Ford’s reputation for building affordable automobiles dates back to the early 1900s. In a time when cars were reserved for the rich and well heeled, Ford’s assembly line production helped to cut the Model T’s costs from near $1000 to $360 in just about 7 years. Ford was renowned for their ability to practically fling cars from their factories at an unprecedented rate, and the company quickly grew synonymous with versatility, practicality and accessibility.
Ford’s ability to produce cars for a wide variety of people and purposes refused to wane in the decades that followed, and their later success stories include the F-Series pickups and the ever-present Mustang. Ford’s latest success has been their global C-platform car, known here as the original Ford Focus.
Ford released the Focus to the North American market for the 2000 model year, replacing its unquestionably successful—but noticeably aging—Escort model lineup. The Focus was intended to be a critical element of Ford’s New Edge architecture, and the broad model line included a hatchback, four-door sedan and five-door wagon.
The Focus replaced the Escort’s soft, mundane styling with sharper edges, upswept headlamps and an abundance of angular lines. It’s also noteworthy that the car’s North American- and European-market incarnations shared much of the same DNA, differing mainly in available powertrains.
Europe got the Focus two years before us and received several versions of the new twin-cam Zetec engine, while buyers on this side of the pond had a choice of either a 2.0-liter, single-cam engine—standard in the LX and SE four-door sedans—and the 2.0-liter DOHC Zetec. The Zetec was standard in the ZX3 hatchback and top-of-the-line ZTS sedan, while it was optional with the SE trim. Both engines were paired with either a five-speed manual transmission or an optional four-speed automatic.
The single-cam engine—a variant of the one found in the 1997 Escort and Mercury Tracer—offered 110 horsepower and was characterized by its split-port injection setup. It enjoyed little aftermarket support. The Zetec, however, was warmly received by the aftermarket and enthusiasts. Even so, both engines pulled the roughly 2500-pound Focus bodies well, and the motoring press heralded the nimble, well-balanced handling and general quality of the package; it was destined to be a winning formula.
Variations on a Theme
Not only was the Focus lauded as a great street car, it also amassed a respectable racing pedigree, most notably in FIA World Rally competition. These six-figure machines were sent into battle with all-wheel drive and turbocharged 300-horsepower engines—and just a small touch of actual Focus DNA.
The Focus WRC racer made its debut during the 1999 season. The car quickly become a staple in the series thanks to the exploits of top drivers like Colin McRae, Carlos Sainz, Markko Märtin and, later on, Marcus Grönholm. The Focus is currently one of only two factory-supported cars in the series, outlasting former class stalwarts like the Subaru Impreza WRX and Mitsubishi Lancer Evo.
The Focus came in many flavors, from sedans and family-friendly wagons to sporty three-door hatchbacks. Their versatility extends to the motorsports world, where Focuses have been successful in rally, autocross and road racing. The sportiest U.S. model, the SVT, was available with a two-tone interior (red or blue accents) and the punchy 170-horsepower, 2.0-liter Zetec inline four. Photography Credits: Courtesy Ford
That Focus rally car would become the template for the ultimate street incarnation of the first-generation car, Ford of Europe’s turbocharged Focus RS. While the RS was never imported stateside, starting with the 2002 model year the North American Focus got its own adrenaline injection, one that sport-compact enthusiasts received with a smile.
Ford’s Special Vehicle Team thought that their little ZX3 Focus deserved to join the ranks of the factory hotrods, so they got to work on an SVT model. To address the standard Focus’s shortcomings in the engine bay, SVT engineers concocted a massaged version of the Zetec engine. It sported a trick intake manifold, hotter cams with variable intake timing, revised internals with a bumped compression ratio, and a tuned exhaust manifold that was clearly designed for performance.
This more powerful engine was mated to a Getrag six-speed transmission. The tranny received a dual-mass flywheel intended to reduce residual noise. Along with a stiffer suspension and four-wheel disc brakes, the car was blessed with an upscale leather interior and upgraded instrumentation. More than 14,000 SVT models were built, with a five-door variant eventually joining the original three-door version.
To better integrate the model with the rest of Ford’s lineup, the Focus received a restyle for 2005. Both the interior and exterior were completely refreshed.
