Saturn built their S-series of cars from 1991 through 2002. Aside from a couple of facelifts, the car was fundamentally the same for eleven years. I recently drove a 2016 Ford Focus ST, which is fourteen years newer than my old 2002 Focus LX. Unlike the Saturns, Ford made so much progress between the two Foci that it seemed like they couldn’t possibly have been the same model, or even built by the same manufacturer.
(Disclaimer: Yes, I know this is a completely unfair comparison. I should’ve compared a modern Focus ST to the 2002 Focus SVT, or my friend’s leased Focus S to my 2002 Focus LX, for a true comparison. That’s why this isn’t a true comparison, but a story to make a point.)
My 2002 Focus was a bit nicer than my 1995 Mercury Tracer, which itself was basically an Escort with the optional equipment made standard and a weird translucent grill thing like a Sable. (There are reasons why the Mercury brand is no more.) Handling on the Focus was significantly improved over the Escort/Tracer thanks to the new multi-link rear suspension, but that was the only major improvement I noticed. There was still a great deal of body roll. Its 2.0 liter motor was simply an evolution of the anemic 88hp 1.9 under my Tracer’s hood, and the four-speed automatic transmission was the same. It still had cloth seats. Windows and locks were manual, with no power assistance (in fairness they were available in higher trim levels). It originally had AC, but it didn’t work by the time we got it. Interior space was similar to the Tracer, though the trunk was a bit bigger.
The funky “New Edge” dashboard was a styling step in the wrong direction, I thought. Apparently so did Ford, since they abandoned it for the “second generation.” I use quotes because while the rest of the world got a whole new Focus in 2004, North America’s “second generation” was just a facelifted first generation for 2007. But despite the then-futuristic dashboard, the early Focus itself felt more like the next generation of the Escort/Tracer than the entirely new design that it was. It was better than the Escort, and the styling was fresh, but it felt more evolution than revolution.
The third generation Focus – which the whole world got this time – continues that evolutionary styling on the outside, but that’s where the similarity ends. As I mentioned in my review, the 2016 Focus ST weighs 659lbs more than my 2002 Focus LX. That’s a good sized motorcycle right there, or two Suzuki Savages. It’s also grown quite a bit larger. While my wife, her two boys, and I could all fit into the old Focus, there wasn’t much extra space, and “he’s touching me” fights would often break out in the back seat. We all fit in the new Focus without invading each other’s personal space, despite both boys having grown a bit since we had the old Focus. There’s even an armrest that can fold down between them.
In truth, a modern Fiesta is a more fair comparison to my old car than a modern Focus. Compare the interior specs between a 2016 Fiesta and a 2002 Focus. They’re nearly identical, except for the Fiesta’s back seat being a tiny bit smaller. (That’s why a Fiesta ST, as good as it is, isn’t on my short list of new daily drivers.) This type of bloating is happening across all manufacturers, not just Ford. Jalopnik‘s Patrick George recently wrote, “The presence of the Fit in the Honda lineup has made the Civic bigger than a lot of Accords have been historically.” He’s right, which is why new models like the Fit and Fiesta have been introduced at the small end of many manufacturer’s product ranges as the former “small” models have grown up. I’m focusing on the Focus not only because that was a terrible pun, but also because I’ve driven both new and old versions of it a bit, and am quite familiar with both.
Look at that body roll. And that’s just during a 45mph pace lap at a Track Night In America event. Note the lack of helmets and the kids in the back seat. During these pace laps I made sure to hop the apex curbs much more than I would on a fast lap to give the kids an extra thrill. The car soaked them up well. I could also tell that if I was to actually take some flying laps in this car, it would fall all over itself. I’d be pointing everyone by. But the ride was quite comfortable, soaking up even the worst bumps of my daily commute like they weren’t even there.
What amazed me most about the new Focus was how stiff its chassis is. This is one solid car. The doors close with an authoritative thunk. There are no shakes and rattles over bumps. Granted, it will probably develop some shakes and rattles over the next 183,948 miles, which is what my old Focus had on it before it emigrated to Ontario, but I think it will hold up much better than the older model. It’s better now than the old car ever was.
The Focus ST is tuned for sporty handling rather than pure comfort, and as a result it was much stiffer than my comfort tuned LX. Despite that, it was still comfortable – stiff, certainly, but it soaked up all but the worst bumps. My BRZ, on the other hand, transmits pretty much all of the bumps to the rest of the car, making crummy roads uncomfortable or even painful. A middle ground exists, and the Focus ST is right there, striking what I think is a perfect balance between handling and comfort.
Let us take a moment to laugh at this 2.0 liter CVH/SPI motor, generating a whopping 110hp and 125lb/ft of torque. This was the most basic engine available in a 2002 Focus. A more fair comparison would be the 2.0 Zetec-R in the 2002 Focus SVT, which made 167hp and 145lb/ft of torque, so ignore my LX’s numbers and keep the SVT’s in mind.
