The Ford Focus made its debut in 1998 and has been a major player ever since. Today’s model is one of the most popular cars in the UK, second only to Ford’s own Fiesta so far in 2019 according to the most recent figures published by the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. After 21 years, the Focus is still a success story. Let’s see how that happened.
If it hadn’t been for a change of policy within Ford, the Focus might have been called Escort. This, after all, was the name the company had used for medium-sized family cars for thirty years.
The first Escort was launched in 1968, and both this model and its successor were rear-wheel drive saloons. The third, like nearly all the ones that followed it (other than a few 4x4s), was a front-wheel drive hatchback. Later Escorts sold well, as Fords traditionally do in the UK, but were not always highly regarded.
The first Focus
The original Focus was outstandingly better than the last Escort. Its styling, known as New Edge, was bang up-to-date, while very clever rear suspension helped make the car far better to drive than most others in its class.
The Focus was the basis of Ford’s World Rally Championship programme from 1999 until 2010, after which it was replaced by the Fiesta. No Ford driver became champion during this period, but Ford did win the Manufacturers title in 2006 and 2007.
Introducing the RS
The first Focus RS was produced for a brief period starting in 2002. It should have been launched earlier, but an estimate that development would take just 13 months turned out to be hopelessly optimistic.
With a power output of over 200bhp, and many parts supplied by companies who also worked with the World Rally team, this RS was very quick but had to be driven carefully to avoid torque steer. Heavy-handed journalists who found this difficult put the blame, quite wrongly, on the Quaife limited-slip differential. Ford solved the real problem when it created the second RS.
There were also questions about why the car didn’t have four-wheel drive. The press office claimed, as press offices do, that it didn’t need it. The technicians said, more accurately, that it was a packaging issue. There was no other 4×4 in the Focus range, and converting the bodyshell to take the extra transmission components would have sent the price skyrocketing above the actual figure of just under £20,000.
Son of Focus
The second-generation car was launched in late 2004, and was based on a platform also used by Mazda and Volvo.
The styling was less radical than before, and although the new car’s ride comfort was excellent it was nowhere near as nimble as its predecessor. On the plus side, it had much more room for rear passengers and luggage.
There was no immediate replacement for the first Focus RS. Instead, Ford brought out the ST, which had a 2.5-litre five-cylinder Volvo engine. At 225bhp, it was more powerful than the two-litre four-cylinder unit in the original RS.
Ford was a late entrant to the briefly popular coupe-convertible market already occupied by Renault, Vauxhall and Volkswagen.
The Coupe-Cabriolet, or CC, finally came along in 2006. It was designed by Italian company Pininfarina, which also did the final assembly work.
Return of the RS
The second RS, launched in 2009, used the same Volvo engine as the ST did, but with an increased power output of 301bhp. This made it the most powerful production Ford RS in the then four-decade history of the badge.
It was still front-wheel drive, and required some care for that reason, but thanks to some brilliant work on the front suspension (involving a device called the RevoKnuckle) it was far easier to drive than the significantly slower first-generation car.
Sharing its name with the hottest of the earlier Sierra Cosworths, the RS500 was based on the regular RS, but its Volvo engine was tuned still further to produce a maximum of 345bhp. Only 500 were built (101 of them for UK customers) and the standard colour was black.
The next Focus went on sale in the UK in March 2011, a century after Model T production began in Manchester. Intended to be sold in all world markets with only minimal alterations, it was based on the relatively new Global C platform and featured Ford’s latest Kinetic Design styling.
Early press reports in the UK, where this Focus was sold as a hatchback and an estate, were very favourable.
The first battery-powered car in the line-up was the Focus Electric, introduced in 2013. Ford claimed a range of 100 miles between charges. Drivers could tell how efficiently they were performing by the number of digital butterflies on the instrument panel.
The third and most recent RS was fitted with a 2.3-litre four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, similar to the one used in the Mustang but with a higher output of 345bhp. Tuning specialist Mountune produced a performance kit which raised the power still further to 370bhp without invalidating the Ford warranty.
Unlike the previous two, this RS had four-wheel drive, which improved its hot hatch credentials enormously. It also had launch control (though this made very little difference to the standing-start acceleration) and, for people who like going sideways without crashing, a drift mode.
The current Focus, based on yet another new platform, was launched in 2018. Although not entirely free of criticism, it has been praised for its extra practicality over the previous model and for its excellent on-road behaviour.
In an attempt to keep the fight going against wave after wave of new SUVs, Ford has developed a special version of the Focus called the Active. The body (hatchback or estate) is identical, but the ride height has been increased by 30mm. This, along with increased body protection, gives Active models some extra off-road capability even though they do not have four-wheel drive.
None of that will be relevant to buyers who never go off-road, but the Active is likely to appeal to people who prefer the better view and easier entry and access provided by the greater ride height.