20 years ago, every car magazine on the planet had the same car on the cover: the 1998 Ford Focus.
It represented a stylistic revolution for the company and, significantly, the end of the Escort’s reign at the heart of the company’s line-up on both sides of the Atlantic.
Ford will unveil the brand-new fourth-generation Focus on April 10 2018. While we wait, join us as we look back at the nameplate’s long, sinuous production run.
Before the Focus (1967)
The Focus’ predecessor, the Escort, traces its roots back to late 1967. It quickly became one of the best-selling cars in Europe. It took Ford just six years to build two million examples. The Escort also morphed into a formidable rally car with the help of Cosworth, paving the way for the brand’s future high-performance models.
Ford made six different generations of the Escort, including two-door, four-door, estate, cabriolet and van variants. The company’s American division made three generations of the model, though they were all designed specifically for the local market and looked different than their distant European cousins. In both markets, the magic largely faded by the late 1990s and it was time for something new.
The original Focus (1998)
The Ford 2000 re-structuring plan put together by the then Ford CEO Alex Trotman called for replacing the European-spec and the American-spec versions of the Escort with a single car the brand could sell globally. The move made sense because it allowed executives to reap the benefits of economies of scale. Adept at making small cars, Ford’s European division handled the design work.
The original Focus made its debut in 1998. Visually, it broke all ties with the homely Escort and adopted a sharper, more contemporary look that fell in line with Ford’s then-current New Edge design language. The polygonal look extended to the dashboard. The Focus looked fresher than many of its competitors and it drove better thanks to a clever multi-link suspension design named Control Blade.
The original Focus around the world (1998)
Like the Escort, the Focus was destined from the get-go to become a truly global car. Production for the European market took place in Germany and in Spain. Ford also built the model in America, Mexico, Russia, Argentina and Brazil, among other countries. Sales in America began in October 1999.
The original Focus came as two- and four-door hatchbacks, a four-door saloon and an estate.
The Focus goes rallying (1999)
The Focus replaced the Escort in the World Rally Championship (WRC) starting in 1999 and became a force to be reckoned with. The various evolutions of the Focus WRC won 44 of the 173 events they entered between the 1999 and 2010 seasons. Ford replaced it with the Fiesta after the 2010 season.
The Focus van that never was (2000)
Ford turned the Focus into a panel van for the annual SEMA show in Las Vegas. Named Made in Detroit, the design study started life, ironically, as a Mexican-built two-door Focus hatchback. Ford welded new sheet metal beyond the B-pillar, filled in the side windows, lowered the suspension and fitted 18-inch wheels. If built, it could have beat the Chevrolet HHR Panel to the market. It remained at the concept stage, however.
The hydrogen-powered Focus (2001)
Ford introduced an experimental hydrogen-electric Focus with a 90hp drivetrain during the 2001 Geneva motor show. It promised quiet motoring while emitting nothing but water vapor. It didn’t run directly on hydrogen; instead, it used the fuel to generate the electricity needed to spin the wheels.
Ford later built 30 examples of the hydrogen-powered Focus and placed them in a pilot program that took place in the US, Canada and Germany. Financial issues and packaging problems forced the company to put the project on the backburner in the mid-2000s.
The Focus ST170 (2002)
It didn’t take long for Ford to explore how to channel its racing knowledge into a sportier Focus. Introduced in 2002, the ST170 got a Cosworth-tuned, 170hp 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine bolted to a six-speed manual transmission. While it looked promising on paper, the 1314kg (2891 lb) ST170 weighed too much to handle like a proper hot hatch. It wasn’t the enthusiast-approved hit Ford hoped it would be. It also wasn’t the last Focus that focused (sorry) on performance.
The first Focus RS (2002)
While Ford’s Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) and Special Vehicle Team (SVT) departments joined forces to make the ST170, the company assigned another team of engineers to design an even sportier Focus that turned the dial up to 11. It needed to be worthy of wearing the storied RS emblem.