On the plus side, at least you can actually see my LX’s motor. All you can see under the 2016 ST’s hood is vast expanses of plastic. Under that plastic is yet another 2.0 liter motor, but this EcoBoost motor generates 252hp and 270lb/ft of torque. It may be heavier than the old cars, but it’ll smoke them in a straight line. And rather than having to rev them up to the stratosphere to get any power out of them, the power is usable over a broad RPM range. Drive the ST like a normal person and it’s happiest between just 1300-1800 RPM according to the gearshift indicators. But if you decide to drive like a madman (and that is the point of the ST, isn’t it?) it’ll reach go-to-jail speeds quite quickly if you’re not careful. That’s a welcome relief after my 2002 LX, where every highway on-ramp was an adventure in carrying as much momentum as I could around the final corner and hoping I didn’t get creamed from behind as I struggled to reach highway speed in time to merge.
The original Focus was built at a time when people still thought digital watches were a pretty neat idea. As a result, the most technologically advanced part of my 2002 Focus LX was the digital odometer. The stock stereo was similarly primitive. Fortunately, a double-DIN stereo is easy to replace, so I popped in my old Kenwood from my ex-cop Crown Vic with minimal trouble, and added a Bluetooth adapter to the auxiliary input. Though it was entirely components I recycled from my previous vehicles, it was far more sophisticated than any technology that came with the car itself.
Six months is an eternity in the tech industry. It’s been about 28 eternities since my Focus LX was made, and it shows in the ST. You can’t swap out the head unit here, but SYNC3 is a major improvement over MyFordTouch, which itself improved tremendously since its introduction. There are just enough physical buttons you can press for basic functions, many of which are duplicated on the steering wheel. It interfaces with my phone, streams Pandora, shows me a map that works better than my phone, and integrates all of this information on the home screen. Throw in the awesome sound system with a subwoofer in the hatch, and I don’t need to add a thing.
But there are some situations where they simply don’t make ’em like they used to. I’m talking about steering feel. The 2002 Focus had a good old fashioned power hydraulic steering system. I’ve driven no modern car with electric steering that provides as good road feel and feedback as the old hydraulic system, including this old beater Focus. I could feel everything the front wheels were doing, from slipping to locking up. This car had no fancy torque vectoring control, no sport mode, no stability or traction control, not even basic anti-lock brakes. This may seem like a deathtrap to a modern driver, but for someone with a clue how to drive, it was fine. It’s not like the weak engine made enough power to need all those electronic systems anyway.
The ST’s steering provided very little feedback. It’s far more refined than the 2002 LX, but it insulated me from the driving experience more than I wanted to be. Sure, the wheel would sometimes pull one way or the other thanks to torque steer, but not very much since the electronic systems controlled it well. I had no trouble guiding the car down the road, but the steering wheel was too light, and I didn’t get the feedback from the road that I like. My Subaru BRZ also has electric power steering, and it gives more feedback than the Focus ST. The BRZ has one of the best electric power steering systems I’ve driven as far as driver feedback is concerned. But even it pales in comparison to the old Focus, or any older car with an older hydraulic steering system.
The LX was an automatic, so I can’t comment on how well manual transmission of the time shifted, but the ST’s shifter was, again, a bit lighter than I prefer. I sometimes had trouble figuring out what gear I was in because I couldn’t feel the notches well enough. (Fortunately I never drove it hard enough to risk a money shift.) No such trouble in my BRZ, but it’s a dedicated sports car, and you’d expect precise shifting in one. On the plus side, unlike my BRZ, my wife can use the ST’s shifter without pain.
The Bottom Line
Cars have made huge technological leaps and bounds in the past 14 years. The performance of today’s Focus ST rivals a former holy grail of performance, the E36 BMW M3. Yes, I’m comparing a Focus to an M3, and it’s not a ridiculous comparison. Check the ST and M3 numbers for yourself if you don’t believe me.
These massive improvements are not just for Ford, but for everyone. Hyundai and Kia are serious players in today’s market. Based on their cars of 2002 few would have believed it possible, but it’s true, as we’ve seen more than once. We have Mustangs and Camaros that will smoke their classic versions in a straight line, go around corners quite well, and give decent fuel economy for a V8. It’s an amazing time to be a car enthusiast.
But there’s something to be said for the old technology as well. I’m not going to go rallycross a shiny new Focus ST, but we had every intention of rallycrossing the hell out of our old Focus LX. It’s simpler. There’s less that can break. There’s no drive-by-wire or stability control to defeat to allow left foot braking techniques to work effectively. It’s cheaper to buy, cheaper to run, and cheaper to fix when it breaks.
Would it be smarter for me to keep my BRZ and pick up another cheap old beater like the Focus LX as a winter beater / rallycross monster? Possibly. Will I? Who knows – there’s also a lot to be said for a daily driver like the ST with more speed and refinement. Although recent advances in automotive technology are amazing, there’s nothing quite like the feel of an older car, with physical rather than electronic connections between the control inputs and the wheels.