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Possibly the most durable family car

Ford Focus 1.8 TDCi, 2002 - with more than 700,000 on the clock

13/04/2013 06:51 |  Comments: 

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Danny started life in the media as an ad organizer, but quickly stepped up to become a journalist at Hungary’s biggest daily paper, then made a jump to the best-known biking magazine from where life took him to a university in Brussels to study. When he returned, we snapped him up right away and since then he’s been our extremely successful editor of public affairs. As a long-distance motorbiker, Danny also doubles as an editor at our mag for two-wheel lovers, totalbike.hu. Lives with a girlfriend, has a cat.

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This is one of the most highly sought after used cars around and not without a reason. The first generation Ford Focus is just about your perfect choice for a few thousand Euros. There is only one rule of the thumb: steer clear of TDCI diesels – like the one we are reviewing here.

I lift off the accelerator at the top of the steep incline, as the spot over the crest is frequented by police and I have no intention to pick up a ticket for speeding. The odo creeps up from 39 and settles on 40. I am running in fifth gear, God knows for how long – I have no recollection of shifting gears lately. The old box has still managed to pick up from 130 kph on the speedometer to a real 130 kph as verified by the GPS without a hiccup and it feels like it could continue to accelerate, with the engine ticking just below 3000 rpm. It's a diesel and it pulls with a might. The rumble is increasingly present in the cabin, it sounds a bit like a van, but somehow I don't mind. Despite being conditioned as a petrol-lover I have no reservations about this engine. As the car picks up speed there is some strange chirping noise accompanying the rumble. Is it something in the cabin? God knows.

There is one thing worth noting. The 40 on the odometer – that's just the final two digits of a pretty impressive figure that reads 7-2-7-4-4-0. Holy moly! Is this an ancient Mercedes or some kind of atmospheric diesel from the days of yore? Nope: I am driving the only variant of the Ford Focus MkI that could give you major headache. Unbelievably, this old 1.8 TDCI is nixing just about all my reservations and prejudices about high mileage cars, troublesome diesels and teenagers Fords, all in one. I recall several reviews of its generation. It hurts me to think that thousands of people have chosen to buy new cars on instalment when they could have decided on a carefully hand-picked used car. I wish they were here with me now.

Manis This is a highly surreal situation. This car should have been scrapped long ago. Had it been originally registered in Germany I am certain it would have met its fate in 2002, the golden age of the scrappage program. This one is a time bomb for sure, I'd better enjoy every moment with this rare and surreal entity. I had absolutely no expectations when looking for a suitable car for this review. We are test driving all used models which are imported in increasing numbers from Western Europe. Over 700 of these old Ford Focuses were re-registered here during the first eight months of 2012. Many of those were diesels – not common rail ones, of course, but the old fashioned TDDI unit injector versions.

This white station wagon, however, used to run as a fleet vehicle for a Hungarian logistics company. It was driven by the same administrator from day one and it never once broke down. He had the ambition of driving the Focus into the magical realm of seven-digit mileage, but the company chose to sell it instead.

These guys are not easily surprised by the mileage feats of their Fords - they use a Mondeo with over 500K on the odometer, while the company beater car, a small Fiesta, has clocked over 400K. Our driver has been promised an identical car as a replacement. His old car went on to pass MOT with flying colours. It is now for sale – tampering with the clock is strictly out of the question. Wouldn't you want to know just how much this Focus has deteriorated mechanically and aesthetically since it passed 250 thousand kilometres – a milestone (and usually a tombstone) for most privately owned vehicles? Alright, we'll come back to that later.

I don't think you can have this sort of an intimate harmony between a company car and its user any more. Mind you, this man probably spent his life behind the wheel, driving over 70 thousand kilometres a year. Talking about mileage, let's take a look at the original steering wheel, now replaced after the MOT exam. This is the single component of the car that shows heavy wear. All others have either been replaced or are still ticking along. The engine is intact. This car has seen some outstanding, loving care, exceeding the wildest expectations of Ford engineers responsible for this revolutionary replacement for the old Escort. Actually forget that, I was all wrong. There is the tiniest rip on the gear lever gaiter.