Starting with a two-door hatchback, Ford dropped a 16-valve, 2.0-litre four-cylinder in the engine bay and tuned it to send 212hp to the front wheels. Every Focus RS came with a model-specific body kit, an Imperial Blue paint job and Sparco racing seats for the front passengers. Production ended in 2003.
The Focus SVT (2002)
The ST170 and RS variants of the Focus never crossed the Atlantic. Americans who wanted a hot-rodded Focus had to wait for the SVT variant to reach showrooms. It hailed from an era when anything from a Mustang to an F-150 was eligible to receive the SVT treatment.
The Focus got a 170hp engine, a six-speed manual transmission and a number of handling-enhancing modifications including improved steering and a stiffer suspension. The SVT launched as a two-door hatchback and Ford added a more powerful saloon model for the 2005 model year.
The Focus C-Max (2003)
Ford followed the path blazed by rival Renault and its Megane when it turned the Focus into a people-mover. Previewed by an eponymous concept, the Focus C-Max appeared with a spacious, family-friendly interior and a brand-new platform that would underpin the second-generation Focus a year later. Ford dropped the Focus part of the C-Max’s name when it updated the model in 2007.
Europe’s second-generation Focus (2004)
The public got its first glance at the all-new second-generation Focus at the 2004 Paris motor show. Americans didn’t need to apply, though. Ford never intended to sell it there. Trotman’s plan was dumped - he had left the company in 1998 - and Ford returned to its policy of giving Americans and Europeans different economy cars.
In Europe, the original Focus’ silhouette changed little but the styling evolved in a softer, more rounded direction. The interior became more conventional by losing the diagonal lines that split the original car’s dashboard – and the public’s opinion.
The Ford Focus Vignale concept (2004)
The new Focus wasn’t the only surprise at the 2004 Paris show. Ford rekindled ties with its cabriolet heritage when it introduced a concept named Focus Vignale equipped with a power-folding hard top. Designers made it recognisable as a member of the second-generation Focus family while adding futuristic-looking design cues on both ends.
The Focus ST (2005)
The ST-badged Focus returned in 2005 with a Volvo-sourced turbocharged five-cylinder engine rated at 222hp under the bonnet. Broadly speaking, period road testers agreed adding a cylinder completely changed the car’s character. ‘There’s an honest charm to the ST that will make it a rewarding, but very easy to car to live with, and it’s also a cracking value’, Autocar wrote after testing it.
The Focus Coupe-Cabriolet (2006)
The first top-less Focus arrived at the 2006 Geneva motor show. It might sound like an odd-ball today, but it arrived on the market at a time when the segment boomed like a Dublin pub on Saint Patrick’s Day. Volkswagen, Renault, Peugeot, Vauxhall and Volvo each sold a coupe-cabriolet. More of a tourer than a sports car, Ford’s entry into the ring came with either a petrol or a diesel engine.
America’s second-generation Focus (2007)
Ford’s American division waited until the 2007 Detroit motor show to introduce the second-generation Focus. It stood out from its predecessor and the second-generation model sold in Europe with a market-specific design. The sheet metal hid an evolution of the platform that underpinned the original model. Citing slow sales, Ford axed the hatchback and estate variants in America and pared down the line-up to two- and four-door saloons.
The US-spec Focus fully embraced the nameplate’s economy roots. Ford offered sporty-looking variants, like the SES, but it never made a true performance version of the car. It didn’t matter. An affordable, basic Focus was just what the doctor ordered in an era blemished by high fuel prices and then a crippling recession.
The electric Focus (2009)
Ford electrified the international Focus and shipped it to America, where it participated in Jay Leno’s Green Car Challenge. It was a marketing stunt put together to spur interest in battery-powered vehicles by placing movie, sports and music stars behind the wheel of one and airing the outcome on television.
Starting with a Focus ST, the prototype received a 141hp electric motor, a 23kWh lithium-ion battery pack and an updated suspension. It had an 80-mile range and, surprisingly, a 50/50 weight distribution. The company also tested electric prototypes based on the American-spec model.
