With the Kia-built Festiva subcompact gone from the Ford lineup, and the compact Contour failing to find favor with American consumers, Ford has rolled out the European-designed Focus, an all-new small car for 2000. Although it was originally designed to replace the compact Escort, which has been Ford's smallest and least expensive model since the Festiva went away, the Focus will be sold alongside the Escort for a while, Ford officials announced this summer. That strategy hasn't worked well for the Contour, which has competed against the cheaper Escort and the more expensive and slightly larger Taurus in Ford showrooms. (The Contour also continues for 2000, but production has been scaled back to mirror its poor sales.) Ford officials seem convinced that the Focus and the Escort will appeal to separate crowds, with the Focus drawing more business from Japanese rivals Honda and Toyota than the Escort has. That remains to be seen, but I believe that most consumers will favor the Focus over the Escort, which is reduced to a single sedan model for 2000. Gone are the coupe and station wagon models, which will be replaced by the Focus. Comparing the two sedans side by side gives the Focus quite an edge over the Escort. And that's really significant, because despite its reputation as an econobox, the Escort has been a very good little car. For the past few years, it has been based on the design of the previous generation of the Mazda Protege, arguably the best compact car on the road. Among the attributes that give the Focus an edge are its high profile European styling and interior roominess. With a roof three inches higher than the Escort's, the Focus sedan -- which we tested for this report -- approaches the dimensions of a small sport-utility. That's important if you or someone who regularly rides in your car is tall. I took a 6-foot-6 friend car shopping one day, and we spent hours trying to find an affordable car that he could fit into. In the Focus, those who stand 6 feet or taller will find a high roof that doesn't touch the tops of their heads -- even in the back seat. No kidding. The design isn't as radical as that of the current Ford Taurus, but it is modern and attractive enough to turn heads, something the practical little Escort rarely did. This is one of Ford's so-called New Edge global designs, which will be used on a various vehicles that will be sold in different sizes and configurations worldwide. In North American, Ford will sell three body styles: the four-door sedan, three-door coupe and five-door wagon. The Focus has been on sale in Europe for the past year, and over there, a hatchback model is sold; U.S. dealers won't get that model because hatchbacks don't seem to sell very well in the States anymore. Base prices range from $11,865 for the three-door ZX3 coupe to $15,380 for the uplevel SE wagon (plus $415 transportation). Sedans come in three trim l evels. The base LX model lists for $12,125; the midlevel SE goes for $13,565; and the top-of-the-line ZTS, which we tested, carries a sticker of $15,165. Two engines are available. The base engine, a 2.0-liter four-cylinder with iron block and aluminum head, comes in the LX and SE sedans and the SE wagon, and is rated at 110 horsepower and 125 foot-pounds of torque. The ZX3 coupe, which is the least expensive Focus, and the ZTS sedan, the most expensive, have the best engine: the 2.0-liter Zetec with 130 horsepower and 135 foot-pounds of torque. Standard is a five-speed manual transmission, which came in our test car. But a four-speed automatic is optional and probably will be the gearbox of choice for most buyers. Drivers in this vehicle class don't particularly like to use a clutch. I found, however, that the clutch and manual transmission added an element of fun and a measure of performance to our test car, which had the 130-horsepower engine. Granted, t s is no hot rod, but there is plenty of power for the class, and the Focus ride and handling are much crisper and sportier than I expected. I could almost close my eyes and imagine I was driving a sporty little coupe. Almost. The instrument panel and dash are radical departures from the plain and functional dashboards of past Ford economy cars; this is almost like the cockpit of a modern aircraft. Controls are easy to reach and simple to operate, and I especially like the easy-to-aim dash-mounted air-conditioning vents. Our test car came with all the amenities you would expect on a larger, more expensive car, including an in-dash AM/FM/compact disc stereo that sounded great, power windows and door locks (with a pocket remote control), power outside mirrors, manual air-conditioning, four-wheel disc brakes with anti-lock system (optional), power steering, leather-wrapped tilt steering wheel and a tachometer. Dual front air bags are standard, and side air bags to protect the driver and front-seat passenger from a side impact are optional. The Focus is the first vehicle to include anchors for child safety seats, as well as top-of-the-seat tethers for child seats, Ford says. The front bucket seats are fully adjustable for just about any size person, and the rear has ample room for two adults or three children. The trunk holds a whopping 12.9 cubic feet of stuff, one of the largest trunks in the class. Competitors for the Focus sedan include the Saturn SL, Honda Civic, Toyota Corolla (and its clone, the Chevy Prizm), Dodge and Plymouth Neon, Chevrolet Cavalier, Mazda Protege, Mitsubishi Mirage, Hyundai Elantra, Nissan Sentra, Subaru Impreza and Suzuki Esteem. The only competing wagons are the Saturn SW, Elantra and Esteem. EPA fuel-economy ratings range from 28 miles per gallon in the city/35 mpg on the highway for the manual-transmission base engine to 25 city/32 highway for the Zetec model with automatic transmission. Our test car, with the Zetec engine and manual gearbox, was rated at 26 mpg city/33 highway. The gas tank holds 13.2 gallons. Although the Focus is beginning to arrive at dealerships, it doesn't officially go on sale until Sept. 30. The cars are built in Wayne, Mich., and Hermosillo, Mexico. 2000 FORD FOCUS THE PACKAGE: Compact, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger, four-cylinder two-door coupe, four-door sedan or five-door wagon. HIGHLIGHTS: A completely new model for 2000, the Focus was originally designed to replace the Ford Escort, but the company will keep the Escort sedans around for now. The Focus, a European design, has a roomy interior that is 3 inches higher than the Escort's, which makes it comfy for tall people; the base and optional engines are more than adequate, and the New Edge styling is trendy and attractive. NEGATIVES: Optional engine not available in the wagon or less-expensive sedan models; anti-lock brakes are optional but should be standard across the board to enhance safety. MAJOR COMPETITORS: Dodge and Plymouth Neon, Chevrolet Cavalier, Chevrolet Prizm/Toyota Corolla, Nissan Sentra, Hyundai Elantra, Mitsubishi Mirage, Suzuki Esteem, Honda Civic, Mazda Protege. EPA FUEL ECONOMY RANGE: 25 miles per gallon city, 33 highway to 28 city/35 highway, depending on engine and transmission configuration. BASE PRICE RANGE: $11,865 to $15,380, plus $415 transportation. As tested, ZTS sedan: $15,580. ROAD RATING: A-plus.
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