By Jil McIntosh

When my grandfather returned from the First World War, he bought a Model T Ford. It had to be cranked to start, and that could be risky business. If the engine backfired and the crank spun, it could break an arm. And that’s exactly what happened to him.

He took it for an omen, and although he lived to be 97, he never got behind the wheel of a Ford again. (He also bought a motorcycle but didn’t think to ask how to work the brakes, left it at the spot where it ran out of gas and never got on two wheels again … but I digress.)

I guess he passed that along. I had a secondhand 1975 Ford Ranchero that was a headache on a stick. When I finally unloaded it, after its entire electrical system fried, my subsequent purchases never included a blue oval.

Many buyers may have similar misgivings about the Focus. It was introduced for 2000, sized to replace both the smaller Escort and the larger Contour. But in its first two years, it quickly racked up numerous recalls and safety investigations.

That naturally turned off a lot of people. But Ford reports a definite improvement since then. Transport Canada reports no recalls for 2003 or 2004, and just one recall for 2002, on the Focus SVT, which affected only eleven vehicles.

Indeed, I found that, apart from a few minor details, the Focus ZX5 was more than enough to get me over my ragged Ranchero.

The Focus comes in four configurations: two-door hatchback, four-door sedan, four-door wagon, and four-door hatchback, in three trim levels. Prices start at $16,475 for the LX 4-door sedan; the ZTW wagon tops out at $22,405.

The sedan and wagon’s lower trim lines receive a 2.0-litre, 110 hp 4-cylinder engine. The higher trim levels use a 2.0-litre Zetec, which delivers 130 hp at 5,300 rpm, and 135 ft-lbs of torque at 4,500 rpm.

Even with the 130 horses, Focus ZX5 isn’t a pavement-scorcher. But it does deliver smooth, even power that makes it a pleasure both on highway tours and city streets, and without torque steer. It’s also fairly frugal for its size; in combined driving, I averaged 8.0 L/100km (35 mpg). (You can also move up to the SVT – “Special Vehicle Team” – a 170 hp option on the hatchback models, at $27,595 for the 3-door and $28,095 for the 5-door.)

For the 2005 model year, the standard 2.0 litre engine will be upgraded to 136 horsepower, and a new optional 2.3 litre four-cylinder engine with 151 horsepower will be offered on a sporty ZX4 model.

In length and width, the Focus is actually smaller than Honda Civic or Dodge SX, but has more interior room. There’s even plenty of legroom in the back seat, although Ford’s pushing it by calling it a 5-passenger. The middle seat is for Munchkins only, since the console extends along the floor almost to the seat cushion. Those cushions flip forward, allowing the seat backs to be folded to an almost-flat 137 cm-long cargo area.

I had the car on a nasty-weather week, but the Focus managed wet pavement and an extremely windy stretch of highway very well. Handling is quick and precise, and visibility is excellent. I even have to admit to a liking for the ZX5’s decidedly offbeat rear end, with its pillar-mounted taillights, although I don’t think I’m in the majority on that.

The ZX5, which comes in premium trim line only, offers such features as ABS, 16-inch aluminum wheels, fog lamps, power heated mirrors, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, AM/FM/CD, power windows and cruise control.

Optional on my tester was Advance Trac traction control. At $1,775, it’s a pricey add-on. But when I made a hard turn onto a fresh gravel road – which can be as treacherous as heavy snow – it did a superb job of helping to keep the car straight and preventing a slide.

So after all that, what’s left to nitpick? There were a few things, starting with the ignition (no pun intended). I’d like the Ford folks to spin this thing about 15 degrees. Your hand’s bent nearly backwards when you shut off the engine.

The hatch, while well-balanced and easy to operate, could use an outside handle. Yes, it opens with the key, or the remote, or the inside release, but we all have days when the car’s unlocked and someone simply wants to get stuff out of the back.

I don’t like the wipers. Period. The stalk is hard to figure out, and the rear washer pump’s noise is bizarre. The front wipers don’t overlap enough, so after you’ve used the washers, or between intermittent swipes in rain, fluid drips down the middle of the glass from the puddle left at the top.

And unless you stay strictly in the downtown core, leave the optional projector headlamps in the box, where they belong. They’re bright and they enhance the car’s appearance, but they only illuminate about one car length ahead. It was very unnerving, when I was on a dark country road, to overdrive my headlights at only 80 km/hr.

But there are plenty of details to like. Inside door handles that override the rolling locks. Removable cupholder inserts for easy cleaning. A handsome dash, with simple, unobstructed radio and heater controls. Comfy seats, with a well-placed armrest on the door. And the Zetec has fail-safe cooling, to prevent cooking the engine if all the coolant drains out.

It’s enough to make me get over the Ranchero.

Is it enough to overcome the nameplate’s previous negative publicity? It’s impossible to judge reliability in only one week in a new car, but from the driver’s seat, it definitely feels like Ford is finally back on track.

Technical Data: 2004 Ford Focus ZX5

Base price $21,560
Options $2,895 (4-speed automatic $1,120, Advance Track $1,775)
Freight $875
A/C tax $100
Price as tested $25,430
Type 4-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback
Layout transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive
Engine 2.0 litre 4 cylinder, DOHC, 16 valves
Horsepower 130 @ 5300 rpm
Torque 135 @ 4500 rpm
Curb weight 1157 kg (2551 lb.)
Wheelbase 2616 mm (103.0 in.)
Length 4280 mm (162.5 in.)
Width 1699 mm (66.9 in.)
Height 1430 mm (56.3 in.)
Cargo area 538 litres (19.0 cu. ft.) rear seats up
  793 litres (28 cu. ft.) rear seats down
Fuel consumption City: 9.0 l/100 km (31 mpg)
  Hwy: 6.4 l/100 km (44 mpg)
Warranty 3 yrs/60,000 km

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