Ford has never said so in as many words, but they must surely know that the 1990 Escort was an embarrassingly low point in their history. Rarely does a car get such a universal panning from the press at launch, losing every comparison test to which it was subjected, but that’s what happened. Several emergency facelifts later, the final couple of years of the Escort saw it improved to make it at least acceptable, but it was never going to win class honours. The Mondeo of early 1993 was the first evidence that Ford did indeed learn their lesson and wanted to be sure that the errors of 1990 did not happen again. And as if to prove that the excellence of that car was not a one-off fluke, they followed it up with the first Focus in 1998 which did not so much raise the bar for the commercially hugely significant C-segment, so much as define a new type of bar. Here was a car which combined a striking modern look with a chassis that showed real class making the car leagues better to drive not just than the Escort but all its rivals as well. VW made no secret of the fact that it became the benchmark car for their development teams as they worked on Golf V. Six years is about the average production life of a car these days, so it was no surprise that a second generation Focus appeared towards the end of 2004, and the question that everyone wanted to know was whether Ford had done it again. For sure that standards bar was going to be both higher and more congested as the two most significant rivals, the VW Golf and GM’s Astra also appeared in new forms only a matter of weeks and months before the new Focus, their makers having clearly studied what was so good about that first Focus. Initial press reviews suggested that the race was indeed much tighter this time around, with each having learned from the other, and that was before contemplating a long list of other class rivals, with every major manufacturer selling cars in Europe having something to offer, most of them with their own strengths. Whilst the first Focus had become very much the doyen of the rental fleet, as well as the company car park and the family home, the second one was conspicuous by its absence for quite a while, so it took a while after market release before I got to sample one, finally sourcing a car in May 2005. A couple more followed in 2006 and by early 2007 the Focus was once again the car you were most likely to receive from Hertz in the UK if you booked a C Group car, which is what my corporate travel policy permits. So needing a car for a one-way trip to Heathrow, en route to America, when I turned up at the Hertz Bristol location, it was perhaps no surprise that once again, it was a Focus that was ready and waiting for me.
Back in the 70s and 80s, when Ford had huge UK market share, and a much smaller model range, every car proudly declared both the size of the engine under the bonnet as well as its trim variant, so even if you and indeed the neighbours could not tell the difference an L, a GL or a Ghia from the detailed visible difference, no-one was left in any doubt as to where you were in the hierarchy of models. But those days are gone, and Ford certainly does not declare the engine size on the outside at all. A glance under the bonnet is not going to tell you much, either, so certainly with a rental car sometimes all you know for sure is what type of fuel to put in it. The paperwork did tell me that this was a 1.8 Sport. Unlike in the first generation car, this engine is now also part of the same engine family as the smaller capacity units, now known as Duratec HE. The 1.8 was not in the range on launch, but Ford filled the gap between the Variable Valve Control Timing 115 bhp 1.6 litre unit and the 2.0 litre engine with it not long after the other models debuted. All the previous second generation petrol-powered Focus models I had driven before this one had the 99 bhp 1.6 litre Zetec engine, so I was interested to see if there was much of a discernible difference to justify the £500 extra cost. Even in 1.6 litre guise, the Focus feels quite lively, but you have to work at it, to get the power out deployed whilst that was less the case here, with more if being readily apparent for less work, which is what you would hope given the extra 26 bhp on offer. A total of 125 bhp is still quite a respectable output for a car of this size and weight. The engines in both are light years better than those awful CVH units that lived on in the Escort throughout the 90s, proving willing, smooth and refined. Extend the engine towards the re-line and it does get quite a lot noisier, but it does not protest and provided you are in an appropriate gear, there is strong acceleration available. When cruising on the motorway, overall noise levels are low, so this is a good car for a long journey. If there was one feature of the first generation Focus that stood out above all others, it was the steering and handling which was outstanding by any measure and so much better than any of the car’s rivals. Little has changed here, thankfully, with the chassis largely carried forward to the second generation model so this car is still a joy to drive. Every control feels like it has been calibrated to maximise driver enjoyment to just the right extent. The gearchange is precise, and the gate is quite compact so movements between the gears are short, with the stubby lever perfectly positioned as you reach for it to move between the gears to get the best out of the engine, and you will need to do this, as like most modern petrol engines, the gearing is optimised for economy, emissions and refinement, not acceleration within gear) It is the steering – still hydraulically assisted – which remains the Focus’ trump card, with beautiful feel and weighting to it which makes every bend a joy especially when you discover how well the Ford handles and holds the road. It does all this without making you pay a price in terms of ride quality, which seemed pretty good on every surface that I put under the Ford’s wheels. It stops well, with only moderate pressure required on the footbrake. Visibility is generally OK, though you can’t see either the front or the back of the car so will have to rely on your judgement, remembering that the overhangs are not that great.
There’s a good reason why the Focus sells so strongly. It is simply that it is a good car. It has no significant weaknesses, and the obvious strength of being so good to drive, better than all of its immediate rivals in almost all respects. Couple that with decent levels of space for passengers and luggage, a neat and user-friendly interior, a solid reputation for reliability, the latest safety features and the fact that there are more Ford dealers than any other if you need someone to look after it, and it is hard to see how you could wrong with a Focus. It will cost an additional for a 1.8 litre as opposed to the 1.6 litre unit,and overall economy may be slightly worse (it is on official figures), but based on my findings I would say that it is worth it and would definitely be the case if you were going to drive with a car full, as opposed to solo for the extra punch it gives the Ford. It probably fixes the only slight weakness I discerned in previous tests. And so, even though standards continue to improve across the board with almost every new model, it would seem that the Focus should continue to enjoy success in the market for a while yet, and it will take an exceptionally talented car to better it. Buyers, and indeed car renters, truly never have had it so good.