Ford Focus MK1 Buyer's Guide
By James Mosley – www.fordownersclub.com
Now that the MK1 is getting on a bit in terms of age, it can make a great used buy if you can hunt down a well-cared for example. With prices now starting from just a few hundred pounds, as well as the car being voted the best car of the last 25 years in a recent Auto Express survey, it really is a bargain used car. Not only that, but the outrageous styling (for 1998) of the MK1 focus and its class leading handling ensure it still feels far more fresh and modern than many other cars in this price bracket. The MK1 Focus was produced between 1998 and 2004 with a facelift taking place in 2001. There are also a few late registered 2005 models out if you look for them.
There is a great range of models to choose from and a seemingly endless choice on the used car market, meaning that picking out a good one can seem a little bewildering.
Models and Trim Levels:
The MK1 Focus comes with a choice of some great engines, both petrol and diesel.
The standard Focus was sold with 1.4 (75ps), 1.6 (100ps), 1.8 (115ps) and 2.0 (130ps) litre naturally aspirated petrol engines, as well as a choice of three 1.8 litre turbocharged diesel engines with either 90ps, 100ps or 115ps. A warm hatch ST170 was also offered with a 2.0 naturally aspirated engine with variable valve timing sporting 170ps while a hot but limited edition RS version was produced between 2002 and early 2004 complete with a 2.0 turbocharged petrol engine and 215ps. All models come with a 5 speed manual transmission with the exception of the ST170 which uses a 6 speed box. The 1.6 and 2.0 petrol engines are also available with an option automatic transmission.
Generally the 1.4 petrol engine is seen as one to avoid being a little underpowered and gutless for the size of car that it is trying to power. Of the petrol engines, the 1.6 and 1.8 models tend to be the pick of the bunch, providing a nice mix of zippy performance from the rev happy zetec engines whilst returning relatively decent economy. The 2.0 petrol adds a nice dollop of extra power over the 1.8 litre, although fuel economy does start to suffer a little. The early 90ps endure diesel engines are ok but if you are after the best mix of performance and economy, the later more modern 100 and 115ps TDCI diesel engines have a much more up to date feel and make for a better drive.
The Focus is available most commonly as a 3 or 5 door hatchback but can also be found in the slightly rarer saloon and estate forms. The saloon can be picked up as a bit of a bargain on occasion due to its ‘love it or hate it’ styling whilst the estate adds that extra bit of practicality if needed.
Ford offered four standard trim levels along with some options to choose from and with so many Focus’ out there to choose from it is worth deciding what you are after before you go looking.
CL – This was the most basic trim level that Ford offered and is most commonly found on the 1.4 litre petrol engine. In all honesty this is probably the one to avoid as it really is basic, it won’t really cost much more (if any) to get a higher spec model and there will be stacks of Zetecs and Ghias available at a similar price point. The CL gives you central locking (though not remote), power assisted steering and a basic cassette player radio. There really isn’t that much more to it. You don’t get electric front windows either.
LX – Worth a look at the right price, the LX adds some decent features including air con as standard as well as the fantastic Ford heated front windscreen and electric heated mirrors. Still comes with plastic wheel trims and no alloys though, unless they have been specified as an option. Remote central locking is also thrown in as standard on LX models.
Zetec – Made up the majority of the MK1 Focus sales and probably the easiest to find with a plentiful supply out there waiting to be snapped up. The Zetec is a favourite with the more enthusiastic drivers out there. Its highlights included 15 inch alloy wheels, slightly lowered and firmer suspension providing a sportier feel, front fog lights, remote central locking and sports seats (they’re not proper sports seats but have a little more side bolstering for that added bit of support over the regular Focus seats). If looking for a Zetec then be sure to look out for one with the ‘climate pack’ option, as this will give you the best of both worlds adding the heated front windscreen, heated electric mirrors and washer jets as well as air con. The later Zetec models had air con as standard but some of the early ones didn't so that is worth bearing in mind. We would go so far as to say that a nice example of a zetec climate would be the pick of the bunch when it comes to trim levels. There was also a ‘Zetec ESP’ version available with the later 2 litre petrol engines. This was essentially the same as the Zetec but added stability control to the top petrol engine as well as slighter larger (16 inch) Zetec alloy wheels.
Ghia – This was the top spec model that Ford offered in terms of luxuries available. It added comfier seats with electric height adjustment and lumbar support, lots of chome trim inside and out along with some extra colour coding on later models. Later models are commonly found with a trip computer, climate control and 1 touch up and down electric windows, including the rear windows. You also get a front centre arm rest and different alloy wheels amongst other small touches. If you are on the lookout for a late model, high spec MK1 Focus then this could be the way to go. Keep an eye open for later 2003 onward facelift models. Some of them even had very rare options such as factory fitted xenon lights and heated seats.
