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Nashville Scene Persistence of Vision

Ford zeroes in on sub-compacts with new Focus line-up

By Marc Stengel

DECEMBER 28, 1999:  As a former film student, I have always marveled at the magic of the movies. Specifically, I mean the sheer physical magic by which a series of discreet, still photographs springs alive into motion before our very eyes. By means of the neuro-ocular quirk identified as "persistence of vision," our minds simply refuse to acknowledge the staccato blur of 24 frames-per-second streaming past, no matter how hard we focus on the screen.

Even though it's illogical to equate static images with moving reality, we defer to a persistent mental interpreter that allows us to give in to the illusion of motion--otherwise, we'd be hopelessly distracted and we'd never keep up with the story. All this has very little to do with automobiles, of course, and yet it's uncanny how faithfully the new Ford Focus suite of subcompacts depends on this same technique in pursuit of that automotive holy grail, the World Car.

It has been Ford's persistent vision, after all, to design, build, and sell a nearly identical car in all the world's markets--for the betterment of global commuters and the enrichment of the corporate treasury. In 1981, the Ford Escort/Mercury Lynx was meant to be just such a car; and if you count the countries and continents where this functional econobox appeared, its diffusion was global indeed. But on the one continent that mattered then and matters still--all-dominant North America--overall sales of the car were a dud. At least Escort/Lynx didn't consume the more than $6 billion in development costs that have resulted 18 years later in the Ford Contour/Mercury Mystique fiasco. Despite the rave, and deserved, success of the European Ford Mondeo--from which the Contour/Mystique platform was derived--upscale, $20,000 sport-sedans that emphasize sophistication over size apparently have no place in U.S. driveways.

Time, then, to descend the demographic staircase and return to the demimonde of subcompacts, favored by youngsters with entry-level paychecks and by budgeteers of every age. With the arrival of a trio of snappy Ford Focus models, we are meant to envision the latest stage of Ford's persistent, uninterrupted quest for the World Car. It would be better, for auto buyers and for Ford, to dispense with the charming illusion of the Focus' evolutionary pedigree and to admit what is strikingly obvious and welcome: Here is a refreshingly novel attempt at combining best possible value with most capable performance for the greatest number of auto buyers around the world.

My recent introduction to the 2000 Ford Focus was by way of the top-of-the-line ZTS sedan model. On approaching this car, it's instantly apparent that the sloping, anteater hood and the starchy creases in fenders and doors advertise a dramatic departure from anything else on the road. The look is crisp, different, but with an exotic allure that entices rather than repels (as does, for example, the less successful fauvist styling of the new Mercury Cougar).

What's compact and unusual outside, moreover, is unusually spacious inside, so that slipping behind the wheel or into any of the four passenger seats is a bit like passing through the looking glass. A genuine subcompact, the Focus sedan is a tall and wide bubble inside that consigns the competition to inner spacelessness by comparison. At an as-tested price of $16,625, the well-equipped ZTS (with such standard items as stereo CD, anti-lock brakes, and alloy wheels) is just another attractive rival alongside comparable Civics, Corollas, Proteges, Cavaliers, Saturns, and Neons. But in LX trim (from $12,540) or SE trim (from $13,980), the Focus edges closer to spectacular bargain possibilities. And the spicy ZX3 hatchback model (from $12,280) combines truly radical appearance with standard 130 horsepower to pose a serious threat of world dominance in sporty coupe circles. Then, at the top of the Focus pecking order, is a sport wagon equipped standard with a four-speed auto mated to the same 130-horse Zetec motor for $15,795 (base).

On paper, only the 150-horsepower Dodge Neon outmuscles the Focus models equipped with the twin-cam, 2.0-liter Zetec. (The Focus LX model comes with a single-cam version of the 2.0-liter, making 110 horsepower.) Out where the rubber meets the road, however, the Focus/Zetec aces Neon with its total package of powertrain and suspension. Zetec marshals 135 ft.-lbs. of torque for brilliant throttle response in traffic. This, packaged with true multi-link independent suspension at all four corners, yields spunky handling that is not only surprisingly reassuring but also devilishly tempting: It is virtually impossible not to toss this car around in traffic and through neighborhood twists and turns in a way that transforms the banal commute into a rallycar rehearsal.

If I have any qualms about the Focus lineup at all, they derive from Ford's persistence in chasing the World Car dream. It is a dream that Ford has enticed me to share before, and my unabashed support for the ill-fated Contour has tended to marginalize my expectations as a North American auto enthusiast. It is, in short, not so fun to play Cassandra in the global automotive epic that will climax next millennium with a showdown between energy consumption, emissions control, and spacious individual vehicles. Just the same, by shifting its Focus to appeal to younger buyers of subcompacts, perhaps Ford has not only conceived the right car to go global, but also the right chorus of new voices to spread the word about it. Ultimately, smart, clean, and affordable cars benefit even those of us who don't drive them--at least those of us who persist in our vision of private choices in personal transportation.

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