It is difficult to overstate the importance of the original Ford Focus. For starters it replaced the Escort, which although somewhat stale by the late 1990s, was still one of the most recognisable cars on the road. Not only that, but the Focus was Ford’s entry into the hugely popular family car segment, a true bread and butter model that it simply had to get right.
In the 20 years since launching that first Focus in 1998 and unveiling its new Mk4 model, Ford has made a lot of progress, particularly in the areas of safety and technology. Yet the core appeal of its family car remains unchanged, for in every generation it has demonstrated you can have something that is all at once practical, affordable and great fun to drive.
This guide looks at the history of one of the UK’s most popular cars to see how it has evolved from the angular original to today’s latest design.
Ford Focus Mk1 (1998-2004)
There wasn’t anything disappointing about the original Focus of 1998. Whether it was the New Edge styling, the spacious interior or the class leading handling (thanks largely to the inclusion of independent ‘Control blade’ rear suspension), Ford had an instant hit on its hands. Just look at the dashboard design too, which with its triangles, swoops and neatly clustered controls was unlike anything else around at the time.
Body styles included three- and five-door hatchbacks, a four-door saloon and a practical estate, while trim levels ranged through CL, LX, Zetec and Ghia, with the most generously specced models including alloy wheels, air-conditioning and even leather seats. Just one diesel engine was on the menu initially, but most buyers opted for petrol, which ranged in size from 1.4 to 2.0 litres.
At the sportier end of the spectrum Ford produced an ST170 version of the Focus with a 168bhp 2.0-litre petrol engine and improved brakes and handling.
Or, for the ultimate fast Ford experience there was the front-wheel-drive, 212bhp Focus RS, which is as exciting to drive as its lairy styling suggests.
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Ford Focus Mk2 (2004-2011)
In styling terms it’s hard not to conclude that Ford took its foot off the gas with the Mk2 Focus, which lost all the edginess of its predecessor in favour of a much safer design. The same was true of the interior, although improvements to build quality and new technology such as Bluetooth mobile phone connectivity went some way to make up for this.
Crucially, the Mk2 Focus was still easily good enough in terms of steering feel and suspension control to be regarded as the best car in its class to drive, and was more refined than its predecessor on the motorway too.
As before, hatchback, saloon and estate models were offered, but this time they were joined by a convertible Focus CC with a folding metal hard-top roof. There was also an ST hot hatch powered by a characterful but thirsty 2.5-litre, 222bhp five-cylinder engine, and in 2009 the range was completed with the addition of a new Focus RS, which used a clever ‘RevoKnuckle’ suspension setup and limited-slip differential to channel 300bhp through the front wheels. The result is predictably entertaining.
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Ford Focus Mk3 (2011-2018)
By the time the third-generation Focus arrived in 2011 only five-door hatchback and estate versions were sold in the UK. Diesel models made up much more of the mix than before due to their low running costs, while on the petrol front Ford’s EcoBoost 1.0-litre, three-cylinder engine led the trend for ‘downsizing’, where a smaller capacity turbocharged unit is used in favour of larger engine without a turbo.
Where the Focus didn’t fare as well was in the interior, where the mass of buttons proved confusing to use, while boot space was also starting to look tight compared with newer rivals. However, a facelift in 2014 addressed the dated interior by introducing a new touchscreen.
For the Mk3 the sporty ST versions can be had with a petrol or diesel engine, and in hatchback or estate body styles, while on the green motoring front Ford also built a pure electric Focus EV with a range of up to 100 miles from a single charge (later upgraded to 140 miles).
The Focus RS returned in 2015 with a four-cylinder, 345bhp turbocharged engine, four-wheel drive and even a ‘Drift mode’ to cement its place as Ford’s ultimate hot hatch.
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Ford Focus Mk4 (2018-)
The fourth-generation Focus was revealed in April 2018, and again will be sold in the UK in only five-door hatchback and estate body styles. This time, however, there will also be an Active model with a raised ride height and plastic body cladding as Ford attempts to cash in on the trend for SUVs and crossovers.
All models will be more spacious yet lighter than those they replace, and Ford is promising plenty of technology too, including adaptive cruise control than can read road signs and change the car’s speed accordingly, and an optional head-up display that projects the car’s speed on to the windscreen.
Thanks to improvements in engine technology (including the ability to shut down cylinders when not needed), plus the introduction of an eight-speed automatic gearbox fuel economy is said to have improved by around 10 per cent across the range.
Another Focus-shaped revolution on our roads? It could just be…
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