ARE YOU the sort of tortured soul who gets all misty-eyed over the Ford Orion? Or that discerning driver who wishes that Vauxhall could bring the Belmont back?
Don’t worry, it’s not a trick question. I know that there really are people out there who thought both of these Eighties offerings were thoroughly sensible – if utterly style-free – small saloons that weren’t to be sniffed at. It’s only in the following decade, when the fat-bottomed brethren of the Escort and Astra became joyrider favourites and popped up regularly on Police, Camera, Action that they finally lost their appeal as unpretentious shopping chariots and slipped firmly into banger-dom.
But if you’re the sort of person who looks back fondly on the Triumph Acclaim and is utterly baffled by today’s fashion-conscious off-roaders when all that people should really want is a cheap, reliable saloon, then you’d be forgiven for wondering what happened to the Orion’s ilk. Ford hasn’t sold a Focus saloon for nearly a decade and Vauxhall gave up with booted Astras a long time ago. If you want a new car with a proper boot rather than one of these newfangled hatchbacks then you have to go up a size to the Audi A4s and Jaguar XEs of this world.
Unless, of course, you go knocking at Honda’s door in about two months’ time. Despite the best efforts of some Blade Runner-esque styling and a mad Type-R hot hatch version the Civic is still proving a hit with the sort of sensible Brits who just want a normal, reliable car. So introducing a four-door saloon version is a stroke of genius.
Unlike its hatchback cousin this new Civic isn’t being built at Swindon – it’s actually being bolted together at Honda’s Turkish factory – but otherwise it’s business as usual, with a 1.0-litre petrol or a 1.6-litre turbodiesel doing all the hard work beneath the bonnet. It’ll have the same boringly solid interior materials too, but because the new arrival’s longer and wider than the hatchback it’ll be even roomier on the inside. There’s no word on pricing yet, but if it’s anything like the five-door model you should be able to slip into one for under £20,000.
It’s just a shame that Honda’s fallen at the final hurdle. In order to be a proper small saloon the new Civic needed to look exactly like the hatchback with a really awkward boot grafted onto its rump, and only be available in beige, white, or grey. Instead they’ve made it given it a lovely, coupe-esque profile, set off by metallic colours and alloy wheels that set the shape off without shouting too loudly. Whisper it quietly, but I think it might actually look better than the hatchback it’s based on.
That, Honda, just won’t do. Back to the drawing board, chaps!
IF FORD’S new Focus drives anything like as well as it looks it should be one of this year’s big hits – but if you can save yourself roughly £17,000 if you want to drive a genuine game-changer.
Wander into a showroom with a blue big oval atop and you’ll be able to order the new kid on the block as either a five-door hatch or as an estate perfect for trips to the tip. It’s not only easier on the eye than the old Focus but cheaper too – £2,300 less to be exact, if you go for the entry model – and if you’re feeling flush there’s a plush Vignale model, with leather seats, a fancy radiator grille and electric everything.
But if you want something truly radical you’ll have to walk past the brand-new offering and go back in time. In fact, you’ll have to conveniently forget that there’s still one on every other corner and that you can pick them up for about 25p these days, because the original Ford Focus was a class act. In a way it’s a shame it sold so well because time and familiarity have dulled its impact.
Just think about what else you could’ve bought back in 1998. There was an Astra that handled neatly but looked about as interesting as a tax return, a solidly built but utterly boring Golf, the fantastic yet flaky Fiat Bravo, and a Peugeot 306 that handled beautifully but had a so-so reputation for reliability. Worst of the lot was Ford’s own Escort, which had been quietly getting better with every facelift but ultimately traced its lineage back to an iffy, me-too effort launched eight years earlier. If you wanted a family hatchback your choice was something that did one thing brilliantly or everything with a ‘that’ll do’ attitude.
So when the first Focus rocked up with its all-round independent suspension, its Punto-esque rear headlights and slightly mad angular headlights it’s hardly a surprise everyone sat up and took notice. It had lots of clever little touches – the boot badge that flips sideways to reveal the key slot, for instance – but the big change was just how well it drove. Every Focus I’ve driven over the years has been thoroughly entertaining on a quiet road and that sort of B-road sparkle is something you come to expect from Ford now, but it’s in a different league to the Escort it replaced.
No wonder it went on to become the nation’s best-selling car – and it’s because you still see them everywhere that we’ve all forgotten just how much it moved things on. I’m sure the new car will be a class act too, but it’ll never have the wow factor its (much) older brother did.