Ford Focus ZX4 SES Review

Jonny Lieberman
by Jonny Lieberman
ford focus zx4 ses review
There I was, stuck in traffic on the 710, just north of Compton. The 95-degree California sun bearing down on the Ford Focus had completely overwhelmed the chiller. I phoned TTAC HQ. “I’m ready to start a Ford Death Watch. This car is a disgrace! It’s… un-American!” Calm down, RF told me. Never mind the heat, feel the handling. Thrash it a bit and see what you think. Think? How can you think when there’s a brain-splitting noise coming from the engine bay that sounds like a small washer inside a metal band-aid tin wrapped in paper bags shaken by a cruel, malicious gremlin? At that point, even F1 handling wouldn’t have saved the Focus’ bacon.

At least it’s packaged nicely. Ford’s second generation Escort-killer employs the same tall ‘n boxy design motif as its larger brother, the slow selling (or is that just slow?) Five Hundred. True, both cars could use a bold, Fusion-style makeover. But the Focus got the better end of the deal. While its diminutive size keeps the cute, the Focus’ sheetmetal radiates a bit of sporting intent– especially when viewed head on. The Focus’ flared fenders look the biz. Its butt-in-the-air stance doesn’t. Nor does the wannabe spoiler perched above the trunk. The aerodynamic addendum is a functionally useless throwback to a stupider time that gives the Focus Lamborghini-like rearward visibility. Forget parallel parking; you can’t even scope out hot chicks at stop lights.

The interior is nothing less than a disgrace: an indictment of all that is wrong with American cars. It’s one thing to constantly remind a driver that he’s financially challenged. It’s another to tell him you hate him. The Burger King promotional toy-quality plastics deployed throughout the cabin aren’t just awful; they’re downright nasty. The air vents sag. The dashboard dents when you push on it. The faux carbon fiber is embarrassing. Ripe avocados feel sturdier than the glove box. The seats, despite the optional leather, are like lawn chairs– and not the fancy ones, either. If you can find a more depressing cockpit in a mass market motor, avoid it.

Luckily, I got the Focus out of traffic and found some corners. Suddenly, I noticed that the steering wheel is fantastic. Fat, tiny, firm yet soft– I mean, it’s perfect. While the arm rest was probably skinned with Chinese political dissidents, (whatever is cheapest), it’s ideally positioned. There’s also a groove in the door for your left arm, complete with a grab handle, that’s wonderfully cosseting. It turns out Ford employed a driver– not a cost-cutting committee (with decontented engineers) — to design the really important bits.

Fine, but what happens when you turn the wheel? The sucker squirts. Understeer was virtually absent, and employing trick techniques like trail braking meted out huge rewards when taking speed into corners. After a few hundred miles, I was dying to get this guy to a track and really wring its neck. Going straight is a different story. There’s no torque steer because… there’s no torque. One-hundred and thirty-three hp @ 6000rpm and 133 foot lbs. of torque at a lofty 4500rpm does not a dragster make. Truthfully, until 15mph, the Focus provides quick, golf cart like acceleration. Then it gives up and whines. I admit that my tester’s 2.0-liter 16v DOHC in-line four powerplant was not only new, but mated to an antiquated four-speed slusher. Still; no guts, no suburban glory.

Once underway, the Focus remains planted and focused– its well-sorted MacPherson (front) and SLA (rear) independent suspension (hear that, Mr. Mustang?) dismisses bumps and stifles lean. And then there’s a band between 75 and 85mph where things go all wobbly; the Focus inexplicably loses its "carma." Oddly, above 85mph the Focus returns you to normal programming. Warning! Do not take a Focus above 85mph. Around town the anchors do a worthy job of reining-in whatever speed you manage to eke out. On the highway… when some Scion-driving reprobate cut me off, I kicked hard and thought I was dead. Not that the brakes didn’t grab. They grabbed alright, but the Focus started convulsing, as the rear drums struggled. Wrong answer.

This leads me to a whole series of larger questions. Ford calls the Mazda6 a Fusion/Milan/Zephyr/MKZ. So why not cram the similarly priced Mazda3’s beefier engine and stellar tranny into the Focus? Then, get those guys from the F150’s tough-luxury department to loot the Volvo bin, create a killer cabin and make a fab first impression. That way when Focus drivers add some income they’ll think, “Hmmm… why not a Lincoln?” instead of “American cars suck.” Finally, why sell such a schizo vehicle? Why get so much so right in terms of feel and handling, and then suck runny eggs on the rest? FoMoCo: stick this little guy back in the oven.

[Ford provided the vehicle reviewed, taxes, insurance and a full tank of gas.]

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  • 02SVTF 02SVTF on Jul 01, 2006

    Of course it makes sense for me to "put down the Focus." I'm not ignorant at all, I'm college educated, with three degrees, and furthermore (and to the point), I've had the car more than three and a half years, and after all the trouble I've had with this car, believe me I have earned the right to say whatever I damn well please about the Focus. It's a love/hate relationship, and a lot of Focus owners feel that way the longer they own their vehicle. The only thing that's "stupid" is people who blindly support a brand or product - because I own a Focus myself I'm supposed to support the Focus no matter what? And BTW, since we're all going off on an ST tangent, myself included, let us not forget the car reviewed was an SES, not the ST. IMO, the ST is the only current U.S. Focus that's even worth considering. The rest is mediocre. And even the ST is really nothing to lose sleep over. You guys who keep talking about "I can mod this, and mod that, and have xxx amount of horsepower" are forgetting that the VAST MAJORITY of buyers are never going to engage in that kind of activity, they are looking for the complete package from the factory, and the Focus is really falling behind in that category. But, just to follow your argument, I guess you think only the U.S. model ST can be modded? If Ford sold the Mk. II here complete with a turbocharged engine, you couldn't mod that? Because modding a turbo engine is going to net you a lot more gains that pushing what you can out of the 2.3 Duratec.

  • Ingvar Ingvar on Jul 11, 2006

    A second generation US-Focus = Mazda 3 or Volvo S40/V50. The generation gap can be felt in the thickness of your wallet. If you want a better car you just have to pay more money, something americans seem reluctant to do.

  • Kcflyer on one hand it at least wont have dirty intake valves like Honda's entire lineup of direct injection ice vehicles. on the other hand a CRV offers more room, more range, faster fueling and lower price, hmm
  • Tassos BTW I thought this silly thing was always called the "Wienermobile".
  • Tassos I have a first cousin with same first and last name as my own, 17 years my junior even tho he is the son of my father's older brother, who has a summer home in the same country I do, and has bought a local A3 5-door hatch kinds thing, quite old by now.Last year he told me the thing broke down and he had to do major major repairs, replace the whole engine and other stuff, and had to rent a car for two weeks in a touristy location, and amazingly he paid more for the rental ( Euro1,500, or $1,650-$1,700) than for all the repairs, which of course were not done at the dealer (I doubt there was a dealer there anyway)
  • Tassos VW's EV program losses have already been horrific, and with (guess, Caveman!) the Berlin-Brandenburg Gigafactory growing by leaps and bounds, the future was already quite grim for VW and the VW Group.THis shutdown will not be so temporary.The German Government may have to reach in its deep pockets, no matter how much it hates to spend $, and bail it out."too big to fail"?
  • Billccm I had a 1980 TC3 Horizon and that car was as reliable as the sun. Underappreciated for sure.