There was a time – when I was growing up – in which the Ford brand still had a heritage and credibility: the much-loved Sierra was in the final stages of bowing out and the newly launched Sapphire was set to follow in the footsteps of this legendary car. Owning or driving a Ford wasn’t considered shameful at that stage, but the series of badge-engineered products like the Mazda 323 / Ford Laser and Meteor and the Mazda 626 / Ford Telstar ranges that followed broke down the trust customers had in the brand. Ford South Africa realised that it had an uphill battle to fight when it came to introducing new models to the market, although the first of those models – like the Escort – sold reasonably well.

Thankfully, nowadays just about every Ford available in South Africa is a true-blue original – like the gigantic F250 pick-up that was launched through the course of last year. While the Ford Ranger pick-up still looks remarkably like the Mazda Drifter, the two brands’ products are distinctly different. The Ford Fiesta sold like hot-cakes, and the new Bantam-bakkie based on it is still a popular buy. The Mondeo is in my opinion one of Ford’s most under-rated products, selling way beneath its potential, with the Focus – which introduced the company’s new design language internationally – not doing much better.

The latest addition to the local family is the all-new Focus, with the sporty 2.0 TDCI hatch being nominated for the 2006 COTY title. The previous generation Focus was a trendsetter of note. Its sharp lines coined the New Edge styling term and in hatchback form was decidedly more attractive and eye-catching than in sedan form.

The new Focus follows in the boxy footsteps of the New Edge design but the lines and angles are slightly softer this time around, with hatchback and sedan variants each having their own distinctive appearance. The car has noticeably flared wheel-arches, and combined with the headlamps, family grille and new bumpers, the Focus has a very masculine and imposing look, especially on the TDCI with its standard sporty body kit. In fact, the whole car looks more purposeful – because the Focus’s suspension is lower than all other Fords, the Focus appears to be hugging the ground.

In general I find the exterior design much more accessible and possibly a bit classier than its original New Edge predecessors, and this is probably why we’re already seeing significant quantities of them roaming the highways and byways of our country. In the interior Ford has gone a bit up-market with the new Focus. The instrument panel has a good flow in its design and everything seems to be made of high-quality materials that easily match that of the benchmark Golf 5.

The driving-position reminds you of being in a cockpit, something that should already tell you about the car’s lively performance. The Focus is fitted with a front-loading CD player and radio with six speakers that can be controlled from the steering wheel, each designed to perfectly blend in with the interior and to be useless to thieves thanks to its unique shape and coding system – you can even plug in your MP3-player or iPod through a jack in the glove box! All models come with electric windows, air-conditioning and remote keyless entry.

>The new Focus achieved five stars in the European NCAP crash tests, and is fitted with seatbelt pre-tensioners, load limiters, front airbags and side bags – shaped to the human body – that work together with the side-impact beams in the doors to protect you. To protect your car it is also fitted with a perimeter theft alarm, a key-operated bonnet lock and central locking for the doors; doors that are interestingly enough fitted with deadlocks so that thieves can’t open them even if they break the window! The wheelbase is longer by 25mm and wider by 40mm, resulting in more generous knee and shoulder room, while luggage capacity is 10% better than on its predecessors.

But don’t let the increase in size fool you – the Focus TDCI is fitted with a 2,0-litre turbo diesel engine that delivers 100kW of power and 320Nm of torque at 2000 rpm. It’s the sporty model of the range and subsequently rides on a harder suspension. Handling is predictably sporty, and considered by some to be the best in its class. Electro-hydraulic power assisted steering, ABS brakes, electronic pressure distribution, electronic stability control, traction control and a mechanical emergency braking system also comes standard. It’s fitted with a six-speed manual gearbox and even fuel consumption looks good – roundabout 7 litres per 100km.

The Ford Focus 2.0 TDCI retails for R194 900, with service intervals at 15 000km and a five year or 60 000km maintenance plan included. Each also has a three year or 100 000km warranty, a five year rust-through warranty and three years of roadside assistance. New Focus is on average only 2% more expensive than the previous models, but fights the battle in a segment where consumers are once again spoiled for choice.

Of the contenders available in diesel-guise, the Volkswagen Golf 5, Renault’s Megane (which recently had a face-lift and already sports a SA COTY-title), Peugeot’s 307, Alfa Romeo’s 147 and even Volvo’s S40 will be the ones to beat. I do however think that Focus will put up a very good fight and that the buying public will look beyond Ford’s sketchy badge-engineering history. New Focus is finally a car that will satisfy the needs of many different personalities, and offers a solid package that certainly has what it takes to give the COTY judges something to think about.

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