PetrolBlog's ode to the Mk1 Focus Focus 1.6 Zetec had been lying dormant since it was published in 2012. However, since " target="_blank" rel="noreferrer noopener">Jonny Smith uploaded his chat with Chris Harris to YouTube, the story is enjoying a resurgence.
Chris Harris was asked to name ‘one car, for less than £2,000, to just live with’. His answer: a first-generation Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec. “I'd buy it for buttons... then I'd make sure the suspension was absolutely mint... because the first-generation Ford Focus is the best little hatchback I've ever driven”.
High praise. PetrolBlog has been saying the same thing for a decade – it just doesn't have the talent, audience or influence of Chris Harris. If you haven't watched the video, do it now, but not before you've read about the brilliant Mk1 Ford Focus 1.6 Zetec.
Bangerwatch is PetrolBlog's equivalent of BBC TV’s Springwatch, only without Chris Packham, 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 project cars, it is hoped that PetrolBlog can save them from extinction.
The Mk1 Ford Focus may 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 buy. It's also exceptionally good to drive. Like, properly good.
History of Species
It's hard to believe that it's over 20 years since the Mk1 Ford Focus burst on to the scene. Not since the Sierra replaced the Cortina had 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, it 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.
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 per cent stiffer than the Escort and some 15 per cent stiffer than the Volkswagen 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 expertly delivered car that is taken for granted these days.
The pick of the species has to be the 1.6 Zetec. On a road trip to the 2012 Paris Motor Show, I was chatting with Sean Carson about the Focus. We agreed that it could be the best budget all-rounder 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 three-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 deliver a paltry 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.
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 in the windows of your local corner shop.
What to look for
While 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 is 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 three-door is insurance group 13, with the three-door a couple groups lower at 11.
Risk of extinction
The Focus is not in 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 Ford Focus, there are around 800 S-plate 1998 cars left. Worryingly, that's 5,000 FEWER than when this story was written in 2012. That's a sobering thought.
Caught in the wild
This 2002 Focus 1.6 Zetec looks remarkably good. It doesn't quite meet the Chris Harris budget of £500, but there are just 50,000 miles on the clock. The MOT history reads well, and although a three-door would be preferable, we're getting to the ‘beggars can't be choosers’ phase.
There's a V-reg Focus 1.6 Zetec on Auto Trader. At first glance it looks very appealing. Good colour, seemingly in great condition, sensible mileage and a new MOT. Then you notice the whopping great bluebottle in the ointment: it's an automatic. Still, the way it's presented allows you to remember just how fresh the Focus looked at the turn of the millennium.
One thing's for certain: Chris Harris' comments are likely to renew interest in the Mk1 Focus. It's a good time to sell.
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 ageing quite beautifully. Alongside the latest Focus, the Mk1 looks more elegant, purer in design and rather appealing. What's more, it's affordable to run, cheap to buy, is incredibly practical and surprisingly spacious.
Still thinking of buying that diesel hatchback?
The Ford Focus Owners Club can be found here.