Motoring: Small thinks big

The Ford Focus is a little estate with room to spare.

THE FORD Focus hit the car scene with the same sort of impact that Michael Owen hit the football pitch, and the accolades were just as fast in coming. The hatchback version of the Focus - the only model launched thus far - has won just about every magazine comparison test it's been in. It's been feted around Europe and also easily won the 1999 Car of the Year award.

What was significant about its victory in the COTY was not just the margin of its win, which was big, but the widespread nature of its popularity. The judges from France liked it just as much as those from Finland; ditto the Greeks, Germans, Belgians, Britons, Swedes and Spaniards. Often the COTY judges back their national favourites. Not this year. The Focus wiped the board. To cap off a terrific couple of months for Ford, the Focus has just picked up top marks in the official NCAP European safety tests.

But like any new star, there comes a time when the sparkle will start to flicker. And that's when the critics, who have lauded the new Focus like no other mass-made car I can remember, will be poised, knives ready to thrust.

The first big opportunity for the knockers comes when a car's model range starts to proliferate. Yes, yes, the hatch may be ace. But can the other versions which follow possibly be as good? Well, the Focus range is about to go from hatch only, to estate and four-door saloon as well. Here, we test the load-lugging estate version.

Let's start on a sour note. The hold-all model doesn't look as elegant as the freshly-styled hatch. The estate's back end looks rather grafted on, like a box-room extension to an already handsome building. The stylish Sloane Square front sits uncomfortably with the suburban semi-detached stern. There are very few estates that look like they were designed as estates from the outset, with most looking like converted hatches or saloons.

In lugging capacity, though, the new estate is excellent. Ford claims it is the roomiest car in its class, and if you start to cart around big loads you'll be unlikely to gainsay them. The carrying area is high, wide, uncluttered and well able to accommodate large objects. The rear seats fold forward, to let in more luggage. Pity the bottom back-seat cushion is one-piece, when the rear backrests are split 60:40. It's one of the few obvious signs of Ford penny pinching, and does compromise the car's load-carrying versatility.

As with the Focus hatch, the rear seat is outstandingly roomy, offering excellent head- and leg-room. In every area except shoulder-room, it is as spacious as the Mondeo in the next-class-up. Trim quality is also good, even if the Focus lacks the class of the Golf.

The dashboard is a strange futuristic design, which won't appeal to everyone. But it sites all the controls very conveniently - including the radio, up nice and high in the centre of the dash. The only blemish is on the top-range Ghia version, which gets awful fake wood, which clearly comes from a cheap tube rather than a majestic tree.

The Focus estate drives superbly. It handles and steers as well as the Focus hatch, the class benchmark, and is well ahead of rivals. It's only when the load starts to get really heavy that its fleetness suffers.

There's a range of engines on offer, but the best is the 1.6-litre petrol engine. It is smooth revving, pleasingly brisk and extremely economical. You should have little difficulty getting close to 40mpg. If you want more zip, but less refinement, the 1.8- and 2.0-litre engines won't disappoint.

Personally, I'd stick with the more handsome five-door Focus hatch, and pay the home-delivery fee every time I buy too much at Ikea or Homebase. But if you really want the carrying capacity, and fancy a small estate, then there is no better choice. The styling may be more disjointed than the hatch. But the Focus estate is still a terrifically good car.

SPECIFICATIONS

Make and model: Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec estate pounds 14,000

Engine: 1,596cc, four cylinders, 16 valves, 100bhp at 6,000rpm

Transmission: Five-speed manual, front wheel drive

Performance: Maximum speed 115mph, 0-60mph in 11.0 seconds, 40.9mpg average

Rivals

Citroen Xsara 1.6LX estate pounds 13,635. Good ride, nippy enough and quite roomy, but lacks the engaging driving manners of the Focus

Peugeot 306 1.6LX estate pounds 14,220. Stylish, good to drive, soft riding, but not as spacious as the Ford

Vauxhall Astra 1.6LS estate pounds 14,045. Probably the Focus's keenest rival. Spacious and handsome, but the cabin's trim is second-rate

Volkswagen Golf 1.8CL estate pounds 13,920. The estate Golf still uses the old Golf's underpinnings, so it's outgunned by the new Ford in just about every way

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