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Ford’s New Compact Focus Is Sharp Around the Edges

The visual gist of the Ford Focus suggests that the company sent its stylists on a two-year tea break before turning the car over to common sense and technologists.

The result is a compact built for intelligent function before modish form. In the mold of Mason jars and drop-forged claw hammers, it’s a car that shows no empty architecture or superfluous mechanicals that might impinge upon the scripted purpose of the product.

And Ford has gone for the throat of the global compact market with an enduring though hardly endearing shape, plus surpluses of quality, heft, space, equipment, handling, practicality, performance and value in a very refined car that is--as they are wont to say in this country born to the manner of class and caste--way above its station.

The 2000 Focus is scheduled to go on sale in the United States this fall as a hatchback, sedan and wagon to replace the Escort. It will also reveal Ford’s deliberate pursuit of a signal quest: innovate, via production and computer technology, a global car for tomorrow’s pickier, even creakier, owners, with its emphasis on people space and creature comforts.

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If such thoughtful engineering persuades other compact-car builders to concentrate on the market for hods and wheelbarrows, so much the better.

We spent four days driving a 1.8-liter, Ghia-styled Focus on the wrong side of the Cotswolds’ muddy two-laners and intercity motor ways. (For power-happy Americans, U.S. versions will arrive with a 2.0-liter, 128-horsepower version of the same four-banger.) More than 500 miles proved that Ford has indeed damned and demolished the miserable handling, pokey performance and butt-cramping discomforts that have long been reasons for not buying small, inexpensive cars.

By tweaking shapes and dimensions by simulation, even crash-testing 100 designs by computer, Ford created a small car with the room of a big car. By tuning controls and paying as much attention to ergonomics as to engineering, it has made an inexpensive car that feels like expensive wheels. And no element--not the distance between turn signal and fingertip, not one British mother’s suggestion to make seat-back pockets large enough for maps, comics and coloring books--was left unturned.

“It was all aimed at translating a compact-car ride into an enjoyable driving experience,” says Al Kammerer, line director for the Focus. “It has to do with the sum of the parts, the attention to detail, forming a dedicated engineering team for just switches and controls . . . until the car becomes intuitive to drive.”

With U.S. stickers expected to range from $13,000 to $15,000, the Focus is a European-designed compact priced closer to a South Korean-built subcompact. It offers family seating for five--and enough suitcase space for chronic over-packers--with acceleration and a top speed quite sufficient to tame the young and the feckless. A city-highway fuel average of 33 miles per gallon, which will be a convenience for American drivers, is viewed as nothing short of a bloody miracle by British commuters, who pay close to $4 a gallon for regular unleaded.

Ford has run amok with tape measures and micrometers and claims everything about the car is the very best in the compact class. More headroom and legroom. Better trunk space. Stiffer and lighter body shell. Composite, chew-resistant tie-down rings for your bulldog. OK, we made up the bit about tie-down rings.

For a few pounds more, there’s even a blueblood Focus tarted up by Ghia with anti-lock brakes, leather seating, polished wood trim, skull-and-torso side air bags front and rear, anti-theft system, CD changer and a hands-free telephone, radio, bobby pager and global positioning satellite system for roadside assistance and room service.

“What we set out to do sounds so simple: Make the car easy to live with,” says Rose Mary Farenden, manager of the Focus project. “But that meant being involved with every single aspect of Ford Focus, making sure each element provides what the customer wants, and then that all the elements combine happily together.

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“It’s like forming a choir: If one person is singing just slightly off-key, that’s the voice you’ll notice.”

Such bad notes--be they hard-edged seats leaving ridges in your cellulite or tiny symbols on pill-sized radio buttons--have long kept legions of buyers from sharing their disposable income with makers of compact cars.

An additional intrigue of the Ford Focus is not so much what you get with the car but how and why it got there:

* In its wisdom, Ford took note of research that says the world population is growing taller and that average heights have increased half an inch since 1990. So the interior of the Focus has been stretched a little wider, taller and longer to accommodate our slightly larger Millennium Man.

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* We are living longer, but if you’re wearing Sav-on bifocals to read this, you know our eyesight isn’t getting any better. That’s why numerals and symbology on the Focus are noticeably larger.

* Movements slow as people age and their old joints, like old Fords, lose their lubrication. Rather than wear out senior citizens through a geriatric test program, Ford dressed younger engineers in heavily padded overalls to duplicate the movements and sizes of 75-year-olds and had them climb in and out of the car until doors and seats were deemed wide and high enough to handle people of restricted agility.

* A battery saver automatically switches off forgotten lights after 10 minutes. With diplomacy, plus deep respect for their elders, the folks at Ford will not say if this is catering to aging and fading memories.

* All rotary knobs are rubberized and push-pull knobs use silicon pads because fingers will remember such material differences long before they are locked into memory by visual stimuli. Even the click of the turn indicator has been tuned until it becomes a hushed reminder, not a clacking irritant. That way, mental energy wasted on recognizing, even resisting, a nuisance will be redirected to more important events outside the car.

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* In a perfect car for an imperfect world, notes manager Farenden, the engine should fire as soon as the key is turned. Not fractionally afterward.

Our own test of the driver-friendliness of Focus was unintentional but appropriate. We picked up the car at dark of night, with no briefing beyond the plumbing of personal instincts. Yet lights, gearshift, hand brake, de-mister and pedals fell easily to hand and foot. Nothing alien, everything where God and the ghost of Henry Ford decreed they should be.

We transitioned in minutes, scooting easily across London and Saturday night live, safe from lorries, double-decker buses and others trespassing against us by going the wrong way around roundabouts.

Such efficiency and easy aplomb are definite reasons why, just two months after its European introduction, Focus was named European car of the year and was first in contests in Germany, Scotland, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Sweden and Estonia.

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We did not make that up about Estonia.

Times automotive writer Paul Dean can be reached via e-mail at paul.dean@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

2000 Ford Focus

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Cost

* Base, and as tested, $15,000 estimated. Includes trim package by Ghia, leather seats, faux wood trim, anti-lock brakes, side air bags front and rear, anti-theft system, alloy wheels, sound system with CD changer, air conditioning, power steering, cruise control, driver’s power seat-height control, electric and heated side mirrors, power locks, five-speed manual transmission.

Engine

* 1.8-liter inline-4 developing 115 horsepower; U.S. version will have a 2.0-liter, 128-horsepower engine.

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Type

* Front-engine, front-wheel-drive, five-passenger compact, to be available in U.S. as a sedan, station wagon and three-door hatchback.

Performance

* 0-60 mph, as tested, in 9.5 seconds.

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* Top speed: 125 mph.

* Fuel consumption, average, combined city and highway, with five-speed manual: 33 miles per gallon (Ford estimate).

Curb Weight

* 2,600 pounds.

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****

The Good: Optimum use of production technology to correct traditional flaws and compromises of small-car motoring. Six-footers, front and rear, get six inches of headroom. High quality, low price, improved dimensions, sophisticated safety systems, outstanding economy and enhanced performance make a shambles of current compact standards. Car of the year in most European countries, car of tomorrow poised to keep Toyota, Honda and Nissan frowning darkly in the United States.

The Bad: Optimizing interior room results in a minimalist, even homespun, look to exterior.

The Ugly: How do you feel about homespun?

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