By: GRAEME FLETCHER on May 20, 2005
Original Article: WINNIPEG FREE PRESS (MB)

New models given a few nips and tucks

TREMBLANT, Que. — After its launch for the 2000 model year, the Ford Focus might have been more aptly named the Ford Recall — it went through so many it boggles the mind. That was then, this is now. Not only has its quality been improved — J.D. Power & Associates now ranks the lineup as “above average” and on par with the well-respected Honda Civic — it has the power and handling it cried out for from the beginning.

As before, there are three- and five-door hatchbacks, a four-door sedan and a wagon.

Rather than being a full-on model change, the 2005 Focus underwent some nips and tucks — the upcoming 2006 models, available in August, follow this lead, adding a new in-dash, CD/MP3 player and, taking a page out of Mazda’s book, a ground-effects package (the GFX pack). This adds front and rear air dams, rocker extensions and a rear spoiler. It will be standard on the ’06 Focus ST — offered in sedan guise and capped at five per cent of production, which is done to protect the company’s corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) rating — and optional on all other models.

The good news is that Saleen, a highly respected manufacturer/tuner, offers an over-the-top kit for the three-door ZX3 — the Saleen N2O Focus. Along with the cosmetic add-ons — a body kit that adds far more aggressive front and rear fascias, rocker extensions, fender flares and a large spoiler — come some worthwhile functional upgrades.

The N2O on view at Mont-Tremblant was also equipped with Sony’s Xplod sound system (and an extremely gaudy set of decals). This audio package, which includes a video game, is insanely loud (1,400 watts of output power tend to do that) and occupies most of the trunk.

Lift the hatch and the amplifiers look like one half of a V6 engine — yes, that big. Crank the sucker up and the speakers make the entire car shake: Just make sure you have earplugs in place first.

To understand the significance of the work done to the Saleen, it helps to know how much Ford has improved the ST.

For example, the ST shares its front struts and multi-link rear suspension with the other models, but the tuning is 50 per cent stiffer thanks to the use of the European Focus’s ST170 shocks and springs, and it rides on larger 205/50R16 tires.

As a result, when flogged around Tremblant’s challenging race track, the ST responds to input surprisingly well. Certainly it understeers, and there is some body roll, but neither gets to the point where the driver starts to pucker up.

Likewise, the steering is both communicative and precise, pointing the car into a turn with poise — all of which means the ST is more than up to chasing its competition around a fast corner.

The N2O Focus adds a cross-car brace under the hood, ups the spring and damping rates by a further 30 per cent, firms the anti-roll bars and fits massive 215/45ZR17 rubber to attractive alloy wheels.

The result is a car that rides flatter than gravy on a plate without beating up the passengers on a rough road. Sadly, a track session was not in the cards, as that Sony sound system added the equivalent of two linebackers to the back end of the car, hardly the best way to ensure nimble road manners.

A choice of two upgraded engines power the Focus. The base 2.0-litre engine gets a much-needed hike in horsepower (24 per cent) from a pedestrian 110 to a usable 136.

At the same time, the Duratec 20 drops tailpipe emissions by a whopping 50 per cent, while marginally improving fuel economy, which is the automotive equivalent of the Triple Crown.

The ST uses the Duratec 23 — a 151-hp, 2.3L four. It is essentially the same engine used in the uplevel Mazda3 and Mazda6, thus bringing instant credibility and even better performance. The 153 pound-feet of torque on tap hauls the 1,214-kilogram ST off the line with more authority and on to 100 km/h in 8.6 seconds.

The Saleen Focus takes a slightly different route to performance — a modified air intake and exhaust system adds 18 hp to the base 2.0L, its 154 hp giving it more grunt than the 2.3L engine. It also punches out 150 lb-ft of torque through a taller 3.82:1 final drive, which makes it feel even livelier.

There is, however, a gripe with both the ST and the N2O — they are 20 or more horsepower and one gear shy of the key competition.

The Corolla XRS has 170 hp, the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V 175 and both drive their front wheels through six-speed manual gearboxes. To counter this, Ford is actively looking at performance improvements — both turbocharged and supercharged engines have been built and are being tested. Stay tuned.

Once the poor relation in the compact segment, the reworked Focus is now a well-conceived and executed set of wheels.

It may not outdo the competition, but it is more than a match. Prices range from $16,695 for the base to $24,045 for the ST. As for the Saleen N2O kit, it adds $9,000 to the ZX3’s $17,555 retail price.

Given my druthers, I would take the functional aspects and forget the cosmetic stuff. This would deliver a car as affordable as it is capable.

–CanWest News Service

Focus STS
Engine: 2.3L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 151 hp, 154 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Price as tested: $24,045

Focus N20
Engine: 2.0L DOHC four-cylinder
Power: 154 hp, 150 lb-ft of torque
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Price as tested: $26,555 (est.)