There were also a few special editions that Ford brought out over the years including Black, Silver, Chic, Elle, and Flight. They vary in their specifications but some of them can add lots of extras including heated leather seats. Definitely worth checking out if you spot one whilst browsing through ads! There are also plenty of optional extras than can be found on top of the standard specs listed above. These can be worth keeping a look out for depending on what you are after and can include an electric sunroof, leather interior and heated seats, climate control and xenon lighting on later models. One thing to bear in mind is that the MK1 Focus may seem a little outdated in terms of safety kit compared to its modern counterparts, particularly if you are looking at an earlier model. ABS did not come as standard until 2003 and was an expensive option prior to this. Also, early models only came fitted with 2 airbags, although this was later updated to 4 with the addition of front seat side airbags at some point in 2003. The safest example of the MK1 Focus will therefore tend to be the later 2003 onwards ones.
The Focus ST170 was Ford’s first attempt at a performance Focus and was a pretty solid effort. Some said it was a little underpowered due to the size of car and only having a 0-60mp time of around 8 seconds it was never blisteringly quick. However, it did have a fantastic rev hungry engine, and that little bit of extra power it had over the regular Focus gave the fantastic Focus MK1 chassis a power plant to do it justice. The Focus ST170 comes very well equipped as standard with full colour coding, lowered sports suspension, half leather sports seats,17 inch multi spoke alloy wheels, unique front fog lights, 6 speed manual gearbox and esp. Other little touches included a unique instrument cluster with oil temperature and pressure gauges as well as alloy pedals and interior door handles.
Current prices make this a bit of a bargain little warm/hot hatch, but if you are looking for a really good example of one then make sure to keep an eye out for the desirable option packs. The Focus ST170 was offered primarily with 2 option packs. The comfort back is relatively easy to find and includes digital climate control, xenon lights and the ford heated front windscreen (surprisingly not standard on the ST170). The custom pack is a little harder to find but worth it if you are after the ultimate example of an ST170. It includes the very rare and desirable full leather recaro heated seats and the 9006 audiophile sound system with 6 disc in dash changer and luggage compartment mounted sub-woofer.
The limited edition Focus RS MK1 is no doubt the ultimate MK1 Focus. Limited to a production run of 4501 cars it was made up of 70% new or upgraded parts. This attention to detail famously meant that Ford lost around £4000 on each example they sold. The RS is only available in Imperial Blue metallic and there were no options available on the car. It came with a 2.0 turbocharged petrol engine that produces a healthy 212 horsepower and 229 Ib-ft of torque. Its interior was unique in that it had exclusive blue and black sparco seats. It also had sparco pedals, an engine start button and a turbo boost gauge. Every car was also individually numbered meaning that it felt every inch a special car.
The only differences to occur throughout the cars production run were the small modifications that were sometimes called ‘phase 2’ version of the car which generally seemed to be the later versions of the car although some early ones had the modifications or had them retrofitted. The changes included a revised map to help with cold start issues, a small pink grommet on the throttle cable, the lettering ‘Engine Start’ around the push start button and extra stitching on the front seat bases to prevent sagging. Values of these cars have stayed very high over the years with low mileage, well cared for examples demanding strong money. This car is sure to be a desirable future classic.
The MK1 Focus is generally a relatively cheap car to run providing you have a decent example and you look after it.
Servicing costs are fairly reasonable as most garages will have no difficulty working on the fairly straightforward mechanicals. Fuel consumption is good if you go for one of the frugal diesel models and the mid-size petrol engines are ok. Whilst not up to today’s modern standard with stop/start technology and so on, they will not break the bank. If driven sensibly, you should be able to achieve relatively good mpg. Avoid the larger 2.0 petrol engine if you are particularly worried about MPG as this one does tend to get a little thirsty, particularly with the automatic gearbox.
Parts are relatively cheap and in plentiful supply, that is unless you own the RS model. Take care of any RS specific parts (and there are quite a few of these) as they can be very hard to source and incredibly expensive. The front wings can cost around £1000 each!
When checking through service history it is important to check for a cambelt change. Ignore the official Ford rating of 10 years or 100,000 miles (this was just to impress the fleet companies). Most experts say it should be done between 60,000 and 80,000 miles.
Tax is a little more expensive on the early MK1 Focus models (before the CO2 based ratings came in) but if you buy a newer model it will be a little more reasonable.
Insurance is pretty reasonable on these cars with exception of ST170 and RS models. The ST170 in particular seems to be particularly expensive to insure given the fact that it is not as powerful and quick as some rivals.
Common Faults and What to Look Out For
Now that the Focus MK1 is over 10 years old there is quite an extensive list of common faults and things to look out for. Don’t let this put you off however. Many MK1’s will not have experienced any or many of these faults but just bear these points in mind when you are shopping around.
Sadly the MK1 Focus does suffer from rust in various places. Be sure to check the rear arches. As the Focus has fabric arch liners, these tend to hold moisture and encourage rust. Also check the bottom of the doors, around hatchback hinges, under the rear wiper blade (bottom of the rear screen) and around the wing mirror housing as these are also common places.
