Ford produced some game-changing cars during the 90s. In 1993, the Mondeo completely out-classed its repmobile rivals. '95's Mk4 Fiesta was brilliant. The Ka was a properly grown-up city car and the Puma was just amazing to drive (I know. I had one). But throughout, Ford also sold the Escort.
The Mk5 Escort was utterly hopeless when it was launched in 1990 and was absolutely slated by the road testers. A couple of major facelifts improved it massively, but it was still only middle of the family car pack. Despite the 'Scort's massive sales, a new car was needed as the Millennium approached. Especially when a pretty good new Astra and a brilliant new Golf came along. The Escort's replacement needed to be good. But no-one anticipated just how good it would actually be.
Focus RS was a hot hatch game changer (and also a torque steering animal). Source: revivalsportscars.com
When it was launched in 1998, the Focus revolutionised the family car sector. It did the basic stuff incredibly well. The long wheelbase freed up a class-leading amount of space (the back felt bigger than a Mondeo). It was well equipped, safe, reliable, and very good value. The 'New Edge' styling, all triangles and trapezoids, was controversial though it soon started to blend into the background. But it was the Focus's handling that was the real revelation.
The key to the Focus's handling was its 'Control Blade' independent rear suspension, a class first. It gave the chassis the sort of precision you would normally expect from a high-end sportscar. The steering was fantastically accurate and the ride gorgeously supple, too. It all added up to a car that was massive fun to drive, on road or track.
Let me make all that live a little. I actually had a Mk1 Focus for a while. Before it I'd had a Peugeot 306, the previous handling benchmark in the class. The little Pug was epic fun, with a very active back-end. But whenever I felt it joining in, it was like someone poking me and whispering menacingly "I'm going to kill you." Which it ultimately tried to do when it put me in a ditch. (Alright, it was partly my fault.) The Focus was just as active, but it felt like a guiding hand trying to get me down the road even faster.
It was like a Swiss Army knife. Whatever you needed from a car, the Focus had it covered. Family hack, salesman's sample-hauler, back road blaster, police car, taxi, WRC contender - the Focus could do it all. It's still a damn good buy today as well - you can get a decent one for a grand.
The first-gen Focus was a huge success for Ford, selling in gigantic quantities all around the world. In the UK it was the best-selling car from 1999-2004 and it was 1998 Car of the Year. But much more important than that, it raised the bar to unprecedented heights in a sector that was, at best, pretty bloody boring. The standard now is incredibly high.
The Mondeo and Fiesta showed Ford could build fantastic everyday cars. The Focus showed they could build a great one. Its arguably the high water mark of Ford's recent history.
Clarkson loved the Focus...
...Which became Top Gear's 1998 Car of the Year (only after Tiff had driven it)Specifications: Focus 1.6Built: 1998-2004
Engine: 1596cc, 4-cylinders, 16-valve
0-62mph: 10.9 seconds
Top speed: 115mph
Gearbox: 5-speed manual