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Ford's Econobox Bargain


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Chevy's Campus Cruiser

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Ford's Econobox Bargain

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Slide Show: Smart Cars for School

The Ford Focus is one of the classic college student cars. It's economical, reliable, and reasonably sporty for an econobox. Consumer Reports, the bible of prudent purchasers, absolutely loves the Focus, rating it the top economy car for 2005. For years, the Focus also was on the annual Car & Driver magazine Top Ten list. "All [Focus models] are engaging front-drive cars because they respond enthusiastically to commands, like a soldier fresh from boot camp," Car & Driver says.

So, when BusinessWeek Online asked me to pick a list of good cars for college students, I had to include Ford's popular little economy car.

I recently test-drove a 2005 Focus ZX5 S hatchback. And though I can't believe I'm saying this -- I mean, I'm a Ford (F) guy, I own a Ranger pickup truck and a four-wheel-drive Explorer and absolutely love 'em -- I was really disappointed.

STARTER MODEL. The Focus is a good basic set of wheels with an excellent new engine that will probably go 100,000 miles or more with few problems. But it's also noisy, poorly built, and doesn't handle very well. Even though Ford updated the design for the 2005 model year in an effort to stay competitive with the small Japanese cars, the Focus has the feel of a model that has languished while its competitors zoomed ahead.

To my mind, the Chevy Cobalt and the (Toyota-made) Scion tC (see BW Online, 8/12/05, "Chevy's Campus Cruiser" and 8/5/05, "Scion: Third Time's the Charm"), both all-new for 2005, are better cars. And I doubt the Focus will compare favorably with the redesigned Honda Civic that's debuting in September.

Then again, the 2005 Focus is a heck of a bargain right now, if you can find one left on the lots. Through Oct. 3, Ford is offering a $2,500 cash-back deal on top of its "Family Plan" pricing that gives every buyer employee-discount prices on many models (likely to be extended until Sept. 30 to match General Motors (GM), which has just extended its program until then). The dual discounts cut more than three grand off the base price of the '05 four-door Focus hatchback I drove -- which featured a 2-liter, 136-horsepower, four-cylinder engine -- dropping it all the way down to $12,825, including the destination charge. The two-door hatchback is now just $11,510. And the four-door sedan now starts at $12,120.

DISAPPEARING DISCOUNTS. At those prices, I wish I had tried the performance version of the Focus sedan, the ST (base price with the discounts: $15,000) which has a bigger 151-horsepower engine, comes only with a stick shift, and is probably a lot more exciting to drive. But the model I tested, the ZX5 S, is exactly the sort of economical, base model many students end up with, especially if a parent is helping with the financing. Just be aware that the current discounts are likely to disappear or be moderated this fall when the '06s come out.

And, of course, low base prices don't reflect what most people end up paying for a car. You have to add in $810 for an automatic transmission, $910 for air conditioning, and $455 for an audiophile sound system with a CD/MP3 player. You also should consider paying for some key safety add-ons, such as antilock brakes ($400), side airbags ($350), and traction control (a bargain at $120).

The good news is that the Focus is comfortable and functional. It was one of the first "tall" small cars, so you sit higher than in most such models and have good visibility. Headroom is adequate. So are leg, shoulder, and hip space, though the back seat has room for only two adults, despite the three seatbelts. With the rear seats down, plenty of storage space is available. And the Focus is more compact than most competing small cars -- the hatchback is only 168.5 inches long -- so it's easy to park.

MINI-MANUAL. However, unless you fork over the extra $695 for leather seats, the interior is very spare. The base model I drove, which listed at $16,800 before discounts, had manually-controlled windows, seat locks, and external mirror controls. It also lacked a driver's arm-rest and outside thermometer.

The controls are simple and straightforward to use, which is a relief after trying to deal with the busy and overly complicated functions on more expensive cars. One measure of how basic the Focus is: The owner's manual is only 225 pages long, most of it boilerplate stuff like how to use the seatbelts. The multiple tomes that come with a luxury car contain up to three times as many dense pages.

The bad news is that the Focus isn't that much fun to drive. I don't understand why it gets such good reviews. I found the steering and handling quite sloppy. Pickup isn't good with the smaller engine, and the automatic transmission has a tendency to race during acceleration. Road noise is considerable on rough pavement, and wind noise is rather noticeable at highway speed -- in part, I suspect, because the car's exterior fit and finish are subpar. The gaps around the doors and hood in my test model were too wide in places and weren't uniform. The doors don't close as tightly as on rival small cars.

BETTER SHOP AROUND. Another negative: While the Focus has a good safety rating, especially if you opt for side airbags, side-curtain airbags aren't even an option. I'm also not a huge fan of the styling changes Ford made as of '05. I still like the car's looks, but the earlier versions had edgier, more European styling. The new version is softer and more mainstream-looking.

Of course, you can always buy a used Focus. Consumer Reports counsels against the 2000 and '01 models, which had reliability issues. But you can pick up a certified, low-mileage 2002 or 2003 with a warranty and free roadside assistance for around $11,500. If you shop around, you can probably get as nice one in the want ads for $10,000 or less.

At the moment, though, it's very hard to beat the prices on an '05 Focus. My main advice is to also look at other heavily discounted models, notably the Chevy Colbalt. And if prices revert to normal, I'd do even heavier comparison shopping.

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