Auto Express readers voted the Ford Focus MkI as their top car of the past 25 years in our countdown in the 25th anniversary edition of the magazine. And while early examples now change hands for less than the cost of a McLaren F1 tyre, the car deserves its title – it redefined the family market with its superb handling, radical style and fine practicality.
Subsequent generations have helped Ford top the sales charts for more than a decade, and the car single-handedly kick-started the company’s resurgence in the UK. To understand the impact of the Ford Focus, you must remember it replaced the Escort – a car that, by the end of its life, had become unloved, surviving largely on buyer goodwill and dealer discounts.
In contrast, the Focus helped establish Ford as a class leader for ride and handling – a trait that survives to this day. Of course, rave new car reviews don’t always translate to used models, where worn engines, tired tyres and sagging springs warp the pin-sharp driving impressions given by a brand new car.
However, even a reasonably cared-for used Ford Focus MkI will impress the uninitiated. Beautifully weighted steering gives you real confidence behind the wheel, and the responsive chassis delivers grip and agility in equal measure. This family model can put a smile on the face of even the most cold-blooded car enthusiast. It still looks sharp, too, thanks to Ford’s bold New Edge design language.
Ignore gutless 1.4-litre petrol models and thirsty 2.0s. Instead, focus on examples with the peppy 1.6 and 1.8-litre petrol engines. Early 1.8 diesels are fine, but the later TDCi engines are the ones to go for if economy is a priority, as they deliver surprisingly smooth, gutsy performance.
Ford Focus trim levels ranged from LX and Zetec to Zetec ESP, Ghia and sporty ST170. LX models are identified by their plastic wheel trims, but came with air-con as standard. Zetecs made up the lion’s share of sales, and are easiest to find. Aim for a Climate Pack version – this added a heated screen and mirrors, as well as air-con, to the Zetec’s standard alloys, lowered suspension and sports seats.
Ghias add more luxuries and flashes of chrome trim. There was also a host of special editions, including Edge, Flight, Black, Elle and Chic, which came with plenty of extra kit.
Downsides are few and far between, but modern car buyers will be surprised by the relative lack of safety gear. You get three-point seatbelts across the back and twin airbags in the front, but ABS was an expensive extra. Similarly, not many examples were fitted with stability control.
But even though equipment on new cars has improved a lot over the past decade, most versions of the used Ford Focus MkI come with enough to satisfy modern motorists. The exception is the bargain-basement entry-level CL – avoid these, as the classifieds will be crammed with Zetecs and Ghias.
Whichever you go for, if you can find a good used Ford Focus, you’ll wonder why the previous owner ever wanted to get rid of it.
You can get your hands on a tatty but usable MkI Focus for as little as £300, while a well cared-for Zetec petrol model with fewer than 80,000 miles will set you back about £1,000. Diesels are pricier, and you can expect to spend around £3,000 on a low-mileage 2004 TDCi.
Insurance costs will be reasonable, with most versions rated between group 10 and 15. You can expect small servicing bills, too, as parts are cheap and most garages can work on the simple mechanicals.
The only major expense will be for road tax – if you buy a pre-2001 model, you’ll pay £225 a year in VED. Tax discs for later examples will be cheaper, with 12 months’ road tax for a 1.6-litre petrol Focus at £175.