There was a time in the 1980s when Ford’s Mazda-based Laser ruled the small car market, but by the end of the ’90s it had become uncompetitive.

To rebuild its fortunes Ford then turned to Europe for its small cars where it found the front-wheel drive Focus.

By the time the Focus hit our shores Holden was selling its own European small car, the Astra, and it was going gangbusters making it hard for Ford to regain lost ground.

Like the Astra the Focus promised the sort of responsive handling and zippy performance for which European cars were renowned.

Models

Options at launch included 17-inch alloy wheels. Options at launch included 17-inch alloy wheels.

The first Focus offering was extensive; there were sedans and hatches, a number of trim levels, ranging from basic to sporty, and even a luxury model.

The budget CL opened the bidding in four-door sedan or five-door hatch body styles, and the choice of 1.8-litre or 2.0-litre four-cylinder engines.

By choosing the 1.8-litre engine you got a five-speed manual gearbox, no question, there was no automatic transmission option on the small engine.

To have the optional four-speed automatic transmission you had to select the 2.0-litre engine.

The CL’s standard features were remote central locking, fog lamps, an immobiliser, power steering, and a radio/CD player with four speakers.

Safety features were limited to seat belt pretensioners and a driver’s airbag.

Options were air conditioning, ABS braking, and alloy wheels.

The base CL was offered in sedan or hatch. Air conditioning and ABS were optional. The base CL was offered in sedan or hatch. Air conditioning and ABS were optional.

Next in the range was the LX, which was also available as a sedan or hatch, and came with the choice of 1.8-litre or 2.0-litre four-cylinder engine.

The transmission choices were also the same as the CL, the manual gearbox went with the 1.8-litre engine, and the automatic went with the 2.0-litre.

Standard features of the LX consisted of air conditioning, remote central locking, fog lamps, power mirrors and front windows, power steering, a radio/CD player with four speakers, and 15-inch alloy wheels.

Safety features included seat belt pretensioners, front airbags for the driver and front passenger, ABS anti-lock braking, and electronic brakeforce distribution.

Options were 17-inch alloy wheels, electronic stability control, and a sports body kit.

The Ghia was the range-topping model, and befittingly it was the best equipped.

It was only available as a sedan, with the 2.0-litre engine and automatic transmission.

Standard were air conditioning with climate control, cruise control, CD player and six-stacker, power windows front and back, and a leather-wrapped steering wheel.

Safety features consisted of airbags for the driver and front passenger, side airbags, ABS anti-lock braking and electronic brakeforce distribution.

Options were 17-inch alloy wheels, a sports body kit, and electronic stability control.

For those seeking a sporty drive there was the Zetec, which came as a three-door or five-door hatch, with the 2.0-litre engine and the choice of manual gearbox or automatic transmission.

The Zetec was available as a three door and with a 2.0-litre engine. The Zetec was available as a three door and with a 2.0-litre engine.

It had dual front airbags, ABS anti-lock braking, Electronic Brakeforce Distribution (EBD), air conditioning, 16-inch alloy wheels, remote central locking, power mirrors and front windows, immobiliser, leather steering wheel, and a radio/CD player.

Options were 17-inch alloy wheels, a body kit, and Electronic Stability Control (ESC).

The ST170 hot three-door hatch was unleashed in 2003; it came with a 2.0-litre engine and six-speed manual gearbox.

It featured 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, an alarm, immobiliser, a sports body kit, remote central locking, CD player, fog lamps, power windows and mirrors, power steering, rear spoiler, sports seats, and sports suspension.

Safety features of the ST170 were airbags for the driver and front passenger, side airbags, ABS anti-lock brakes, EBD and ESC.

The SR was introduced in 2004 as a budget sporty model that came as a sedan or hatch, with either the 1.8 or 2.0-litre engine.

It had standard air conditioning, 15-inch alloy wheels, a radio/CD player, remote central locking, power steering, an immobiliser, fog lamps, and a driver’s airbag and seat belt pretensioners.

Options were ABS braking, cruise control, a leather wrapped steering wheel, and prestige paint.

Missing from the equipment list of the first Focus were features such as Bluetooth, so you couldn’t connect an iPhone or Android device, it didn't have sat nav, a touch screen, or a sunroof.

Parking aids such as a reversing camera, parking sensors, or a park assist system weren’t available either.

The spare tyre was a full-sized one.

Cabin

Inside there were seats for five in quite decent comfort, if you weren’t the one squeezed into the centre rear seat.

All occupants had reasonable head and legroom and could travel in decent comfort.

The cabin was well laid-out; everything was placed within good reach of the driver, but the plastics couldn't match those in the Focus’s Japanese rivals.

The interior was well laid out but plastics couldn't match Japanese rivals. The interior was well laid out but plastics couldn't match Japanese rivals.

There was a range of storage options, and the centre console had two cupholders for the front seat occupants.

The boot was quite generous, the sedan boasting 490 litres of luggage space, the hatch 290 litres with the rear seats upright, but considerably more when they were laid down.

Lap-sash seat belts allowed the fitment of a baby car seat, but there were no ISOFIX mounting points.

