Is the MK1 Focus a good buy in 2021? In this article I’ll tell you how I think it stacks up against modern metal. If you are thinking about buying a MK1 Focus, this guide should help you decide if it’s the a car that suits you.
Already decided? Check out Focus MK1 buying guide here.
The man, the myth, the legend. In the past Chris Harris has said the MK1 Focus RS was the best long termer he has ever had and in a recent podcast/video with Johnny Smith has said if he had to start again from nothing the first car he would buy would probably be a 1.6 MK1 Ford Focus.
Praise for a car does not come higher than this but is Chris Harris right about the Focus? (and Chris is not the only one)
Breaking it down
I’ll go through the key points of the Focus and compare it to modern cars in the same segment. The goal being to see if it stacks up, should you be considering a Focus against new machinery?
Arguably the Focus has aged brilliantly, still looks modern today.
A brave interior which still looks bang up to date in 2021. Visibility is awesome. Materials are not the same soft touch you get now but the materials are nice all the same and the nasty scratchy plastics are not in places you will be touching normally.
Space inside is excellent for rear passengers and for front passengers. There is enough space between the seats to not have to rub shoulders and there are two good sized cup holders in the perfect position.
Again, the Focus MK1 is equal to modern cars.
What you won’t find from the factory is an Android head unit but what you will get is a decent sound system. If you want to fit an Android head unit there is a 1.5 Din aperture in the dash which can be expanded to double din if you buy and aftermarket trim piece. If you go with an aftermarket trim piece with a single din aperture you can get a superhandy cubby hole underneath the radio.
But I digress, no the Focus does not come with many toys but if you want to add them there is plenty of aftermarket support.
The Focus is a new generation of car. Up until the late nineties chassis stiffness was not the top priority for most car manufacturers. The Focus is made with a lot of high strength steel giving a noticeable stiffer chassis than you would expect from cars of the same era and the chassis still stands up today.
Focus is match for a modern car.
While we are on the subject of stiffness, what about safety?
Modern cars have considerably more air bags than the Focus. The Focus comes with a front air bag for the passenger and driver and that’s it.
However going back to the chassis stiffness, I believe the Focus would be a safer car to crash than cars of the same era and I don’t believe there would be a huge difference with modern cars on a passenger compartment integrity point of view. Air bags on newer cars will obviously be a big bonus
On this point, no the Focus is not up to the standard of modern cars but it is also not bad.
Probably the number one thing the Focus is famous for. The chassis is excellent. Many times more feel through the steering wheel than you get on modern cars, turn in is excellent, cornering limits are high and the attitude is throttle and brake adjustable.
To freshen up the suspension a new set of springs, ie H&R, new stock dampers and replacing the bushes that need replacing will leave you with a very competent car.
One thing that lets the Focus down in this department is the seats on the base models ie anything that is not an RS or an ST170. The flat seats on the base model do not have the side support to deal with the forces the car can produce but this can be fixed by either purchasing aftermarket seats or used seats from an ST170.
For handling, in many ways the Focus is better than modern cars.
Starting at 75 bhp for the 1.4, the smaller engine Focuses are similar with modern super minis but I think the modern Focuses will have much more torque than their equivalent model in the MK1 range. In a straight line a MK1 Focus will not be able to keep up with the current Focus but if you buy a 1.8 or 2 litre engined model, there is plenty of aftermarket support ie turbo manifolds to get you going as fast as the new stuff with much smaller outlay.
Only the diesel and RS models had a turbo so generally the engines have a lot less to go wrong. The MK1 Focus came just before everything went to CANBUS with modules and ECUs scattered throughout the car. The engines in the MK1 Focus will be much simpler and probably cheaper to repair and/or replace than the new stuff.
I have talked about the interior and the cup holders but other stand out points are interior space. You can get masses of stuff into the Focus. The rear seat arrangement is also excellent. The rear load space goes almost completely flat because the rear seat bases tilt forward and the seat backs fold down into the space they created. A very nice feature and a feature you will love if you carry a lot of things in your car.
One gripe I would have here here though is the fact you have to open the boot to be able to get to the catches that release the rear seat backs forward.
As I said in the previous point, the MK1 Focus came before electronics took over everything and before downsizing made engines massive. On the 1.6 and 1.4 models it is easy to get to most things, starter motor and alternators are a doddle for example.
If there is one gripe with the Focus it is Ford’s insistence on the use of various types of screw heads. You can find torx, allen and hex in equal measure and without any apparent logic.
Other things that defy logic are having to use a key to open the bonnet (you can imagine what happens key mechanism exposed to the elements), having to use the key to open the fuel filler, you have to use a button on the dashboard to open the boot. You can open the boot with a key also but what is wrong with a simply handle on the boot like every other car?
Minor niggles in general. In comparison to Japanese cars the Focus is more difficult to work on but by no means a nightmare.
Like most older cars I think ease and cost of servicing will be better than newer cars
I touched on this with the “toys” and “interior” sections above. But I’ll take a few words here to talk about the ride and the seats. Apart from the side support issue, another problem with the seats is that they are “modern”. Ford switched from using springs in their seats and now rely almost entirely on foam. The foam is okay for 1-2 hour journeys but more than that and the seats start to feel like unfinished concrete.
Apart from that, a decent place to be. Wind noise is slightly worse than you might expect, the cup holders are a boon, the stereo is also a boon, good sound and good volume.
Newer cars may give a better center armrest for driver and passenger and the arms in the doors can be bigger on newer stuff but in general it is a nice place to be.
Comfort is great on the suspension front, good body control yet not punishing or jiggly like newer cars can be, the plump tyres have a part to play here.
Generally the Focus is about as good as new cars.
Generally reliable but unlike Japanese cars, you need to keep on top of the servicing or things will start to go wrong. Electrics can have issues but if you Google whatever problem you are having I’m sure you will find a thousand other people who have the same problem but at the same time you will probably also find a solution.
This seems a common trait with the Focus. If something goes wrong for one person, chances are it’s gone wrong for thousands of people.
New cars are supposed to have made leaps and bounds with fuel economy. My experience with a 1.6 petrol Focus tells me Ford didn’t do too bad a job with the Zetec engine. We regularly get 35 mpg and we do not drive to get fuel efficiency. At all.
In short I think fuel economy is not a million miles from what you get with new cars of similar power.
I think it is obvious by now what I think but I’ll sum it up anyway.
Compared to new cars I think the interior, the comfort, the handling, the engine performance, the economy, the practicality, the looks and running costs are as good as new cars and in many respects actually surpass new cars. The driving experience and ride comfort being the most obvious stand outs.
Couple this with the fact that these cars can be had for pennies, couple this with the fact that fuel economy is comparable to new cars of similar performance, I think it is extremely hard to justify buying a new car.
Of course driving a new car is ace and yes the safety and ultimate performance out of the box of a new car will be superior (technology has moved on over twenty years) but as a package, the difference is not huge and where the new cars are superior they can be at the same time, inferior.
Handling is a great example. Yes new cars will have better brakes and higher cornering limits, largely due to the wider tyres they use, but new cars loose out big time in connection. If you just want the closest thing as possible to your living room for the road, comfort and toys is your be all and end all then it is hard to beat a new car. But if you like the process of driving, if you like to be connected to the experience I don’t think someone could regret having a MK1 Ford Focus in their garage, especially if it is the ST170, Focus RS (or a base model with better seats!).
The MK1 Focus is an honest car, its a cheap car, its a reliable car, it is nice to drive, it has modern materials and a modern interiors and for those reasons, absolutely a Focus MK1 is a good buy in 2021 (if you can find a good one)