel. The gearlever is now 30mm higher (a change which has paid off in Fiesta and C-Max) and the air conditioning controls are now 60mm higher up the fascia, and easier to access. The glovebox has nearly doubled in size, and will now accommodate a 1.5-litre bottle.

Any modern options list is bewildering, but Ford’s way through the confusion is to concentrate on what it calls affordable, relevant equipment. It is still fleshing-out model names and equipment levels, but ‘good sense’ options are likely to include keyless locking, halogen lamps that follow the car’s direction when it turns, Bluetooth technology and voice control for central functions, especially the navigation and telephone. Buyers are offered Sony-branded hi-fi equipment, rear sunblinds, DVD video for the rear seats, 18in alloy wheels and electrically adjusting seats (either two-way or six-way, depending on the customer’s budget). Safety engineering seems well up to the mark. The Focus’s safety structure has been developed and tested using Volvo know-how in Sweden, so expect respectable crash test results and high standards of safety kit.

Refinement, quality

To go with the measures designed to cut road and mechanical noise, Ford has also worked hard to cut wind noise (by using thicker glass, carefully reshaping the A-pillar profiles, using ‘closed loop’ seals for the doors, filling the body cavities with expanding foam) and noise transmitted through the body (by stiffening the rear floor, using spray-on sound-deadening material and strengthening every relevant body and suspension attachment point). In the important cause of better visible quality, most panel gaps have been reduced to 3.5mm (from 5mm), while developments in metal pressing have meant that panel creases look neater than before. ‘You have to take a holistic approach to quality improvements,’ says Bird. ‘Lots of tiny details add up to an overall perception of better quality. That’s where we’re aiming.’

Marketing

The new Focus’s prospects as Europe’s best-selling car aren’t as bright as those of the outgoing model, mainly because the C-Max people-carrier - which is counted separately - has eaten into its business, with sales accounting for around 160,000, or about 25-30 per cent of total Focus-derivative volume. Besides that, competition from recently launched Astra and Golf models is unprecedented, Renault is marketing its Mégane aggressively and premium manufacturers are making increasing inroads. As for becoming the world’s best-selling car - as its predecessor briefly did - that prospect is entirely off the new Focus agenda because the US, which adopted the previous model, has decided to stick with it.

Still, according to Ford’s marketing director Steve Hood, the new Focus has strong prospects of becoming Britain’s best-selling car once we’ve moved beyond the sell-out season of the outgoing car during the first quarter of 2005. Prices aren’t fixed yet, he says, but there have been indications from inside the company that they will stay ‘close to existing levels’. And the proportion of diesel sales will be higher than ever, at around 47 per cent of total sales.

So what do we think?

All indications are that Ford has made a thorough and thoughtful job of its second-generation Focus. The game has changed now: the opposition (principally VW and Vauxhall) have all but caught up in terms of driving dynamics and their products are new and enticing. The battle is about to be joined as never before. Ford sees its way forward as being through mature but sporty styling, greatly enhanced on-road refinement and a dramatic lift in perceived quality. The recipe sounds compelling, but it remains to be proved in our first road tests, two weeks away.

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