Engine

The two main engines in the Focus range were the 1.8-litre double overhead camshaft four-cylinder and its bigger 2.0-litre brother. Sadly neither was a barnstormer.

The 1.8-litre engine pumped out 85kW (114 horsepower) and 156Nm and delivered modest performance.

It was only available in combination with a five-speed manual gearbox, so the performance wasn’t as poor as it could have been.

The 2.0-litre engine put out the same peak power of 85kW, but with a smidgen more torque with a maximum of 162Nm.

If you ticked the box for the 2.0-litre engine you got a four-speed automatic transmission, there was no choice, and sadly the performance was poor.

Both engines ran on 91-octane unleaded petrol.

The best performing engines were those in the Zetec models, the 2.0-litre four-cylinder boasting double overhead camshafts and variable valve timing, and putting out 96kW (129 horsepower) and 178 Nm of torque.

Transmission options for the Zetec engine were a five-speed manual gearbox and a four-speed automatic.

For the most performance there was the 2.0-litre engine in the ST170. That gave 127kW (170 horsepower) and 196Nm when at its peaks.

A six-speed manual gearbox was the only choice with the ST170.

The downside to the Zetec engines came at the pump; both required 95-octane premium unleaded.

Driving

If the engines were disappointing there was nothing to disappoint about the chassis. That shouldn’t have been a surprise as European Fords have long been renowned for their handling.

Underpinned by a combination of MacPherson Strut independent front suspension and 'Control Blade' multi-link independent rear suspension the steering was accurate, it went where it was pointed, and was sure-footed.

Few cars in the class could rival the small Ford for on-road dynamics.

Even with the impressive handling the ride was still comfortable.

The handling of the Focus didn't disappoint. The handling of the Focus didn't disappoint.

If anything let the Focus down it was its underwhelming engine and transmission combinations.

The 1.8 and 2.0-litre engines lacked zip, and the four-speed automatic transmission robbed them of any chance of standing out.

Those riding inside would have found the Focus to be pleasant and comfortable and the road noise relatively subdued.

If there were performance standouts in the range it was those models powered by the Zetec engines, in particular the ST170 hot hatch.

While the other models struggled to complete the 0-100 km/h sprint in 10 seconds, the ST170 did it in less than eight.

Safety

The base model CL had the bare minimum of safety features with a driver’s airbag and little more, unless you were prepared to stump up extra for the ABS braking option.

It was a rosier picture with the LX, which had airbags for the driver and front passenger, and standard ABS braking.

On top of those there was the Ghia, with airbags for the driver and front passenger, side airbags, ABS anti-lock braking and EBD.

ANCAP rated the Focus at four stars out of five.

Any common issues?

While later Focus models would have problems with their automatic transmissions that turned buyers off the Focus, the first model had no such concerns.

The automatics in the first model were conventional transmissions, not the dual-clutch ones that would come to cause owners such grief later on and sully the reputation of the Focus.

Overall, owners are a happy bunch, reporting good reliability, and few troubles over what are now quite high mileages.

While European came with a preconception of quality, the reality was that they weren’t as well built as the Japanese cars.

For that reason it’s essential that a car be closely inspected for loose or broken hardware, the electrics need particular attention just to make sure everything is working.

Mechanically the Focus is sound; there are no real issues with the engines or gearboxes that should be cause for concern.

If you’re buying an ST170 hot hatch then be careful as they are likely to have been driven enthusiastically by owners looking to exploit their performance.

Ask for a service record, which hopefully shows regular maintenance, particularly oil changes, using 5W-30 oil.

The first Focus was launched before capped price servicing, but the service costs shouldn’t be excessive if you use a reputable mechanic.

Ford recommended servicing the Focus every 15,000 km or 12 months, whichever came first.

The original new car warranty was for three-years/100,000 km, but that’s long since expired.

MORE: If anything crops up, you’ll probably find it on our Ford Focus problems page.

Owners view

Alice Poore: We bought our 1.8-litre CL hatch in 2012 and it has served us well over the last 150,000 km. It’s used daily commuting to and from work, and until recently was very reliable. We've had a raft of problems with the electrics and air-conditioning, but overall it’s been a good servant to us.

Ollie Everard: I have an LX manual sedan. I find it zippy, responsive, and fun to drive. It’s done 180,000 km and there have been no problems to date.

John Oliver: I bought my 2003 LR in 2011 when it had down 44,000 km. I drive it daily, and service annually, and all I’ve had to replace are normal wear and tear items. It’s not done 110,000 km and is still going well.

Kay Mawson: I’ve had my 2002 Zetec hatch for nine years and am still very happy with it. The power steering failed, the driver’s door window needed fixing, and the auto trans needs topping up now and again, but overall it’s been good for a 16-year-old car.

Rivals

Honda Civic

A small car class leader with quality, reliability, and performance.
3.5 stars.

Hyundai Elantra

Good value for money and standing the test of time well.
3 stars.

Mazda3

Perennial class favourite. Ticks all the boxes.
3.5 stars.

Verdict

A great driving car sadly let down by disappointing engines.