The thing is, this Focus refuses to give in. Even during the torment of stop-and-go city traffic it lures me in and makes me feel eternal. There must be thousands of invisible hands holding together all those components. How else could the seat cushion and the upholstery have survived all those ins and outs? How else can you explain that all switchgear still carries their original markings; that the indicator stalk switch, while wobbly, still functions flawlessly? That the engine starts at first try even in the cold dampness of autumn? And the ultimate question: why does it feel so great driving this car? I'm back to earth, however, when the windscreen wiper does fail me the very first evening. It's the fuse. It keeps blowing. A quick phone call to the fleet manager clears everything: the wiper motor is stuck and is prone to overheating. The former driver learnt to live with it.

As I am heading home I am pretty sure I could just tell the car where to go, it must have covered this route about a zillion times. The gear shift is wobbly but it's still easy to find the gears. Steering is weird as it wants to return to its mid-gear position with too much force. I adjust tire pressure and the issue goes away. The rest, I suppose, is just a matter of specific chassis setup. There is no bias at braking, and the car clears S-turns without a problem. All in all handling is not bad but it certainly is strange. Even our Focus expert was clueless in this regard, and if he doesn't know, no-one will...

Zoltan Saary, the official mechanic for the Hungarian Ford Focus Club and its 2800 active members has never seen an MkI with such high mileage. Most people wouldn't have risked or couldn't afford to buy this expensive diesel version, originally rated at 100 PS and 240 Nm, when the first generation was new. As he jacks up the car Zoltan gets overwhelmed by his sentiments. As he opens the hood he mentions that he usually explicitly forbids people to buy the pre-facelift TDCI versions.

He has a reason to do so. There is only one version within the 1998-2004 batch where a mildly serious engine trouble cannot be viably and affordably repaired and therefore means the end of the road – yes, you guessed right. The Delphi fuel feed system of the common rail turbodiesel was later replaced by a Siemens Piezo injector. That one – available for the second generation Focus – was more reliable but is even scarcer to find. The Delphi injectors have a service life of 160 000 kms, replacement units cost about 330 Euros a piece. Rails amount to about €150, a high pressure pump costs a thousand Euros. Rebuilding the fuel feed system is not enough, you also need to remap it which costs extra. With costs soaring so high, most people try to economise on the €40 sealing plugs which keep dirt and dust away from the injection system, working at 1600 bars a rather short-sighted view if you think about it.

If pollutants do get inside the system it could (or rather, it will) result in malfunction. All covers are gone; Zoltan shakes his head. The battery cover, the plastic panel guiding air stream to the intercooler, even the lower cover. All major components seem to be the original ones, and what is really surprising, the entire engine bay is dry and dusty. No signs of oil leak, whatsoever. We do manage to find a small one finally, at the base of the high pressure pump. This, however, is a pretty regular symptom even on later Fords with the same engine, and should not raise an alarm for quite some time.

Most Focus buyers in Hungary opt for a petrol engine. Zoltan says that the 100 PS 1.6 Zetec-SE is just about ideal for all body versions. It is by no means a sporty engine but it doesn't mind if you load up the rear for a family holiday either. He prefers the 1.8 and 2.0 Zetecs of course but for the second generation Focus these were supplied by Mazda and hence they are called Duratec. The largest of the batch outputs 136 PS and is plenty powerful for both hatchbacks: the sedan or the wagon. Yet most user reviews will report on the 1.4-litre base spec version. When it comes to diesels you will mostly meet older direct injection 90 PS turbodiesels, primarily TDDI ones, which I find especially appealing for their simplicity. Of course both this and more modern common rail TDCI engines derive from a common ancestor, the ancient swirl chamber atmospheric diesel used in the third generation Ford Escort. As such there is usually nothing wrong with the engine block and this specimen of ours is far from getting issues with its crankshaft bearings.

