Ann Arbor - Choosing this magazine's Automobile of the Year is a bit like a brief but very satisfying love affair: Our writers and the car spend enough time together to become besotted but not enough to discover the little foibles that will make or break the relationship in the longer term. A solid year's motoring is the only way to tell if this affair has legs or whether the character flaws will drive us apart.
Over the course of 31,708 miles, we can honestly say that all of our initial attractions to the Ford Focus remained. Age did not dim the car's beauty or luster, as the more poetic might put it. The less poetic would say that at the end of the test, we still admired the Focus's exceptional blend of road manners, willing engine, smooth-shifting transmission, interior space and comfort, and value for money--traits that led us to give the car our top award for 2000. But--and there always seems to be a but in every relationship--some quality-control issues made us wonder how stable the relationship would be in the more distant future.
The Focus won us over with a willingness to rack up the miles that belied its economy-car price. One of the best features of the Focus is its intelligent packaging, with a tall driving position, loads of headroom, and a remarkable amount of rear-seat and trunk room for a car in this class. In its time with us, former motor gopher Ryan Wiswesser drove to Cape Cod and back, 1800 miles in three days; contributor Ronald Ahrens racked up 1500 miles to Georgia and back, again in three days; and founder/editor emeritus David E. Davis, Jr., put in 3300 miles in less than a week on his way to Jackson, Wyoming. All three found the car comfortable, its road and wind noise subdued, its passing power plentiful. David E. said, partway through his stint: "The car has been brilliant all this way. Performance isn't going to cause any brain injuries, but the car is beautifully balanced, harmonious. Everything works with everything else. It's seamlessly pleasing."
All of our drivers were pleased with the car's supple ride, its eager 2.0-liter Zetec four-cylinder engine, and steering and handling that were both intuitive and rewarding. Even the sound system and headlights got pluses in the logbook. Here, we discovered, is an American small car that actually competes solidly against the European and Japanese opposition. (We can't think of many domestic cars, save Chevy's Corvette and Chrysler's PT Cruiser, that deserve such an accolade.) It warms our hearts that not only are the Focus sedan and wagon selling well, but the import-tuner crowd has embraced the car in three-door, ZX3 form.
The car's looks managed to split the staff down the middle. Some liked the sharp edges, while others found the juxtaposition of homely overall form with the "New Edge" design a bit jarring. The styling seems to work much better on the Focus two- and four-door hatchbacks (the latter arrives here this fall) than on the sedan, but at least it looks distinctive.
Of course, there were gripes. Some people felt that the seats lacked lumbar support, some felt that the cup holders weren't quite man enough, and everyone hated the goofy self-locking doors. We have no idea why American automakers feel that the doors must automatically lock after the car moves off, unless they have spent too much time trawling the scuzzier sections of downtown Detroit. And even if they did, why can't they leave the decision to lock or unlock the doors to the driver? On a separate issue, both associate editor Joe DeMatio and Davis got out of the car while the engine was running and were promptly locked out. (Davis was in the middle of nowhere when it happened, so his logbook comments were very entertaining, if unprintable in this family magazine.)
Not everyone was convinced of the car's inherent quality, a worry that was manifested early in its life by a mysterious dashboard rattle that wouldn't go away for nearly half of its time with us. At the first service, at 2355 miles, our local Ford dealership couldn't find any obvious cause for the rattle, so they fettled it a bit and put it back together. This seemed to do the trick in the short term. But, like that nasty Freddie Krueger, the rattle kept coming back. Eventually, just to prove that the term dashboard is a vague one, a mechanic found that a plastic shroud in the engine bay was vibrating against the fender at speed. Once it was tightened under warranty, there was only one more complaint, and thereafter we assumed the problem was dead and buried.
For all the talk of craftsmanship and quality from Ford higher-ups such as vice president of global product development and quality Richard Parry-Jones, the interior isn't up to snuff compared with a Honda Civic or a Volkswagen Jetta (although the folks from Germany do charge a lot more for their products). The interior fitments are pretty good, and they lasted well, but Ford still needs to move its game on. While the interior design is interesting and works nicely, no one had anything good to say about the obviously fake wood on the center console, which copy editor Matt Phenix said "resembles actual wood in the same way Mickey resembles an actual mouse." At least M. Mouse has two ears, two eyes, a mouth, and a nose. It's a shame that such a crude piece got through the product-planning stages, because the metallic treatment that Ford puts in the ZX3 hatchback looks so much better.
The Focus blotted its copybook quite badly at 3458 miles, when Phenix entered the parking lot of the local hospital, on his way in for some minor surgery. The car stalled and wouldn't start again. Phenix pushed the car into a parking spot, and his wife, Emily, called roadside assistance while he went for his appointment with the surgeon's knife. The problem was caused by a faulty neutral safety switch, which ordinarily disables the ignition until the clutch is depressed. A new switch: $8.04. Labor: $32.87. Phenix's never-ending hatred: priceless. We never took his logbook comments as seriously after that incident.
At 8079 miles, the Focus went to the service doctor for two recalls--one related to the cruise control and the other for a trouble-prone fuel-injector sensor. In the grand scheme of FoMoCo recalls, which have been of biblical proportions recently, these were minor but, again, indicative of questions about the long-term durability of the car. At the end of the test, there was a mysterious groaning from the front end and a flapping sound from a rear wheel arch, both of which rectified themselves. In the course of investigating the latter problem, we found the wheel arch lining to be made of some kind of tar paper rather than the expected plastic, a measure taken to reduce road noise.
Those glitches were a shame, because the Focus was, otherwise, a paragon of small-car virtue, one of those reminders--like a Civic or a VW Golf--that relatively affordable and small doesn't mean missing out on automotive goodness. In our 31,708 miles, we averaged about 31 miles to the gallon (enough to please bleeding-heart eco-warriors everywhere), the service costs were minimal, and spare parts were also very affordable. We would still unfailingly recommend a Focus to anyone seeking an inexpensive wagon, sedan, or hatchback, despite our minor problems with the car. And was it a worthy Automobile of the Year? Yes, because this is still the best car to drive in its class. It pleases enthusiasts like us and you, and it's also the most spacious, which will please an awful lot more of its potential owners.