Bangerwatch: Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec

It’s time for Bangerwatch, PetrolBlog’s equivalent of BBC TV’s Springwatch, only without Kate Humble, Michaela Strachan or any wildlife. Instead, Bangerwatch takes a look at rare and interesting cars that have fallen into Banger territory, seemingly spiralling into oblivion. By giving them exposure as potential Bangernomics project cars, it is hoped that PetrolBlog can save them from extinction.

The MK1 Ford Focus may at first glance appear to be quite a strange choice of car to feature on Bangerwatch, but hear me out on this. I happen to think it’s one of the most appealing and cost effective cars you can currently buy.

History of species

It’s hard to believe that it’s over 14 years since the Focus burst on to the scene. Not since the Sierra replaced the Cortina did a new Ford make such a big impact. You need to remember that it replaced the Escort which, despite selling in huge numbers had pretty much lost the plot. Dynamically and aesthetically it lagged behind the rest of the market. Ford needed something dramatically different and in the Focus, they got it.

The Focus was the third car to benefit from Ford’s ‘New Edge’ design strategy, following in the footsteps of the Ka and Puma. It was clear from the outset that the Focus was a car that Ford had spent a huge amount of time perfecting. With the later Escorts there was always a sense that the cars were built to a budget. The Focus on the other hand felt special and in 1998 it looked unlike any other C-segment family hatchback. Ford had rediscovered its edge.

Bangerwatch: Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec

Given the familiarity of the Focus, you’d be forgiven for not studying the car all that closely. But if you take a step back to take a closer look, you’ll see that it’s littered with neat touches. Like the triangular side repeaters and the rear window that drops to a point above the rear badge. Or the little roof spoiler that houses the high level brake light. The wheel arches are also a masterstroke, so delightfully futuristic and yet somehow feeling quite retro. The headlights and front fog lights are also brilliantly executed. In fact, a silver MK1 Focus is a symphony of curves, sharp edges and proportion.

In every department it trumped the Ford Escort and in many cases, managed to trounce the competition too. Its shell was 100% stiffer than the Escort and some 15% stiffer than the VW Golf. It was 30mm taller than the Escort, although at the time it felt like a lot more! But then, the Focus was so much more than the Escort. The fact that the Focus could run on two or three cylinders to cool the engine in the event of a loss of coolant was the kind of technology an Escort owner could only dream of. A brilliantly timed and brilliantly delivered vehicle which is taken for granted these days.

The pick of the species has to be the 1.6 Zetec. On a recent road trip to the Paris Motor Show, I got talking to Sean Carson about it and we agreed that it could be the best budget allrounder currently on sale. Consider the evidence.

The 1.6-litre engine will deliver up to 41mpg if driven like Miss Daisy, that’s some 8mpg more than the 2.0-litre. Admittedly you’d get more from the diesels, but you’ll pay more at the pumps and servicing costs are higher. What’s more, because they’re diesel, you’ll have to fork out more to buy the car.

The Zetec, particularly in 3-door form, is arguably the greatest looking Focus of them all. It’s as the ‘New Edge’ philosophy demanded, so is therefore clean, simple and free of fuss.

But the 1.6 Zetec’s ultimate party trick is its ability to tackle a B-road. The 1.6-litre engine may only deliver 100bhp, but its delivery is silky smooth and demands to be driven. The 1.6 Zetec also weighs a touch over 1,000kg, so it’s no overweight and lardy family hatchback. This becomes apparent on a twisty road, where you’ll find that the humble Focus delivers excitement way above its station. The chassis is taught, the steering is direct and communicative and the ride quality is superb.

Like the Honda Civic Ti reviewed on here, the MK1 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec is an underdog. An everyday family hatchback that is just as happy trundling to Sainsbury’s as it is tackling the B3081. And to think, you can pick a good one up for less than £1k.

Bangerwatch: 5-door Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec

Habitat

The MK1 Focus sold in huge numbers so you can expect to see them in just about every village, town and city across the UK. Many will be used as cheap transport and will be seen with local radio stickers plastered on the rear window and Magic Tree air fresheners hanging from the rear view mirror. Most will live out on the street at night, their days of being garaged and treated to a Sunday wax long behind them. The glory days of 1998 now a faded and distant memory.

Look out for them in the classifieds, particularly on eBay, Gumtree and your local corner shop.

What to look for

Whilst it may be tricky to find a perfect silver 1.6 Zetec in original condition, some patience may be rewarded with a great car. And patience will be the key as many early cars will be run on a shoestring budget and services will inevitably have been missed. Hunt one down with low mileage, a good history and a small number of owners for the best results.

If looked after the Zetec engines are incredibly strong, many seeing figures well in excess of 100k miles. At this sort of mileage you’ll begin to see issues such as troublesome central locking, electric windows, boot latches, coil packs and wheel bearings. But the original Focus is easy to work on, so home maintenance isn’t out of the question. The 3-door is insurance group 13, with the 5-door a couple groups lower at 11. You may want to check for an online quote here.