The second Focus RS (2009)
Ford announced plans to launch a second-generation Focus RS in 2007, and it showed a prototype in 2008, but it made fans wait until 2009 to finally get behind the wheel. It was worth the wait. Though still front-wheel drive, it ditched its predecessor’s turbo four in favour of a turbocharged five-cylinder rated at 300hp. Ford’s innovative RevoKnuckle suspension system did its best to keep torque steer at bay.
Visual add-ons complemented the mechanical upgrades. Parked on the street or spotted in a rear-view mirror, the RS easily stood out from a standard Focus thanks to a specific front bumper with wide air dams, side skirts, alloy wheels and a sizable wing on the back. The RS again steered clear of America.
The Focus RS500 (2010)
An even faster evolution of the Focus appeared in May 2010. Named RS500, it boasted 345hp from a massaged version of the standard RS’ five-cylinder engine. Ford limited production to 500 examples worldwide. The 101 examples sent to the UK were spoken for in mere days, making the RS500 an instant collector’s item. In hindsight, the model was the second-generation Focus’ swan song.
The third-generation Focus (2010)
After teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and very narrowly avoiding it, Ford again sought to re-unite the American and European variants of the Focus to trim down the number of global platforms in its portfolio. The one-size-fits-all third-generation Focus made its debut at the 2010 Detroit motor show with a new look inspired by Ford’s Kinetic design language and an updated platform also found under the Kuga and the Escort, which made an unexpected comeback in China in 2015.
The line-up included a four-door hatchback, a saloon and an estate. Ford deep-sixed the two-door hatchback and the coupe-convertible due to popular disinterest in both body styles.
The second-generation Focus ST (2010)
Ford wasted no time in turning the third-generation Focus into a Volkswagen Golf GTI-fighting hot hatch. It blended the day-to-day comfort and practicality of a four-door hatchback with the performance of a 252hp turbo four. And, to the delight of motorists with gear to haul, Ford stuffed the ST’s engine in the Focus estate for the first time.
The electric Focus, take two (2011)
Bypassing the traditional auto show circuit, a move Detroit took as only slightly less than an insult, Ford travelled to the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, to introduce the first production-bound electric Focus. Power came from a 100-kWh battery pack that delivered 100 miles of range, a respectable – if not stellar – statistic at the time.
Sales began in late 2011 in a handful of American cities including Atlanta, Boston, Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle. Ford later made the model for the European market in its Saarlouis, Germany, factory, though production ended about a year ago due to a complete lack of demand. Data from JATO Dynamics shows the company sold 61 examples across Europe in 2016, down from 70 the previous year.
The third-generation Focus RS (2015)
The third-generation Focus again spawned a mega-hatch; how could it not? The latest RS landed in 2015 with a turbocharged 2.3-litre four-cylinder engine rated at a stout 350hp. The EcoBoost’s cavalry flowed to the pavement through a six-speed manual transmission and, for the first time, all-wheel drive. Ford seemingly gave up trying to contain torque steer. It took advantage of the new configuration and baked in a drift mode capable of sending up to 70 percent of the engine’s torque to the rear axle.
Autocar tested the Focus RS and concluded it’s ‘the most fun you can currently have in a hot hatchback on road or track’. And, surprisingly, Americans got the opportunity to test it, too. Ford finally gave the model clearance to travel to the US, where it was welcomed like a well-stocked Christmas hamper.
The Heritage Edition RS (2018)
As the current-generation Focus RS nears retirement, Ford is sending it off with a limited-edition model named Heritage Edition developed specifically for the UK. The package includes a Quaife mechanical locking differential and a Mountune power upgrade that bumps the turbo four’s output to 370hp. Ford capped production at 50 examples. It’s no RS500, but it’ll do.
What’s next? (2018 and beyond)
Ford will introduce a brand-new fourth-generation Focus on April 10 2018. We haven’t seen official images yet but spy shots suggest its design takes influence from the smaller Fiesta, and this image is our artist impression of how it may look. It will offer more space inside thanks to a longer wheelbase, though its overall dimensions and its proportions will carry on essentially unchanged. Expect to see it in showrooms in most global markets by the end of the year.