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Ford's hot hatch has come into Focus

08/17/2006

Ford Focus
We have a winner. Ford has done it again in the latest round of its endless title fight with GM Holden, thanks to the punching power and all-round ability of its latest Focus.
...

Ford's new hero is the XR5 Turbo. It does not have the stunning looks of its rival, the Holden Astra Turbo, or the zip of the rival, but it does almost everything better. And it has cupholders . . .

It is no surprise the feisty Focus finishes on top, because it is our small-car benchmark and the one people should try first when they are shopping for a new compact.

The XR5 is a long way up and beyond the starter-price Focus CL at $20,990, but Ford has the basics right and all the extra performance work on the hot hatch has been built on deep and stable foundations.

The changes to the XR5 are huge, running right down to extra chassis stiffening and a five-cylinder turbo motor that was snitched from Volvo -- one of Ford's prestige brands -- to meet the company's target of a 150kW-plus engine.

Inevitably, there are sports springs and dampers, bigger alloy wheels and huge disc brakes.

The cabin equipment includes Recaro sports buckets, a bank of extra dials and the sort of sports trim you expect in a car called the XR5.

And that is no accident, either, because Ford Australia is well aware of the following its XR6 Turbo has and was keen to link the newcomer to the existing success....

The Focus XR5 arrived before the Astra Turbo and during a boom in the hot hatch business.

Volkswagen sets the pace with its marvellous Golf GTi, Renault has a Megane Sport and there are plenty of other players and pretenders.

The XR5 is the real deal, thanks to 166kW, and a peak of 320Nm spread from 1600 to 4000 revs, and a six-speed close-ratio gearbox that motivates one of the most responsive and enjoyable chassis in the business.

Ford Australia is expecting to be run hard by XR5 customers, thanks to a value price-tag of $35,990, which is only a little up from the Astra and significantly less than the GTi.

And there is still a monster waiting list for the Golf . . .

"The new Ford Focus XR5 Turbo combines performance with practicality," Ford Australia president Tom Gorman says.

It is built from the five-door Focus body and a lot of the work was done by the RS team that is also responsible for Ford's efforts in the World Rally Championship, under the direction of Richard Parry-Jones, the company's global product boss and one of the hardest drivers in the business.

It was Parry-Jones who drove development of the new Focus into much more than just a bread-and-Vegemite transport car and he personally signed off the XR5 work before the car went to showrooms.

The package for Australian showrooms is an impressive one, particularly for the price, and includes everything from airconditioning and central locking to Sony premium sound, alloy wheels and front, side and curtain airbags.

Of course, there is a body kit on the XR5 and the car also sits lower on its specially tuned springs.

And there is the wicked gold bodywork for people who want to go all the way for $1800

The only thing missing is cruise control, which is a must-have in Australia.

The XR5 Turbo is an excellent little car. It is as quick as you want when you want, but still a comfortable little compact when you're not in the mood. It also grips well in corners, but is not upset by humps or bumps. This is the sign of top-class chassis and suspension engineering work.

And it is practical, easy to park and has plenty of luxury gear.

Against the Astra? It does not have the wicked coupe looks of the Holden, or the touch-and-go throttle response, but it is less confronting to drive and allows you to decide what driving you want on any road or any day.

Against the Golf GTi? It's not as all-out marvellous, and the GTi has the brilliant DSG sequential manual gearbox, but it is cheaper and just as practical.

And few people will pick the extra punch in the Volkswagen.

So the XR5 is a car that will dribble around town and turn a few heads, but can really fire when you're ready to light the fuse.

It needs at least 3000 revs to start the action, when you also hear the lovely whistling turbo going to work, but then it pulls hard all the way to the redline.

In some ways it does not feel like a 166kW car, but that is also down to the smooth torque delivery and a snick-snick gearbox that encourages you to shift before the redline to keep the motor pulling hard on the turbo.

For someone who always loved the five-cylinder beat of the original Audi Quattro rally cars, the sound of the XR5 is also a very special one.

The balance of the XR5 is very good, it stops well and the ride is pretty good, with only a little bit of tyre roar on gnarly surfaces.

Inside, the Recaro seats are excellent with good support for corners and classy comfort.

I also like the excellent sound system, the feel of the controls and the boot and back-seat space.

It can be hard to park, with less than ideal visibility around the back end, and I think the extra dials look silly and don't contribute much. But there is not much else to complain about.

"This is much nicer. I would definitely pick it, and not just because it has cupholders and there are none in the Holden," says Emma, a guest tester who sampled the Astra and Focus for some feedback.

But it's any easy call for almost anyone. The XR5 is a top car and great value.

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Ford's hot hatch has come into Focus
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