Interestingly, the Focus was launched with a 12-year perforation warranty, so even early cars may still be covered.

Risk of extinction

The Focus is no immediate danger, but it’s surprising how quick cars like these will fall from grace. Just look at the number of Sierras and Escorts on the road, compared to the numbers sold. In the case of the MK1 Focus, there are just 5,800 S-plate 1998 cars left.

Caught in the wild

Silver 2001 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec for sale on eBayThis silver 3-door looks remarkably fresh – just like the original press shots. With only one previous owner, it has done just 80k miles and comes with a brand new MOT. The write-up suggests that it has been well cared for and well maintained.

It looks like a remarkably honest car.

Check out the Focus 1.6 Zetec on eBay.

Black Y-plate Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec on eBayThe other contender comes in black, which whilst looking striking, does manage to hide some of the car’s finer details. With no history and a couple of aftermarket additions, it would be wise to give this one a good going over.

Check out the black Focus 1.6 on eBay.

The PetrolBlog Verdict

The Focus 1.6 Zetec is an unlikely PetrolBlog hero. It may look like an everyday, run-of-the-mill family hatchback that doesn’t warrant anything more than a passing glance. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find a proper drivers’ car. I owned a Focus ST170 for a short while and can vouch for its brilliant chassis and quality. Like the ST170, the 1.6 is lacking outright pace, but it more than makes up for it in B-road tomfoolery.

Today it’s utterly classless and yet is already ageing quite beautifully. Alongside the latest Focus, the MK1 looks more elegant, purer in design and rather appealing. What’s more, it’s cheap to run, cheap to buy, is incredibly practical and surprisingly spacious.

Still thinking of buying that diesel hatchback?

Further information

The Ford Focus Owners Club can be found here.

Images courtesy of Ford and eBay.

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ABOUT AUTHOR
Gavin Big-Surname
The chief waffler and founder of PetrolBlog in 2010. Has a rather unhealthy obsession with cars from the 80s and 90s, and is on a one-man mission to collect the cars nobody else wants. Also likes tea and Hobnobs.

17 comments

  1. November 28, 2012
    Simon Hingston

    I remember these well as they arrived in the showroom at exactly the same time as I bought a new Ka3 (which was great fun even with that ancient 1.3). They were very striking, even if many of the very first cars were in a particularly revolting shade of light green. They looked a 100 years newer than the Escort which had started off bad and got far worse by the end. The drive was remarkable for the sector at the time. The only thing I remember not agreeing with the reviews was many seemed to get ever so over excited by the shift quality which I thought was good but unremarkable.

    Reply
    • November 28, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      I test drive a new one in the late ’90s and have to say I was impressed with the shift.

      That said, I did turn up at the dealers in a Freelander, so a spoon in a bowl of custard would have been an improvement.

      Reply
      • November 28, 2012
        Simon Hingston

        An early Freelander that hadn’t died! Shocker. Could have been worse, tried a Vectra at the same time and Clarkson was spot on with the shift on that one. Horrible, horrible car with no redeeming features.

        Reply
  2. November 28, 2012
    Graeme Thomas

    I currently own a ’53 plate Mk1 Focus Zetec TDCI,and i firmly beleive it is one of the best cars i have ever owned,{and that is quite a lot,over many years,from Audi to Volvo},the car consistantly does 60mpg, ok, diesel is more expensive,but i do approx 16000 miles a year,& a diesel car is essential,the car is cheap to run,still looks good when clean, in the only colour for a Focus 5 door, metallic black,it has now clocked in excess of 185k miles,looks & drives as good as any car, half its age & mileage,long live the mighty Ford.!!

    Reply
    • November 28, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      That’s a comprehensive defence of the MK1 Focus! And 185k is the kind of mileage you’d expect from Volkswagen or Audi, not Ford. Great work.

      Reply
  3. November 28, 2012
    Antony Ingram (@antonyingram)

    I was ready to come in here and say “bah, bit dull”, but then I saw the two classified ads you linked to and it did change my mind a little. They do look cracking, particularly in three-door form. I seem to recall they did that same alloy wheel design in a bigger size too, which looked even better.

    That said, I still can’t get myself too excited by them. Fords do seem to have a bit of a built-in shelf life – I keep thinking I want a Puma, before remembering how shabby they seem to look these days (I still want a FRP though…).

    It’s a pity – Ford has made some great cars over the last few decades, but so many have been routinely abused, plus some dodgy Ford rustproofing and quality control, that it’s much, much harder to find one that does justice to the car when it was new.

    Reply
    • November 28, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Part of the MK1’s appeal is its understated nature. Nobody need know it’s a cracking car.

      For some people this is a selling point, for others, it isn’t!

      As for the Puma…persevere…they are worth the effort!