The engine lineup was also changed, as the horsepower increased from 130 to 136 on standard 2-liter models; the base-model, single-cam engine was dropped. The optional 2.3-liter engine received a 6-horsepower bump to 151, and this larger Duratec engine was standard on the SVT’s replacement, the ST sedan.
The Focus ST also came standard with all-around disc brakes, ABS, 16-inch wheels, traction control and a five-speed manual transmission. Revised, sprightlier gearing made it nearly as quick as the SVT.
The Focus remained largely unchanged from 2005 until the second-generation vehicle appeared for model year 2008. Other countries got an all-new Focus based on the company’s C1 architecture, which it shared with its corporate cousins, the Volvo S40 and Mazda3. However, the second-gen U.S. car still uses the first-generation Focus platform.
The original Focus enjoyed a long, high-volume production spell. And like so many of its forefathers, the Focus is light, simple and easy on the wallet—the perfect starting point for a performance machine.
Things to Know
One of the Focus’s biggest advantages is its huge American sales numbers—nearly 300,000 for model year 2000 alone. That means secondhand examples are very reasonably priced, though the limited-production SVT Focus fetches higher prices thanks to its greater demand.
The five-speed transmission is fairly stout, but it isn’t without faults when facing increased horsepower. Steeda’s Gus Irizarry warns that shift linkages may wear and require replacements.
Stock clutches won’t survive much past 230 horsepower at the wheels. Exedy clutches make good performance replacements, and both Richard Holdener, author of “High Performance Ford Focus Builder’s Handbook,” and Steeda vouch for the units in high-power applications.
The factory peg-leg open differential is hardly adequate for performance duty and can be replaced with better components, like Ford Racing’s T-2 unit or a Torsen.
The factory Focus suspension is one of the car’s strongest attributes. The car grips well and exhibits good turn-in, but body roll notoriously follows. Oscillation becomes a huge issue, but good, thicker anti-roll bars can remedy the problem.
Further improvements to the suspension can be achieved with new struts and springs. The stockers can be a wee bit soft.
The stock brakes found on the base models lack the ability to hold up to hard use, but SVT components can fix that.
The rear hub/stub axle assemblies on the base model can flex under load and lead to wheel bearing problems. Steeda recommends swapping to the Focus RS parts.
Most buyers avoid the SPI engines for anything other than pedestrian applications. Valve issues have been reported, and these can result in catastrophic engine failure around 100,000 miles.
The 16-valve Zetec is the trusted workhorse. Despite the bad rumors, don’t always believe what you hear. Early attempts at forced induction didn’t go so well, but today’s Focus tuners have proclaimed the Zetec to be robust with a competent tune.
The Zetec responds well to standard bolt-ons like intakes, headers, exhausts, head work and the occasional 75 shot of nitrous. FSWerks, Steeda and Ford Racing all stock performance parts.
FSWerks offers a huge selection of bolt-on parts for the Focus, including turbo kits for both the 2.0- and 2.3-liter Duratec. They promise a 75-plus-percent boost in performance with the 2.3-liter engine turbo kit; the 2.0-liter engine’s output rises by at least 70 percent.
Watch the timing belt, especially on 2000 and 2001 examples. O-ring leaks can occur at both the thermostat and the water pump.
Steeda has tuned a naturally-aspirated Duratec to 204 horsepower at the wheels. They used Cosworth’s cylinder head, camshafts and intake manifold.
Want more torque? Kugel Komponents offers a kit that puts a small-block Ford V8 and 8.8-inch rear end in the Focus chassis. The real kicker: It’s a bolt-in kit.
Body and Interior
Focus exteriors are fairly resistant to wear, but thanks to a combination of rigorous commuter duty and a slanted hood, don’t be surprised to find some chipped paint and clear coat wear on the nose, especially on the front fascia.
Shed some weight. Steeda offers a 15-pound carbon fiber hood for the 2000-’04 Focus
Both the leather and cloth interiors resist tears nicely, but owners of cloth upholstery swear that it has the unique ability to absorb stains that can never be removed. The interior plastics, meanwhile, hold up well and show above-average resistance to scratching.