COAL: 2004 Ford Focus ZTS

It is 2004 and my 1986 Mazda 626 is passing 350,000 miles now. It is time to consider it’s replacement and can I find one that will pass all my expectations?  Now the current 2004 Mazda 626 would be an obvious choice. Only issue is that it is over $20,000. When I bought my 86 model it only cost me $9700 and my mind is frozen in 1986 when I am looking at 2004 cars. Nonetheless, I am determined to come in below the $20,000 mark as I am going for a four year loan. That means the Mazda 6, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord are out. Forget the other second tier Asian manufacturers. Not going VW. Both Chrysler and GM have nothing that would interest me. That leaves me with the Mazda 3 and possibly the Ford Focus. I’m spoiled by my high mileage trouble free 626.

My non-negotiable requirements are simple. One, no timing belt engine. Two, no auto only 5 speed. Three, average mpg no less than 30 city/highway. Four, fun to drive. My research into the Mazda 3 with the 2.3L engine showed it was a timing chain. It also showed that this exact drive train was shared between Mazda and Ford. That piece if information brought the Ford Focus firmly into view.  Getting deep into online research I learn the ins and outs of both models, colors, interior, and options. I also learn Ford has a $2500 rebate and Mazda doesn’t. Ah, ha!

Now Mazda has a good rep by me and many others while Ford not so much. However, this looks to be the last year of the first generation and Ford has had five years to get it right but I did look closely. So I pass on going to the Mazda dealer and make a list of Ford dealers ranging from closest to farthest. Starting at the closest, 3 miles from home, I start my walk around the lot waiting to see who is going to approach me. Approach me with bullshit and you are written off quickly. The guy who does approach is clearly young and new so he doesn’t have the polish down yet. I tell him exactly what I am looking for and he pulls out a test car.

Believe it or not but there is not one 2.3L car on the lot. So I get to test drive a 2.0L manual. Ok, it does have more power than my old Mazda as we zip up the long Ygnacio Blvd. freeway entrance. I head down towards the South Main exit which is a very nice S curve. Get the line right between the dirt on the left and sound wall on the right you can power through the curve at close to 60 with a few inches to spare. I like it although he wasn’t ready for that. Down the street to the entrance back with a simple sharp two lane curve to the left and back onto the freeway from below. He had an inkling what was going to happen when I made the left and started into the curve. Mind you these two curves are a constant in my life. One below.

Back at the dealer we now need to locate a 2.3L car. Can I take an auto? No! Can I take a moon roof? No! I want a 5 speed with the sports package in one of three colors. This process took 2 hours to locate a car that would be acceptable to me. In the meantime we discussed price and when we got down to a price I then bring up the still current rebate of $2500. The salesman gets up to talk to his sales manager and I get up to leave the dealer which quickly halts him in his tracks. The deal gets the total with sales tax and license to $17,000 and that is where it stays. Car eventually shows up in Tundra Green, nice color, and papers are signed.

I head up North Main to access a long freeway entrance. Did I say long? Up over the shallow rise, light below is green with freeway beyond, and I stomp it. Felt like Will Smith and “I got to get me one of these.” The power band of this engine really comes in at 3000 rpm and I can run it all the way up to 6500. Actually a few times I did run it higher as I was not paying attention to the car as much as how quick it was moving and the rev limiter shut me down. Head up the freeway to really test out the handling on a curve marked at 30 mph. Can I go through it at 60 mph. Get to far left past white line, at the right time tap the brakes and then throttle through to the right past the white line and straighten out. The car did it.

The car was purchased on President’s Day in 2004 and has performed pretty much flawlessly since. One passenger side engine mount had to be replaced and so I keep a Ford spare. The pcv hose had to be replaced which is a chore unto itself and took 5 hours to do. I’ll probably never find a car today that doesn’t have that hose under the intake manifold. The only quirk with the car happens during the last four rainy seasons. No leaks anywhere and of course the car is 100% rust free all over. Yet after a strong wet night there are electrical gremlins afoot in the car. Dash board warning lights are flickering. The warning for key in ignition is beeping and the overhead light is flashing so it is now kept off. My son noted it those four years ago when the interior light was going on and off and he asked who was in the car. Quirk disappears once things dry out even though the car is water tight. Oh well, and yes there are added grounds.

Needless to say but I have been extremely pleased with the car. It is quick. It is nimble. It is solid. Ford should have stopped right here but they didn’t. Why manufacturers eventually mess things up is beyond me. Heck, this car still has the original brake pads up front with 30% left after 167,000 miles. How can you beat that? Of course the car is 90% highway use. I do have spare pads and rotors in stock. Note all pictures taken last two months.

I expect this car will be with me for many more years to come.  Since I can split driving it by using the 91 626 and the 2004 Le Sabre the miles will go on slower for me. Just as well since every time I get in this car I can get carried away. Not so much by how quick it can go. Believe it or not I am a steady 65 mph driver on the freeway. The issue comes with me and curves especially after adding the Ford Performance suspension kit. Now one would think you can’t get into trouble with a curve as much as you can speeding. Yet tell that to the CHP officer who stopped me at the bottom of that first curve above, last year, which took some doing on his part. It was an interesting encounter.