The pollen filter can be incorrectly fitted by garages/dealers during a service. This can result in water leaking into the passenger footwell. Check for dampness under the mat and on the carpet. If this happens it can lead to a damp smell in the vehicle and can also cause the windscreen to get wet and or freeze in the winter.
Front springs can be prone to breaking.
Wheel bearings are a very common fault and can cause a rumbling. This is especially common on estates.
The central locking can play up. This is usually due to water. Removing the top torx screw and squirting with WD40 or similar at a downwards 45 degree angle can help solve this.
1.4 litre petrol is known as being underpowered and best avoided.
They can suffer from leaking rear lights which can cause rust on the contacts, causing bulbs to fail and also current drains.
Misfires are a common problem that can be caused by coil packs leading to uneven idling and poor running. Best to change the coil pack, plugs and leads.
The cluster can go faulty due to bad soldering or damp. Check for random lights coming on and going off for no reason.
The 1.8 has an issue with the vacuum hose at the rear of the throttle body collapsing. It’s easy to locate as it’s the only one at the rear with a bend in it. This causes poor running and poor idling. Rev the car whilst observing the hose and you will see it being sucked together. Replacements are Ford-only and easy to replace. It’s best to wrap several layers of tin foil around the new one and secure with a cable tie to prevent the heat destroying it.
The gearbox speed sensor is prone to failing. Symptoms are the car cutting out when slowing or stopping and the speedo dropping to zero whilst driving.
The instrument cluster failing is a particularly common fault for cars built in 2003 and even resulted in the fault appearing on watchdog. Ford were forced to offer a reduced price repair on this fault.
Smart charge faults are easy to check for. Enter dash diagnostics by holding the trip reset down and then whilst held down start the car. It will show test and each press scrolls through. Search for bat and it should show 14.4 v at idle with no electrics, and lower than 13.4 with no electrics indicates a fault.
Rear trailing arm bushes can go after 5 years or so and are not easy to do yourself as the whole rear end bolts are usually ceased. Have these inspected before buying or test drive and feel for wandering at the rear under cornering.
Make sure there are 2 keys with the car as a replacement remote key can cost around £100.
The wiring loom going into the hatch from the roof has a tendency for the insulation on the wires to get brittle with time. This results in the wires snapping and shorting over, causing problems with the boot electrics.
Common symptoms are-
1. Rear wiper not returning to its park position on the intermittent wipe function.
2. The high-level (third) brake light does not function.
3. The boot lock opens itself when the engine is running leading on later to the boot lock
not releasing when the interior button or key fob button are pressed.
This is due to the lock solenoids burning out because of the constant power via
a short circuit.
4. Rear demister element stops working.
The heater fan can fail on its first one two or three settings, the resistors have probably gone and that they can be accessed on the right hand side of the glove box. Ford dealers usually carry spares. Inside the glove box, on the right, there is a screwed panel behind which are the resistors and fuses. The resistors needing to be replaced are listed inside the car's manual.
ST170s can sometimes suffer from premature rusting welds to their catalytic converters.
The clutch release bearing has been known to go on some models which can be diagnosed by a ‘whining’ noise when pulling away in first or reverse whilst using the clutch.
Fords ‘Quickclear’ heated front windscreen elements can apparently start to break down after only 8 to 9 years so look out for this.
It is always worth checking that the car you are looking at had had all the correct recall work carried out on it before buying. Phone up your local dealer with the registration number and they may be kind enough to let you know if this work has been carried out.
Quick Checklist For Buying a MK1 Focus
● Decide what engine size you are looking for. 1.6 And 1.8 litre petrol models are highly recommended as well as the 100 and 115ps
diesel models. Try and avoid the 1.4 petrol as it is underpowered for this size of car.
● Decide what trim level you are after. Something like a Zetec Climate or a Ghia should be readily available and give you a great
selection of kit for the money.
● Decide on what body style you are looking for. The 5 door hatchback is the most common and a safe bet, the 3 door if you are after a sportier look and do not require the extra doors. The estate adds a touch of extra practicality and while the saloon should generally be avoided to due to its questionable looks, it can be a bargain if you can put up with it due to low values.
● Use our common problems section above to check for the most common items that go wrong with the MK1 Focus.
● Be sure to check the bodywork for rust as mentioned above as the cost of repairs can be high compared to the value of the car, particularly with lower budgets.
● Don’t be afraid if the Focus you are looking at has 1 or 2 faults as long as you are happy with everything else and can factor in repair costs etc. to the price.
● Buy the best combination of age and mileage that you can afford.
● Service history - A car that comes with a folder full of paperwork and receipts as well as a full service book can sometimes be a better buy than a low mileage alternative with little history. Lots of history will generally mean that a car has been well cared for.
● Owner’s club cars from people such as ourselves are generally very well looked after and cared for - quite often with no expenses spared. A car with club stickers on is always worth a look.
● If you are not quite happy with the car for some reason then simply walk away. There are so many MK1 Focus models out there that you will have no trouble finding another one within budget.