The Ford Focus ZX3 is a three-door hatchback dedicated to becoming the young grad's first new car. And it certainly has everything it needs to accomplish that.

It's cute, a whole lot of fun to drive, extremely roomy for a small car, and priced right. Given the fact that its modest starting sticker of $11,865 includes alloy wheels, a CD player, and the more powerful Focus engine, the ZX3 says high value as well as low price.

The idea, of course, is to bend the twig in the direction you want the tree to grow. Get those kids in the habit of buying Fords at an early age.

But that, I'm happy to report, doesn't mean that older penniless people like me can't have fun in a ZX3, too. This is really a car for people of any age whose appetite for driving kicks exceeds their ability to pay. Think of it as a starving motorhead's BMW 3-Series.

Designed largely by Ford of Europe, the award-winning Focus debuted on the Continent, and then came to the United States for the 2000 model year. Available as a hatchback, wagon and sedan, the Focus is built on an all-new platform. The only substantive component borrowings are the pair of 2-liter, four-cylinder engines offered with the car: the 110-horsepower, eight-valve engine is from the Escort; the 130-horse, 16-valve four first saw the light of day in the Contour.

This new car is ingeniously designed. It is surprisingly strong for its weight (2,551 pounds), and exceptionally roomy for a small car. Indeed, it is the most spacious car in its class, a grouping that includes the Saturn S-Series, Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla.

The Focus gets some of that extra interior volume from a relatively high roofline. That roofline, in turn, allows higher, more upright seating, which also permits more foot room under the front seats.

Even after providing seating for five adults, the ZX3 hatchback still has big-car luggage space (18.5 cubic feet) behind the rear seat. Folding the rear seat roughly doubles the cargo area.

As useful as it is, the ZX3's strong suit is the way it behaves itself. A car that starts under $12,000 shouldn't perform this well.

Thanks to its strong structure and fully independent suspension, the ZX3 handles with aplomb, and furnishes a smoother ride than you would expect from an econocar. In fact, this little hatch rides better than some midsize sedans I've been in.

It's the handling, though, that catches your fancy. The ZX3 is composed in the corners, and its relatively wide tires cling to the road tenaciously. Small cars usually have narrow tires with little grip. But with P195/60R15 radials mounted on its 15-inch wheels, the ZX3 tester had anything but.

Because it weighed less than 2,600 pounds, the 130-horse test car was lively business. I found myself changing gears more than I had to, simply because the shifter on the five-speed manual was such velvety fun.

The quick rack-and-pinion steering gear in this car also ra ises the fun quotient. This steering isn't just very good in its class. It is superb by any standard, and may be Ford's best yet. It isn't every day you are treated to this kind of response and precision.

While we are thanking the Focus structure for its contributions to the laudable ride and handling, we might also thank it for the low noise levels in the cabin.

The black body on the tester wasn't beautiful (merely cute), but it was nicely assembled and finished. The interior was also well-screwed-together, and prettier than the exterior. The dash and door panels were finished with grained charcoal vinyl and graphite-colored metal - and looked more costly than they were.

Gas mileage was certainly presentable. The tester had EPA mileage ratings of 26 m.p.g. city and 33 highway. I obtained 29 in mixed driving.