DEARBORN, Mich. -- In the fall of 1998, one of the flashy new designs causing a stir at the Paris International Auto Show was an eensy-weensy economy car bearing the blue oval badge of Ford.
Dubbed the Focus, this new vehicle was narrow like other subcompacts of that era, which made it ideally suited for navigating narrow streets of such worldly cities as London, Cairo, Cape Town, Dubai, Rio, Sidney, Singapore and Bangkok -- markets where Ford intended to sell the car.
Yet it also had a relatively long wheelbase and a roof hiked much higher than conventional subcompacts.
Ford's designers -- based in England, Germany and the United States out of Ford's headquarters in Dearborn, Mich. -- were able to counterbalance the physical limitations of small cars by raising the roof in Focus and lengthening its wheelbase to fashion an interior environment which seemed downright spacious.
Focus became a production reality for the European market in 1999 as conformed to a three-door hatchback coupe, a four-door sedan and five-door wagon. It was an overnight sensation and went on to earn "Car of the Year" accolades from European automotive writers.
Focus reached North America in the summer of 1999 as a year-2000 model, and quickly became a market success.
And during the next seven model-years, variations followed -- such as in 2002 when Ford expanded the line by offering three sedans, two station wagons and three sporty hatchbacks with the three-door ZX3 or souped SVT and five-door ZX5.
Flash forward to Ford's 2008 lineup and Focus emerges in new designs again with a bold chrome-bar grille and flared wheel arches on flanks. The series, riding on a front-wheel-drive (FWD) platform, splits into a four-door sedan and -- a first for Focus -- a slinky two-door coupe, with trims for each of entry-level S, mid-grade SE and top-tier SES.
The five-seat passenger compartment of Focus for 2008 is new too with a revamped dashboard design, upgraded materials applied and so-cool Ice Blue lighting washing instruments, console, steering wheel and door switches.
The cabin layout is familiar -- two bucket seats in front flanking a console and a sculptured bench for three in back with seatbacks divided and foldable.
However, the design of the cabin is uncluttered and clean, and the materials and craftsmanship seem to be a cut above competitor models in this price and size class.
Ford's designers managed to fashion an interior environment which feels spacious. Doors run deep to make entry and exit easy and front seats sit high for a commanding position, yet there's still generous headroom even for tall riders.
storage devices, is on the list of options for Focus. Sync essentially works as an extension of a car's media player.
Further, the Bluetooth-based Sync device can link up to six different mobile phones to the vehicle wirelessly through a process called pairing. Once a phone is paired to Sync, the phone's personal data -- including address book and ring tones -- may be accessed.
And Ford Sync, the voice-activated controller for mastery over in-vehicle phones, media players and USB
Issues of personal safety in a small car have been addressed with strong structural elements of Focus and the variety of active and passive safety systems incorporated into its design.
The rigid steel safety cage contains built-in crush zones which will collapse in a controlled manner to absorb impact forces from a collision and deflect them from the passenger compartment. High-strength steel components appear at critical points in the front and back and on both sides.
On-board passive safety equipment includes dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags for front seat passengers, plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners for front and rear seats.
Equipment promoting active safety includes a fast rack and pinion steering mechanism and a new brake system with 10.9-inch vented discs up front and aluminum calipers.
An anti-lock brake system (ABS) and a traction control system (TCS) appear on the list of optional gear.
Wheels and tires vary with trim.
Escort S rolls on 15-inch steel wheels capped by P195/6-R15 black sidewalls, while Escort SE gets the same tires wrapping 8-spoke aluminum alloy wheels.
Escort SES bumps up to 16-inch and 6-spoke aluminum alloys with Pirelli P205/50R16 black sidewalls.
And an optional wheel and tire set for Escort SE consists of 16-inch Euro Flange alloys with the Pirelli black sidewalls.
Two versions of a four-cylinder Duratec Ford engine add spark to Focus.
Both plants, constructed with aluminum block and heads plus dual overhead cams and four valves per cylinder, displace 2.0 liters.
The standard Duratec 20 engine delivers 140 hp at 6000 rpm and 136 lb-ft of torque at 4250 rpm.
The super-clean Duratec 20E engine qualifies Focus for the PZEV (Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle) rank. This plant is required when Focus is purchased in the states of California, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.
It makes 132 hp at 6000 rpm with torque of 133 lb-ft at 4250 rpm.
Either engine teams with a standard manual five-speed transmission, but a four-speed automatic is also available.
And both transmissions have been tuned with revised final drive ratios, so the plant can run at a lower rpm rate on the road and earn tall fuel economy scores.
Fuel consumption numbers for these engines reach to 35 mpg with the manual shifter, or 33 mpg using the automatic.
Features common to all Focus sedans and coupes include five-person seating with rear seatbacks split 60/40 to fold, a center console, padded armrests, a passive anti-theft system, four-speaker audio package with single CD/MP3 player and an audio input jack, two 12-volt power points and a tire inflation kit.
Options include a slick interior ambient lighting system which allows you to change the color of lamps inside cupholders and front and rear footwells -- there are seven colors to select, like red, orange, blue, indigo, violet, green and yellow.
The bottom line on a 2008 Focus falls to $14,695 for a coupe and $14,995 for the sedan.