Ford's roomy little hatchback, the Focus ZX3, wiggles its way into your heart like a cute puppy. Not only is it fun to drive, but it has lots of room, won't drain your bank account and offers tons of versatility.

The test car's bright gold paint and 16-inch alloy wheels, shod with meaty 205/50 tires, give it a purposeful look that harkens back to VolkswagenÕs original GTI. But what separates the ZX3 from other hatchbacks is wonderfully linear steering, spunky performance and an interior that is almost as versatile as a small station wagon.

ZX3 prices start at $12,125, and the test car's sticker of $14,850 makes it one of the better small-car bargains. That price includes power windows, power locks with keyless remote, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, 16-inch wheels, tilt//telescoping steering wheel, front armrest, cruise control and map lights.

The proof of such a tasty pudding is in the driving. Zippy acceleration comes courtesy of the 130-horsepower, 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine mounted transversely over the front wheels. This engine has sufficient mid-range power that it doesn't have to be driven like it was stolen to keep up with traffic. When you want to shoot down the freeway ramp, it does so with more-than-ample energy, although engine noise is noticeable but not intrusive.

It is not hard to imagine how much fun the upcoming SVT Focus, with 170 horsepower and a six-speed manual gearbox, will be when it comes out later this year.

Key to extracting the most out of 130 horsepower is a slick, five-speed transmission whose linkage is direct and tight. Shifting is impaired by the front armrest that interfers with your right elbow. When I folded the armrest back vertically between the seats it was less bothersome, but it would be nice if it wasn't there at all.

A significant option for 2001 is Ford's AdvanceTrac vehicle stability program. AdvanceTrac invokes throttle control and the application of the brakes on individual wheels to help keep the car from skidding wildly in evasive manuevers. It is available on the ZX3 hatchback and the ZTS sedan, and while the test car did not have it, AdvanceTrac is sure to appeal to folks who want the peace of mind that a stability control program provides. Rear disc brakes are a part of the package, and that should improve stopping, too.

Some might find the ZX3's shape unusual, but it serves a couple of purposes. One, the tall roofline gives it an uncanny amount of interior space because occupants sit in a more upright position than in most small cars. The back seat is perfectly suitable for full-size adults, plus it folds down to create a cargo area almost as big as the Focus wagon.

Second, the sloping roofline contributes to a 0.32 coefficient of drag, and that in turn helps improve fuel efficiency and reduce wind noise. The floor pan ahead of the rear axle is shaped to minimize underbody turbulence and cut drag, another nice touch for a car in this price segment .

Aside from being generously proportioned, the cabin of the Focus is well designed and executed. The instrument panel has a fun look, but, more importantly, it works very well. Surface textures on power window buttons and the wheels that control the air vents provide a tactile response as good as more expensive vehicles.

Cloth-covered seats are shaped to provide good all-around support without being overly confining. More lumbar support would be appeciated.

The ZX3's responsive handling is largely the result of a multi-link independent rear axle and a zero-offset Macpherson strut front suspension. Body roll is minimized, as is squat and dive. The 16-inch alloy wheels with wide tires play an important role, as well.

Hatchbacks seem to be making a resurgence in this country, and Ford will offer the five-door Focus ZX5 next fall. Good sense prevails.

Price The ZX3 starts at $12,125. Options on the test car included power windows, power locks with keyless r ote, anti-lock brakes, air conditioning, 16-inch wheels, tilt/telescoping steering wheel, front armrest, cruise control and map lights.

The sticker price was $14,850.

Warranty Three years or 36,000 miles.

To get in touch with Tom Strongman, send e-mail to tstrongman@kc.rr.com.

{Point:} The ZX3 hatchback is a delightful combination of fun and practicality. It has a European profile, excellent steering and a spacious cabin considering its overall size. Handling is above average, too.

{Counterpoint:} The engine can be a bit noisy at full throttle, the outside mirrors could be bigger and firmer lumbar padding in the front seat would add to the comfort level. The center armrest interferes with shifting.

SPECIFICATIONS:
Engine: 2.0-liter, 4-cyl.
Transmission: Five-speed Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 103 inches
Curb weight: 2,551 lbs.
Base price: $12,125
As driven: $14,850
Mpg rating: 25 city, 33 hwy.