A European car from Ford, flavored for younger drivers, and with a surprising amount of room inside, the Focus is a distinctive new entry into the world of compact cars.

The look is new, and sporty performance makes it fun to drive. Though the "New Edge" styling, with its tall roof line, sharp creases and Cleopatra cat's-eye headlights, is certain to be controversial, the Focus is an easy car to like once you get out on the road.

Not that compacts are such a hot commodity these days. With the economy riding high and gas prices running low, luxury cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles are the big profitmakers for today's automakers.

Still, manufacturers need to sell fuel-efficient cars to bring down their federally mandated corporate fuel economy averages, and they need inexpensive first cars to draw in young drivers to be nurtured into future brand-loyalists.

Ford's long-running compact mainstay, the Escort, will hang around for a few more years, Ford has decided (possibly hedging its bets on the new entry). But Focus is a worthy successor that should make the Escort look staid and boring in comparison. For one thing, Focus is something that the Escort claimed to be but never was: a true world car.

As such, the Focus comes to us with a fine pedigree. It was introduced in Europe a year ago, where auto writers bestowed upon it the coveted prize of 1999 European Car of the Year.

Focus is the kind of car making headway on the Continent - small cars with tall bodies that make the occupants feel as if they're in a bigger vehicle. Some of the hottest cars in Europe, including the Mercedes-Benz A-Class sedans in the extreme, have picked up this format.

In the United States, minivans and sport-utility vehicles have given people a taste for taller vehicles. One of today's most hotly awaited new cars is DaimlerChrysler's PT Cruiser, which turns the tall-body shape into a retro fashion statement.

The Focus hatchback, sedan and station wagon easily accommodate 6-footers front and rear, with good headroom and acceptable legroom. It's fully 3 inches taller than Escort. Ford boasts that Focus has the largest interior volume in its class, and I don't doubt it.

The extra height makes the sedan appear ungainly, though responsive handling is one of the strong points of all the models, including the wagon.

The hatchback's body is shorter, though it still rides on the same 103-inch wheelbase, and its rear styling is really striking. This car will be a hot item for some drivers, mostly young ones, but probably will be too far out for others.

The test car was a four-door ZTS, designating the higher-output Zetec engine, a dual-cam four with 130 horses, rather than the 110 produced by the single-cam engine. This is the sporting model, with 15-inch wheels, instead of 14s, shod with performance tires; a stereo upgrade; some different styling details; and full power accessories.

The ZTS is designed for young sports, thou gh teenagers might balk at having an insignia so closely resembling the dreaded word "zits" emblazoned on the car's hind end.

Coupled with a five-speed stick shift, the sedan was quick and fun, with a stable ride and cornering that made it feel more like a sports sedan than a budget compact.

I also had the chance to sample all the models recently on the track at Bob Bondurant's School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, where I found all the models to be good performers, especially the Zetec-powered hatchback. The standard engine coupled with automatic accelerated too leisurely for this kind of fun.

The Zetec engine is strong and revs nicely into the upper ranges. But there's too much engine noise, even under light acceleration. Road noise is considerable as well, especially with the performance tires' bold tread pattern. That's too bad because, otherwise, freeway cruising is smooth and comfortable.

The interior is nicely finished with a sculpted dash board that ec hoes the creases and angles of the body. Again, this dashboard won't be appreciated by everybody, including those accustomed to straightforward Japanese designs.

A major clinker was found inside the trunk, where the upper area seemed unfinished, showing wires and poorly painted parts.

With a base price range of $11,865 for the three-door ZX3 coupe and $12,125 for the sedan, the price tag is right in there with the widespread competition, including class leader Honda Civic.

Focus is being marketed with an aggressive youth-oriented ad campaign and accessories to meet young people's tastes, such as a pet-owners package with a color-coordinated harness and water bowl, and a friends package that includes a dash-mounted candy dispenser.

After a Focus is purchased, the owner receives in the mail a "welcome package," including a Focus watch, a picture frame for the dashboard, an expandable cup holder and a sunglasses case.

Smart marketing for a sharp new car, though the Focus is not just for young people. It should appeal across the board, and I think we'll soon see them everywhere.

2000 Ford Focus

Vehicle type: Five-passenger, four-door sedan, front-wheel drive.
Base price: $15,165.
Price as tested: $16,000.
Engine: 2-liter in-line 4, 130 hp at 5,300 rpm, 135 lb.-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm.
Transmission: 5-speed manual.
Curb weight: 2,564 pounds.
Wheelbase: 103 inches.
EPA mileage: 25 city, 33 highway.
Highs: Roomy interior. Responsive handling. Distinctive styling.
Lows: Engine roar. Road noise. Unfinished trunk area.