      Reply
  4. November 28, 2012
    Luke McCormack

    One of my close friends had one of these. A 3dr MK1 Focus 1.6 Zetec for £700. Loved it at first but ended up hating it and shifted it to due the cost of repairing and owning it mounted up.

    I’d happily get a MK1 Focus should I ever want to part with my Peugeot 206 XSi. Particularly with loads of them still on the road. Speaking of Bangernomics, my Dad recently bought a 2001 Peugeot 307 for £300.

    Reply
    • November 29, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      I suspect that the MK1 Focus is one of those cars that’s quickly moved on once the bills begin to grow.

      Fair play to your dad for the £300 307. What kind of condition is it in?

      Reply
      • August 27, 2014
        Luke McCormack

        The 307 isn’t perfect when he got it. It has dents on pretty much every panel, but mechanically it was sound. It even had no radio in it. But he’s touched up the car with some alloy wheels and installed a radio in it.

        Reply
  5. November 29, 2012
    FailCar

    Love the MK1 Focus, so much so that at one point I bought 3 for Dad, brother and girlfriend. Actually just sold the 1.6 Zetec Silver 3dr as it was replaced by the Fabia Vrs. One of the best cars I have ever driven across a winding country road and possibly the best ride of any car in that sector ever. What a machine. Sadly my Mrs FC was using the Focus to commute cross hilly cross country roads more and more and the weedy 1.6 was having to be worked hard and as such was getting a ridiculous thirst on. I would have bought a MK1 diesel Focus but heard so many horror stories online of the Ford TDCi engines being a money pit I decided against it. So it had to be something with a 1.9 VAG. I do like the Fabia but the ride can’t even touch the Focus but at least the seats hold you in place as the standard Focus has all the lumbar support of a park bench.

    Only thing I would add to look out for on the Focus is the thing that goes wrong with all of the three cars I purchased. 1) The resister unit for the heater blower fails and the symptom of this is that the blower will only work (if at all) on setting 4. Budget around 150 quid for a replacement. 2) The thermostatic housing is crap and fails which leaks coolant and a fairly slow rate and will need replaced eventually and this can be an expensive 200 quid-ish job.

    But aside those two faults the Focus was excellent and I found the build quality to be top notch. I remember changing a fuse on the Focus and as I ‘popped’ the govebox out of the way I was amazed at all the careful bits of sound proofing and the logically placed fuse diagram on the back of the glove box. It showed how much effort had gone into making this a quality product.

    Such a shame the ST170 does not quite live up to it but I have been looking at depreciation-proof motors recently and can’t help but think that a mint MK1 RS for six- eight grand seems like a good idea?

    I’ll stop waffling now and head to the classifieds…

    Reply
    • November 30, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Great footnote to the original article, Mr FailCar.

      The Focus suffers from the same problem as the Puma – seats that can’t match the performance of the car. The seats in the Racing Puma justified the extra price on their own!

      Didn’t realise the prices of the original FRS had dropped so low. At that price, they become rather tempting. They overshadowed the ST170 when new and now they’re doing again in the classifieds!

      Reply
  6. November 30, 2012
    FailCar

    I’ve driven 2 MK1 FRS and the weird thing was that the power delivery on both apparently factory standard cars was not the same. One had ‘lets go into that hedge over there’ torque steer (press car) and the other (owners car) not so bad. Apparently this is not uncommon.

    Interestingly as the Focus RS is such a capable car loads of the ones in the classifieds are pushing well over 100,000 miles which is impressive given that many cars of it’s kind are unlikely to see such a high mileage and they seem to have taken to it well.

    Only problem is trying to find a factory standard model as nearly all of them at the very least have a re-map.

    I just remembered the cool but slightly irritating bit the last time I drove one – The little green starter button that you had to press was woefully cheap and nasty BUT it did actually look like something that would be in a car at the time driven by Mr McRae. That awful go faster stripe interior no so much though.

    Reply
  7. December 12, 2012
    mirage1125

    I really can’t get over the looks, but the handling helps I think!

    Reply
    • December 12, 2012
      Gavin Braithwaite-Smith

      Ha! A good 3-door looks good, but I wouldn’t call it pretty!

      Reply
  8. August 24, 2015
    Sev

    After reading this I came across a silver 1.6 Mk1 Edge. 3 door, 54 plate. What can I say, handling is off the chart, nippy enough, great mpg and the 3 door Edge does actually look really sporty, especially with its standard spoiler. Not sure I’ll ever want to get rid of it. Great post and a great car – from a lifelong VW fan.

    Reply
  9. March 26, 2017
    Terry

    Bought a Mk1 04 plate 1.6 Zetec Ghia with leather seats last week, really love driving it as I’ve now realized how well it goes round bends!
    Good on fuel road tax average, spares cheap
    Very practical, looks great, does everything I need of it to do.
    I love this car!!

    Reply

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