Zoltan cannot believe that the owner told me to floor it at least once, just to see that there is a bit of soot coming from this 700K Focus. I floor it. No soot at all. We try again, nothing. This is the surefire way to kill the TDCI engine, Zoltan tells me. It's a sensitive system but there is no pressure control valve on the high pressure side. Control is partially entrusted to the injectors themselves. But such high pressure nightmare scenarios go both ways, the entire system gets overloaded and will subsequently fail. If you are about to test drive a used TDCI, listen for engine knock or uneven idle after revving the engine. If those occur, cancel the purchase.

Here is a second opinion on the same vehicle from a fellow journalist.

I knew the first Focus was a damn great car

It has been over ten years I first sat in a Focus. I was going for a job interview, trying to get an internship with Sachs. I was more than anxious and the Focus was brand new. And yet I can remember that this TDDI was the first car I ever drove that could do 140 kph and consume under 5 litres/100km at the same time. I took turns dropping my jaw at this fact and the fabulous Focus chassis. I thought this might be the perfect car, certainly within its segment. And yet, at that point I had no way of knowing what would become of this pioneer of New Edge design after a few hundred thousand kilometres.

Well, having seen this car with 727 thousand km under the hood, we know now. It is amazing to see the degree of dignity and stance this white station wagon displays after ten years of service. If I hadn't seen the original steering wheel I would probably think the odometer is broken. This thing is amazing. Sure you can tell it's used but if I had to take a guess I would have said 200K, not seven, The gear lever has the slightest of play, the chassis is sort of worn but certainly not fallen apart, and the engine has a discreet rumbling noise – none of my senses indicate anything I should be concerned about. You can clearly see the mark left by those 700 thousand kilometres but that's it.

This car has enjoyed a lot of tender care; that is for sure. Having heard the advice of the Focus Wizard I can tell the engine has not been revved much. It was handled with utmost care and used primarily outside the city limits. Even so it is a miracle it still has any mobility left in it. Not only that, but it appears to be in as good a shape as your average used car, which goes to prove that odometer readings really do not matter much. What does matter is the owner, the maintenance and the type of use. If you want to buy a used car take it for test drive; that is the only way to get to know it.

This Focus has remained a fundamentally good car. Our Focus Wizard says it's because it is so old. After the Escort Ford really wanted to make a statement and spared no expenses with the Focus. When the model was new we were awe-struck by the programmed deformation chassis elements, or the trick rear suspension that varied toe-in and camber in a turn according to vehicle speed, but we had no idea if these would last. Experience shows there are no serious issues with the car. The Focus still feels nimble. If you compare it to the Golf Mk4 or the Astra G it feels like moving from a horse cart to a WRC racer.

Even if we halved the mileage of the TDCI we would be way over the kaboom point of the three time bombs planted in the engine – the dual mass flywheel, the high pressure pump and the injector units. In contrast there is only one component that can go wrong in my personal favourite, the TDDI engine: the Bosch VP pump unit is sensitive to fuel impurities but can be repaired rather painlessly.

Of all the no-nonsense, affordable, family friendly cars this is the one I'd prefer for myself. I could even get used to the dashboard which seems like it was slashed by a madman.

András Stump

Old Focuses would deserve a better fate than being driven into the ground. They are a very sturdy, reliable construction. This specific car has absolutely no rattle in the cabin. Sure it is not a Ghia, meaning colours are bleak, all black and grey, but the A/C works, so does the 6-disc CD-changer, and our colleague says the electric windows work at a good pace. Unlike later Focuses this one has its interior panels bolted in place which not only means they can be repaired but also that they have not begun to snag or rattle.

Average mileage is not something worth talking about in Hungary: it simply makes no sense. If potential buyers shun from vehicles with a declared mileage of over 200K kilometres, you will not find many cars on the second hand market which would admit to more than that. But what is the reality? Since the interior is sturdy and even the rubber caps on the pedals can survive 500 thousand km's, the Focus practically begs to have its odometer rolled back.

