This kind of fierce competition has forced the world's manufacturers to build quality vehicles at every price range or go out of business in America.
And it's competition that has afforded people on a budget whether it be young adults just starting a family or retirees on a fixed income the opportunity to drive good cars off the showroom floor.
For a rather small monthly payment, there are some really interesting, fun-to-drive, dependable vehicles on the market.
This all came to mind after just 10 miles behind the wheel of a 2005 Ford Focus ZX4 ST sedan. What a wonderful family car for a base price of just over $18,000. What a great driving car for the young dad who wants to get away for a couple of Sunday afternoon hours on the winding rural roads of back country America. What a nice vehicle for mom to take the kids to school. What a comfortable and entertaining sedan for the summer trip to Disney World or Disneyland.
The ST is the top of the line Focus, money-wise and performance-wise. A less costly Focus can be purchased if the pocketbook demands. The spacious two-door hatch starts at a reasonable $14,010 and the sedan begins at $14,670; the wagon at $17,855.
This is the sixth year of the Focus, which was introduced in 2000.
Yes, it was nagged by a series of recalls the first couple of years, but those problems have been solved and are long gone.
It has been heaped with tributes from the automotive press. It's been a Car and Driver magazine Ten Best award winner five years in a row. And it has been highly rated by Consumer Reports magazine.
But a few months ago, the Focus was dropped from the publication's “recommended” list because it scored poorly on the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's side impact tests, a new criterion for the magazine. Never mind that only two of the 16 small cars Consumer Reports has tested scored better than poor.
But if that bothers you, the Focus can be ordered with side impact airbags for a low option price of $350. With the side airbags, the Focus received an acceptable rating from IIHS.
Although we find ourselves occasionally at odds with Consumer Reports, we agree with the magazine's number one ranking of the Focus even without the “recommended” status.
Ford offers the Focus in four body styles three-door hatchback, five-door hatch, sedan and wagon. They are identified quite artfully as, respectively, ZX3, ZX5, ZX4 and ZXW. Trim levels include S, SE and SES. A new ST designation takes the place of the SVT performance model, which was dropped at least for this model year. The ST can be found only in the sedan.
The ZX4 ST is for those wanting a measure of performance and a big dose of driving fun. It comes with a 2.3-liter 4-cylinder engine developing 151 horsepower mated to a 5-speed manual transmission. Those who want an automatic need to look at another model.
The engine-transmission combination is rewarding, rowing through the gears to 60 miles per hour in about 7.5 seconds. And all the time, even at idle, the sport-tuned exhaust makes a sweet rumbling noise.
The 5-speed shifted nicely and the clutch can be well managed with just a bit of practice. A four-speed manual transmission is standard fare in most of the lineup.
The ST comes with a lot of good performance-oriented parts as standard equipment including chrome-tipped exhausts, four-wheel disc brakes with ABS, traction control, color-keyed body trim, rear ground effects, leather-wrapped steering wheel, sport front bucket seats, unique 16-inch wheels and stiffer struts and shocks for sportier handling.
Other Focus models come with a new 136-horsepower 2.0-liter 4-cylinder engine. It's a version of the highly praised Mazda-designed 2.3-liter. The new engine replaces the 110-horse and 130-horse variants that have been found in the Focus since its inception.
Note that California, Massachusetts, Maine, New York and Vermont get a slightly detuned 130-horsepower engine that meets the Partial Zero Emissions Vehicle (PZEV) standards. The 2.3-liter in the ST is available in all 50 states.
The '05 Focus gets major interior styling upgrades as well. The most noteworthy is the dashboard, which loses its rather funky diagonal line that slashed across the dash. We found it unique and not unattractive. But the new more standard conservative look works well and gauges are easy to use and the switchgear, always very intuitive in the Focus, is still well-marked and user friendly.
We found the sport bucket front seats in the ZX4 ST very supportive and comfortable. The rear seats will accommodate two adults, but leg room is at a premium as in most compact sedans. If the rear passengers can gain cooperation from those in the front, all should be well.
Taller front fenders and a larger grille spruce up the front end of the Focus for a new look.
One very noteworthy new feature this year is a standard five-year, 100,000-mile powertrain warranty, which is fully transferable. It includes towing and roadside assistance.
The Focus continues to be an exemplary small car that not only can compete with the vaunted Japanese brands, but can go straight to the head of the class.