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New Car Test - Ford Focus Zetec

Its easy to drive, handles brilliantly, and is great to live with. What is there not to like?

By Nathan Huppatz

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On test is the Ford Focus Zetec sporting the 2-litre powerplant with 96kW and 178Nm of torque (the 1.8-litre engine has 85 kW and 156Nm). Seventeen inch alloy wheels, a body kit and Ford's VDC AdvanceTrac stability control system were also optioned on the test car, raising the 3-door hatch's base price from $26,690 to a more hefty $31,370. The Zetec-engined Focus has the Holden Astra SRi in its sights, but the Astra won't be an easy target. (Read our review here).

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First impressions count, and with the Focus they're pretty good. Its styling cues certainly have the Ford "New Edge" look that graced the Ford AU models, with strong flowing lines working well with its overall shape and high rear end. The car looks 'sharp' on the road - and standing still too!

Build quality seems high, with consistent panel gap and no squeaks or rattles. Ford claim, "Highly precise vehicle assembly methods provide micrometre precision in door and window fit, further enhancing cabin quietness, while special seals and extra stiffening of engine and suspension mounting points help eliminate sound resonance." It seems that this process works, as the noise suppression inside cabin is very good, with minimal wind noise and relatively quiet travel when moving, even with the sportier lower profile tyres and firmer suspension. The engine and exhaust make the most noise, but it is a pleasantly raspy snarl when accelerating hard and not intrusive when cruising around town or on the freeway.

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The Focus handles and rides extremely well thanks to the firmer suspension (uprated over the cooking models) and the optional seventeen inch wheels and 215/45 tyres. The Focus contains Ford's control blade rear suspension setup. The Zetec tends to understeer when pushed hard, but this movement is progressive, and can be neutralised by lift-off throttle. The rear of the car sits well, and never feels unsettled - the rear can't really be drifted out of line. The optioned VDC AdvanceTrac proves to be a smart system, sampling 150 times per second, and utilising throttle and braking to help stabilise the vehicle in extreme situations. It seems to do a good job too, with little intrusion through driver controls.

Steering is excellent, offering sharp turn-in on the stickier rubber, but perhaps a little too much feedback - over rough corners the steering wheel jiggles in your hands, making accurate placement difficult. There was little torque steer evident, but what felt like engine vibration in lower gears during hard acceleration was transmitted through the wheel. Steering and suspension together work towards providing a very competent handling package, making the Focus a delight on twisty roads and through the city, although it isn't as nice on rougher roads.

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Transmitting power to the front wheels is the 2-litre double overhead cam 96kW engine. Good response can be found as low as 2000 rpm, but power tapers off noticeably after 5000 rpm (engine redline is set way higher at 7000 rpm). Throttle response is not as sharp as it could be, and there was a perceptible delay in response to throttle movements. This trait is not inspiring when peddling the car hard, but in most daily situations the engine works well, and provides power smoothly when required.

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Other vehicle controls are very good. Pedals are too closely spaced for those with large feet. The gearbox is excellent, and a joy to use day to day. Gear shifts are precise and easy, with some spring loading to assist movements from one cog to the next. You definitely won't find yourself wondering if you slid it all the way into gear. All other controls inside the cabin are within easy reach. Indicators are on the left stalk remind you of the European origins of the car, while the dash - a mixture of angles and curves - works well. Radio controls are easy to use, the common buttons large in size with a nice tactility to them. Sound quality is fine, with good bass reproduction even at low volume levels. In addition to the faceplate controls, the radio can be operated from a steering column stalk, but the switches are stiff and not easy to use. We found ourselves reaching the short distance to the actual unit instead.

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The rest of the interior is airy and comfortable. The driving position is quite high and affords very good visibility in all directions. Seat adjustment is good, but the driver's seat lacks some lumbar support and feels a little firm for long trips. Rear passengers can be transported reasonably comfortably, even with a tall driver thanks to the excellent head room. Reasonable side door pockets, glovebox, and a shelf near the driver's knees provide storage space, along with three cup holder positions. There is no centre bin behind the handbrake. A lap sash belt is provided for the middle rear passenger (who most likely won't be an adult) and three adjustable headrests are provided rearward. Driver and passenger airbags are fitted. You will also be told loud and clearly by an interior bell when a seatbelt hasn't been used for the driver, or your lights are on. Bring some earplugs for that warning ...

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Boot volume is reasonable, and grows to huge if the rear 60:40 split fold seats are folded forward. Grab handles to pull the hatch back down are provided, and there is an electronic boot release activated by a button on the dash - or on the remote - that also operates the vehicle's central locking system. Getting into the engine bay is a different story. You won't find a remote release, instead you need to lift the ford badge, and use the ignition key to open it, just like you would one of the other doors. Good for security, but a bit of a pain in normal use.

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So we are left with a functional car, roomy inside, good performance and good handling. How does it stack up against its nearest rivals? Although Ford state that the real rivals to the Zetec are cars like the Golf, its largest competitor in Australia will be the Holden Astra. The Zetec competes with the Astra SRi. At $28,485 sticker price, plus onroads the SRi is a great little car. The Focus Zetec, priced at $26,690 very is competitive, but lacks some of the Astra's power and Traction Control as standard. With AdvanceTrac VDC for the Focus only a $990 add on though, it is still has the goods in the price department, and becomes a very appealing proposition.

The Focus Zetec is a great handling, well built European car. Its achievements in winning awards like European Car of The Year can be understood when driving it. How it will stack up against Astra sales will be something to watch, but we feel it will give its competitors more than just a warning shot across the bow. The only niggle we could find was a lack of sporty power! Bring on the ST170!

Why you would:

  • Great handling
  • Great gearbox
  • Roomy interior
  • Nice controls

Why you wouldn't:

  • Occasional strong feedback through steering wheel.
  • Key operated bonnet
  • Raspy engine note

The Ford Focus Zetec was provided by Ford Australia for this test.

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