Zoltan and I decide to look at the underside of the car and he begins to recite the secret lore he picked up during his factory training. The reason the lower door frame on old Focuses rusts supposedly is that there was a single man degreasing the sheets between the door frame and the external cover panel. For the most he did an iffy job.

This specific car has more than average rust, though, for obvious reasons. The base of wheel arches rots rather than rusts. It is easy to see why: there has been so much water, so much debris hitting the lower perimeter of the wing over the years that the paint is completely gone, and the sheet metal has begun to rot through – if not yet, it soon will.

The hood is also flaking but, remarkably, there is no rust. The head of the company that originally bought this car says it has been through two fender benders. Once it was backed into, necessitating the replacement of the front bumper and one headlight. On another occasion it was rear-ended, so a new bumper and some metalwork was needed. Thanks to the first incident only one headlight shows wear – namely the polycarbonate housing was scratched during wintertime snow scraping, and UV radiation has tarnished the plastic. Of course this is something that can be mended.

Surely there must have been some expensive repairs here? Well, the turbocharger was replaced at 400K for one. That must have been expensive, probably as much as €500. On this occasion the dreaded injectors were reconditioned, rather than replaced, they have shown no issues since. Bolts on the rear suspension jammed tight, so when bushings needed to be replaced the entire unit had to be cut out. Otherwise that would have been a mere €100 issue.

Zoltan says the clutch must have been replaced too. Even on petrol versions they won't last much longer than 200.000 km, while in case of a diesel it substantially differs depending on usage. And indeed it has been replaced, not once but twice. Also gone are the original starter motor and servo pump. If you want to spare the significant expenses of having to replace the dual mass flywheel or the clutch set, learn how to take care of your car, says Zoltan. As little as declutching before engine start-up and shutdown can make a difference. This is something you can get used to, just as you can get used to not flooring the pedal, and once you master that you can go a long way.

I pose the ultimate question – would the greatest expert of all Focuses buy what is probably the highest mileage Focus in the region? Certainly not, nor would he recommend it to anyone. Petrol models, on the other hand, offer a stylish and easy to maintain package if you are looking to buy a car for no more than 1700-2300 Euros. Me, I keep dreaming of a TDDI. The worst case scenario with one of those is a new injection pump, and you can easily pick up a reconditioned one.

The 1.4 and 1.6 engines cannot be repaired, at least there is no technology specified. The factory won't even supply a single torque value for tightening the con rod bolts – in return these engines have a tendency not to break down unless neglected. Oil change intervals are 15 thousand km for older, 20K for younger Focuses. The Focus Wizard will do a regular maintenance job on the vehicle for about €100, including taxes. Some customers bring their cars in for bulb replacement, as newer H7 headlights go dark more often than the first H4 versions. We are talking about the models with indicators under the headlights, rather than in the bumper.

Regular replacement parts do not cost a fortune for the early Focus. ATE brake pads in factory packaging with Brembo discs will cost about €130-160. Front sway bars set you back a mere 13-20 Euros. Cast aluminium ones cost more but cheaper Chinese units will also do the job. You may need lower wishbone ball-joints for about 16-30 Euros, and you must make sure you are getting a calcium battery. These come in higher capacity variants for diesels which makes them about 100 Euros. As for OE or aftermarket, the owner of the record-holding Focus prefers original parts or equivalent quality. He says they are more cost effective simply because they work longer,

While all good advice is appreciated, none of this wisdom could have helped if this specific car had not been driven by a caring and calm person. And the lesson of the story is: you may, or even should, buy an old Focus. If you absolutely want a diesel, go for one but try to pick an older version. However when buying a ten-year old car in Hungary all of this does not matter much, you will be running far higher risks. There are plenty of cars available on the market, for as little as 1700-2700 Euros. Small displacement petrol models are cheaper, while diesels in proper condition are more expensive. There are also many Focuses which have been in an accident, or have had their odometer rolled back, but the good thing is there is enough for everyone. Even Austria is packed with cars for sale.

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