Rumble Seat | OPINION: Rumble Seat | Indy Week


One of the core values of rhetoric is the notion of expectation and fulfillment. Does a piece of writing create an expectation and then fulfill it? Rhetorical expectations are engaged by virtue of genre, so that if you set out to write a haiku, a sonnet, an automotive column or even an episodic postmodern novel about talking porpoises, you immediately find yourself splayed on a template of genre conventions.

Yet writers are not restricted to the template. In fact, the quality of their work is largely measured by how well it exceeds expectation, how well it surprises us by departing from convention and enlarges the framework of the genre. Consider the well-plowed ground of the romance novel. On the one hand, you have any book by Danielle Steele. On the other, you have a work like The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. Both are essentially sentimental romances, but only one is literature.

So it is with cars. A case in point is the Ford Focus, a three-door coupe version of which I've recently driven in Florida. In the genre of economy cars--including such utterly negligible beaters as the Pontiac Sunfire and Daewoo Nubira--Ford has created a fascinating and delightful car with dozens of thoughtful touches and a fundamental excellence in packaging, performance and handling. One mile into driving the Focus and I was muttering, "I love this car." Needless to say, it's a rare econobox that elicits such raves.

Let's consider the genre expectations, and how the Focus departs from them.

Styling: Pick up a copy of Car and Driver's 2000 Buying Guide and flip through the economy car section. You will never see a bigger collection of ugly mutts. From Honda to Hyundai, compact-car styling is timid, safe and mostly invisible (excepting, of course, the Volkswagen New Beetle, which deserves a category all its own).

Compared to the competition, the Ford Focus is a bolt of artistic lightning, with clear and spare "New Edge" contours softening what might otherwise be ungainly tall proportions (see the Toyota Echo).

The Focus four-door works well visually, though it seems to loom a bit large over its 15-inch tires. The hatchback coupe, however, is an unqualified visual hit while not sacrificing any of the interior room in the loss of two rear doors. In fact, this may be the most accessible and passenger-friendly rear seat in any coupe on the market.

With its low snout, streaked-back headlamps and crisp geometric body accents, the Focus is the compact car the Chrysler Neon ought to be.

Packaging: Here the genre has been expanded by the New Beetle, which was the first compact to use a dramatically tall greenhouse (the glass part of the car) to create more living space inside. But this is a dicey styling approach. Again, look at the gangly Toyota Echo.

The Focus, too, is a tall car, with high saddles to afford a more comfortable and commanding driving position--all the more important as the highways get crowded with overhead SUVs. The driver's seat is height-adjustable. Visibility in every direction is excellent.

In addition to the headroom, legroom is spacious, thanks to the Focus' wheelbase of more than 103 inches. As mentioned, the rear seat room is excellent, and when cargo space is needed, the rear seat backs fold down flat to create a large and flexible cargo space with no intrusions like gooseneck swing-arms hanging down to block loading. College students would have no trouble moving their belongings from one hovel to another in the Focus coupe.

Interior appointments: Particularly in America, compact cars are bare, plastic-ridden and uninspired. The reason is that in America, "compact" is synonymous with "economy" or "cheap." In Europe, small cars are not necessarily bare-bones--in fact, in Europe it's not uncommon to see a small car with regal materials and features like those of a luxury car.

The Focus, designed in Europe for a world market, enjoys a higher level of fit, finish and materials than anything in its class, again excepting the New Beetle. Our test vehicle, the coupe ZTS, was fully equipped with power accessories, A/C, a CD player, tilt wheel, side airbags, faux wood trim and lots more--and came in under $16,000. The seat fabric is close-weave mouse fur; the dashboard and central console are made of a soft-touch vinyl; and the high-stress areas, like the gearshift and the door handles, have a yielding neoprene on them. Additionally, the interior is arrayed in a smart and stylish combination of rhomboids, ovals and triangles, which lends the cockpit the upscale functionality of good Danish furniture.

Performance: Compact cars put performance pretty low on the list of priorities, because performance is expensive and in this segment, price is a big determinant for buyers. The Focus delivers more performance than compact buyers have a right to expect. Our test model was powered by the 2-liter, multivalve four cylinders turning out 130 horsepower and 135 pounds-feet of torque. That's good enough for sprints of 0-60 mph in about 8.8 seconds. Not blisteringly quick, the Focus responds so smoothly and willingly that you easily forget absolute numbers in favor of the sheer pleasure of flogging a well-made machine.

The best part of the Focus' performance is its handling. Nothing short of a Mazda Miata has this kind of quick, reactive steering, a playful dartiness that transforms itself into increasing precision the farther the wheel moves off center. With struts up front and a multi-link suspension in back, the Focus keeps all four of its tires flat on the road, even during quick, slalom-like transitions that would cause other compacts to lift their rear wheels like dogs. This year you'll see quite a few of the Focuses racing in SCCA Showroom Stock C category, where they'll likely do quite well against their rival Neons.

In any event, what the Focus proves is that compact cars need not live down to the expectations of the genre. Here's hoping the Focus will be the new standard.

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