The first-generation Ford Focus debuted at the 1998 Geneva Motor Show and quickly became one of the company’s most important models. While the future of the nameplate looks very uncertain, toward the tail end of the 1990s, it set the stage for a new era in compact car manufacturing with its distinctive design and advanced features. Ford’s UK and German teams worked together to create a car that was the envy of the world.

Welcome to Timeless European Treasures, our weekly look back at cars from the European market that defined a motoring generation.

Why Do We Love It?

Good question. The Ford Focus has earned a special place in the hearts of car enthusiasts and everyday drivers for many reasons. Its appeal is multifaceted, starting with its groundbreaking design. The original Focus departed from traditional compact car aesthetics, embracing the New Edge styling philosophy introduced in the late 1990s. The result was a polarizing yet captivating exterior that caught the eye and set the model apart from its competitors.

One of the key reasons for the Focus's widespread admiration is its engineering prowess. The introduction of the Control Blade rear suspension system, for example, marked a leap forward in handling and ride comfort for a compact car. The engineers, led by Richard Parry-Jones, crafted a class-leading, space-saving independent multi-link rear suspension that delivered exceptional elasto-kinematic performance. This innovation contributed to the Focus's sharp steering, superior body control, and smooth ride over various terrains.

Of course, Ford enthusiasts will always remember the first-gen Focus for its performance versions. From the more subtle US-market SVT models to the Focus RS with a 2.0-liter turbo engine, the compact car delivered a decent performance for rookie and semi-pro drivers. And of course, the Focus RS WRC was a successful rally car with a number of prestigious triumphs in the World Rally Championship.

Gallery: Ford Focus (1998-2004)

When Was The Car Launched?

Ford introduced the first-generation Focus in Europe in July 1998 and brought it to the United States in October 1999 as a 2000 model. Available initially as a three-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and five-door wagon, the Focus lineup expanded in 2002 with the introduction of a five-door hatchback. It remained in production for the European market until 2005, while North America kept it until 2007. Argentina and Brazil were the last markets to discontinue the original Focus about a year later.

How Was It Positioned In The Lineup?

Positioned as a compact car in the C-segment in Europe, the Focus quickly became a cornerstone of Ford's lineup. It successfully filled the gap left by the aging Ford Escort, where the Focus was strategically placed at the heart of the largest market segment by volume. In the United States, Ford had a significantly larger car range at the time and the Focus was positioned as an affordable car that was smaller than the Taurus, Mustang, Crown Victoria, and Contour.

Ford Focus (1998-2004)
Ford Focus (1998-2004)

What Engines Did It Have?

The first-generation Focus offered a wide variety of engine options to cater to different performance preferences. On the Old continent, 1.4-, 1.6-, 1.8-, and 2.0-liter gas motors were available across the range with power ranging between 74 and 212 horsepower. A 1.8-liter diesel mill was offered from day one and was later updated to common-rail technology with the facelifted Focus Mk1.

In North America, 2.0- and 2.3-liter engines were available. Notably, the Special Vehicle Team (SVT) introduced the three-door Focus ZX3 SVT in late 2001 for the 2002 model year. This high-performance variant featured a reworked version of the 2.0-liter Zetec engine, developed in collaboration with Cosworth. The engine boasted special enhancements like an aluminum cylinder head, high-compression pistons, and a solenoid-operated variable camshaft timing system.

Ford Focus (1998-2004)

Did It Sell Well?

The Ford Focus was a commercial success on a global scale. Despite its radical styling, especially in the hatchback version, the car resonated with consumers worldwide. In the United States, where Ford traditionally faced challenges selling European models, the Focus became one of the ten best-selling cars shortly after its introduction.

Moreover, the Focus played a crucial role in halting Ford's market share decline in Europe, selling exceptionally well in the UK. In total, more than five million examples were sold globally. Interestingly, Ford built 4,501 Focus RS Mk1s, all individually numbered. Word on the street is all those cars have been sold at a $5,000 loss to the company.

The success of the Focus was further underscored by prestigious awards. It was elected Car of the Year in 1999 and won the North American Car of the Year award for 2000. 

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