I don't get a fancy new press car every week to bomb around in and blather about on the internet. But not everyone wants a new car. Many can't afford a new car, and need to buy something older and less expensive. (This is what Tavarish recommends doing anyway.) Here is the first in an irregular series reviewing cheap used cars that may, or may not, be good choices for people on a tight budget.
Like my girlfriend, known here as ElanaA. Her Jeep Liberty was going to cost more to repair to pass Massachusetts inspection than it was worth – a common issue for people on a tight budget who drive older cars.
(Full Disclosure: Ford wanted us to drive this car so bad that they sold it 13 years ago, allowed it to fully depreciate, rust out, be made roadworthy again, and sold to my girlfriend for next to nothing.)
There's a fine line between pumping more money into fixing an old car and keeping it going, and crossing the point of diminishing returns, cutting your losses, and buying something else. Fortunately, a friend of mine who runs his own shop and fixes up cheap old cars had just the thing – a 2002 Ford Focus LX sedan. It was a customer's car that he serviced for years, so not only did it have a service history, I know the guy who serviced it. The car had rusted out, particularly in the rocker panels, but he'd replaced them and got the car back into roadworthy condition. It's a total stripper basic model, but it works.
Being accustomed to 4WD, she also picked up a set of snow tires on some swank Saab alloys that look quite good on the car. It was most unfortunate when one of them fell off after the old, worn out lug nuts worked themselves loose. They were torqued down properly several times before ElanaA picked up the car, but I found that the threads were a bit stripped, and they just weren't holding the wheel securely. We bought a complete set of new lug nuts and replaced all of them, on all four wheels. So far, so good. After that scare, the car breezed through inspection, rocker panel repair and all.
If you need a cheap, basic, no frills car, the first generation Focus is a good choice, if you can find one that isn't rusted out (or has been repaired, like this one).
Exterior – 7/10
There's nothing fancy here. I always preferred the Focus in two or four door hatchback form, but the sedan is a worthy successor to the Escort it replaced. Its looks bring Ford's small car into the 21st century with New Edge style.
This particular Focus has some cosmetic quirks. The unpainted rear bumper makes it easy to find in a parking lot, but it's plastic, so it won't rust. What did rust was the rocker panels, which have been completely rebuilt and replaced. It's a solid job and was painted over well, but the welds are quite visible. Clearly a body shop didn't do this work, but it's functional and doesn't look bad, which is what counts. The hood has also been resprayed due to paint issues there. None of this is surprising at this car's age.
Interior – 7/10
I don't like the funky diagonal plastic thingy Ford did to the dashboard in this era of the Focus. But the seats and driving position are good. A few controls, like the trunk release, are in unintuitive places, but most are quite logical, and the rest are easy to learn.
Space is excellent for a small car. There is actually more room in the back seat than her old Jeep Liberty, aside from headroom of course. The trunk appears small from the outside, but when you pop the lid it's deeper and longer than it looked. Everything my girlfriend used to carry in the rear and back seat of her Liberty goes in the trunk now. Well, except her kids.
Acceleration – 6/10
You won't be breaking any speed records in this Focus, but that isn't the point. It has enough power for most of the driving you'll ever be doing. It would be beneficial to take a good line and accelerate hard all the way through the last curve of that on-ramp to try and build more speed before merging onto the highway, and this is the only place power falls a bit short. But once on the highway it has no problem, even accelerating into a small gap between cars in the left lane to pass slower traffic.
Braking – 7-10
It has brakes. They work. In fact many of the brake lines are new as part of the extensive rust repair. The rear brakes are drums, and the car lacks ABS to save money. But Elana is Canadian, which means she actually learned to drive, not mindlessly wander down the road as most Americans do. She understands threshold braking. She's also safely stopped the car both times it tried to kill her.
Ride – 8/10
It's not luxurious, by any means, but it's quite comfortable going down any road, even the terrible road I live on. Considering the car's age and mileage, it's excellent. It has the right amount of cushy, plus the right amount of firm. Ride, interior space, and how quickly I can turn on the heater are the only areas I'd rate this car higher than my BRZ.
Handling – 7/10
Even on snow tires, it's more poised, precise, and responsive than my old Tracer was. There is some body roll, but it's not excessive and is easily managed. It's no Focus SVT, but for the most basic model it's rather good.
Gearbox – 7/10
I don't like automatics, but this one actually works pretty well. It generally chooses the right gear on the first try, and doesn't hunt around the way a lot of cheap automatic cars I've driven have. Dropping the shifter to 1 locks it into first gear, as you'd expect. Dropping it to 2 locks it into second gear, and second gear only. My ex-cop Crown Vic worked normally between first and second gears in this setting, locking out only third and fourth. This could be useful for slippery conditions to help prevent wheelspin. It could also be useful for rallycross, but don't tell Elana I said that. No, not because she wouldn't let me – she'd want to drive, too.
Audio – 4/10
The car came with an aftermarket Sony CD player that isn't bad. I can't figure out how to get the display out of demo mode. The radio works. It plays CDs. And the auxiliary input lets you plug in an outside music source that someone would actually use in this century. All the speakers work. They're not super great, but they're better than nothing.
The engine sounds like the appliance it is. With a stock exhaust the car is fairly quiet in regular driving, and only starts sounding anxious when you get on it and the revs climb a bit. The four banger is loud and buzzy at high revs, but it doesn't drone too much on the highway, so it's fine.
Toys – 1/10
This is the most basic version of the Focus you can get, and it doesn't have any. It doesn't even have cruise control. Aside from the stereo, the only toy in the entire car is an LCD odometer that looks like a clock I had in the 1980s. You can reset the trip odometer. That's about it.
Value – 11/10
Dude. It's a $300 car that works and is street legal. It deserves the extra point just for that.
Total – 53/100
Engine: 2.0-liter I4
Power: 110 HP at 5,000 RPM/125 LB-FT at 3,750 RPM
Transmission: Four-Speed Automatic
0-60 Time: 11ish seconds
Top Speed: 119mph, maybe?
Drivetrain: Front-Wheel Drive
Curb Weight: 2,564 Pounds
Seating: 5 people
MPG: 28 City/36 Highway
MSRP: $12,925 base, $300 as tested