Ford has undergone more perils in the last year than Pauline did in a lifetime.
At last there's some good news to report--other than Jacques Nasser's departure. A four-door hatchback has been added to the compact, front-wheel-drive Focus lineup.
The even better news, of course, is that the automaker has promised to produce more new vehicles bearing the Ford name than to purchase companies with foreign accents.
Focus arrived in the 2000 model year as a two-door hatchback, four-door sedan and four-door wagon.
For 2002 a four-door hatchback with a flip-up rear lid joins the lineup, with a high-performance SVT version of the two-door hatchback coming in spring.
Ford likes to refer to the hatchback as a door, as in three-door and now a five-door. We consider a door something people use to get in and out of a vehicle. Because most folks don't enter a Focus by lifting the hatch lid, crawling over the back seat and slipping into the front seat, we'll call it a hatch rather than a door.
Adding a four-door hatchback was easy for Ford because one has been offered in Europe since Focus first went on sale. So rather than have to design, develop and build an all-new vehicle, all it had to do was load the boat and ship a supply here.
Bob Fesmire, Focus marketing manager, said the four-door hatchback was prompted by the competition, such as the Pontiac Vibe and Toyota Matrix soon arriving in showrooms.
"We've had a hatch on our coupe since the ZX3 was launched in 2000. But now a number of our rivals have or are going to have hatchbacks as the trend in the U.S. is back to hatchbacks like those offered in the '70s. They've become popular again here," he said.
"I don't think the four-door hatchback will overtake the sedan in popularity here like it has in Europe. The sedan here accounts for about 70 percent of sales but in Europe the hatchback outsells the sedan by 4 or 5 to 1. We expect the hatchback to account for 25,000 sales annually here," he added.
The problem with hatchbacks of old is that while sedans offered a closed trunk to hide cargo, hatchbacks provided a clear view through the rear window of what you were hauling.
"There was the issue of security years ago," Fesmire said. "But the ZX5 has a cargo cover so that when you close the hatch everything inside is out of the line of sight. So the hatchback today doesn't have the same stigma it did in the '70s."
The reason for offering the ZX5 is that this is what youth wants and when youth talks, the automakers listen. Win 'em over when they're young, and they'll stay with you as they grow old.
"We've found that about 25 percent of all Focus buyers are under the age of 25," Fesmire said, the magic number in the auto industry.
"Younger buyers have adopted the hatchback body style. They want the convenient access. With the rear seats folded, you get more cargo area than in a sedan. A mountain bike will fit in the hatchback," Fesmire said.
We tested the '02 ZX5 hatchback. Like all Focus models, it is first and foremost an affordable means of getting from point A to B with just enough amenities to avoid being called an economy car.
The ZX5 is powered by Ford's 2-liter, 130-horsepower ZETEC 4-cylinder.
Good power off the line, but be prepared to move down and up through the gears when you need that burst of power to climb the hill or slip into traffic at the end of the merger lane.
What you won't have to do, however, is apply the brakes every time you spot a gas station. The ZX5 is rated at 25 m.p.g. city/34 m.p.g. highway with its standard 5-speed manual.
That 5-speed is very smooth. No hang-ups, no hesitations. But it would be appreciated if the warning light in the dash that flashes each time the computer thinks you should change gears is eliminated. Don't know when to shift? Get the optional automatic at $815, which is what 85 percent of Foc wners do.
Decent cabin for four adults, though your perception of just how roomy it is probably will be influenced by the season--spacious when dressed in a light summer shirt, a little tight when zipped into a bulky winter coat.
Couldn't fault ride and handling, in large part because the test vehicle came with the optional Advance Trac stability system borrowed from the luxury Lincoln LS sedan.
Still can't get power seats in a Focus, but for $1,625, you can get a stability system to keep you in control of the machine on slippery roads.
Actually, Ford says the system costs $1,225, but to get it you must purchase the optional anti-lock brakes for $400. That would make it appear it costs $1,625. But then, why argue with an automaker that calls a hatch a door?
Ford calls Advance Trac an "interactive vehicle dynamics" system that helps maintain stability. You also could call it a sophisticated traction control system. Sensors measure such things as speed, steering wheel angle, wheel rotation and lateral movement to determine whether to apply ABS to one or more wheels and whether to reduce engine power to keep the vehicle under control in that slippery corner or turn.
Advance Trac, like StabiliTrak at Cadillac, is one of those high-tech systems designed to keep the wheels side down and the car out of the ditch without the driver noticing it's working.
Pricey to be sure, but if Focus is aimed at youth, and youth typically tends to take corners and turns on slippery roads faster than elders, it's an investment that will pay dividends. Think of it this way: What will $1,625 buy you at the body shop?
Another noteworthy feature that's new on the Focus for '02 is the Personal Safety System offered in a variety of larger Ford vehicles. The system regulates air-bag deployment speed depending on such factors as impact severity as well as whether occupants are wearing their seat belts. To ensure the system works at its optimum, which means occupants are belted, Focus comes with Beltminder, a series of really irritating chimes every few seconds until occupants fasten those belts.
Base price of the ZX5 tested is $15,615. Standard equipment includes 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, AM/FM stereo with six-disc in-dash CD player, remote keyless entry, power windows and door locks, air conditioning, tilt/telescoping steering wheel and speed control.
Popular options include ABS at $400 and automatic transmission at $815. A power moonroof is available for the first time in any Focus for '02 at $595. Also, consider the optional side-impact air bags at $350 and Advance Trac, if the budget allows.
Ford sold 264,414 Focus models in 2001, down from 286,166 in its first full year in 2000. Ford expects some plus business from the new four-door hatchback for '02, though admitting a few buyers will migrate from the four-door sedan.
This spring, the Focus coupe gets a high-performan ce SVT model from the Special Vehicle Team that created limited-edition, high-performance versions of the Mustang and F-150 pickup. The SVT will feature a 170-h.p. 4-cylinder teamed with 6-speed manual and will ride on 17-inch radial tires.
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