In creating the Focus, Ford set out to give its small-car image a kick in the pants. Built on a new platform, the Focus comes in a three-door hatchback, four-door sedan, and wagon versions. The redesigned 1999 Mercury Cougar was the first vehicle sporting Ford's "New Edge" styling. On the Focus this styling continues, beginning with cat-eye-shaped headlights to the angular lines running along the sides, and ending at the rounded rear end. It mixes round shapes with funky geometric ones and adds sharp angles, somehow making them all work together.

After waiting for some time, I finally got a hold of the for a week-long test drive. And once my hands were on it, I didn't want to let go.

The Focus wagon is powered by a 2.0-liter SOHC four-cylinder engine that puts out 107 hp at 5,000 rpm and 122 lb-ft of torque at 3,750 rpm. Our test vehicle was upgraded with the 2.0-liter DOHC Zetec engine. This powerplant puts out 130 hp at 5,500 rpm and 127 lb-ft of torque at 4,250 rpm. It uses a cast-iron cylinder block and two belt-driven overhead cams that run directly into the aluminum head. A ladder frame wedges between the crankcase and oil pan to reduce NVH. But, even with the horsepower upgrade, the Zetec engine is a bit sluggish when the accelerator is punched and hesitates before responding. However, I don't expect a wagon to perform like a sports car and quickly accepted this limitation. The engine links to a four-speed automatic transmission. While I had no complaints of the automatic, I wish a five-speed manual was a possibility for the wagon. It's just more fun to drive.

But while the engine may need a little tweaking, one area the Focus wagon needs no help in is interior space. A 37.5 cu-ft cargo area is said to be the largest in its class. To that end, it easily fit an overflowing laundry basket, a floor lamp, a well-stuffed suitcase, and my cat with plenty of room to spare. A full-width tailgate makes getting into the cargo area a breeze.

Storage compartments on the driver and passenger doors are roomy and deep, and one compartment easily held six CDs. But, the center armrest was a disappointment. First, it sits too far back to comfortably rest your arm. Secondly, its storage compartment is tiny, more suitable for holding a pair of sunglasses. On a positive note, the backseat has a plethora of legroom and was deemed to be "lovely" by my friend, Christine. However, a minor oversight is the lack of reading lamps for rear passengers.

Careful thought was put into placement of the instrument controls. Power locks are boldly coded and easy to access. Sideview mirror controls sit on the lower portion of the window frame on the driver's side for quick adjustments. Large dials for the stereo/CD system are purposely placed higher than the HVAC controls because of more frequent use. Opening the rear hatch requires a simple push of a clearly marked button on the instrument panel. A clever changeholder carved into the dash stores loose change.

The Focus wagon sits on a rigid, lightweight platform. The independent MacPherson-strut front suspension has angled coil spring/damper units with lower A-arms in double horizontal bushes which mount on a separate subframe. The independent multilink rear suspension has one upper and two lower arms and separate vertical damper units that sit at an angle. What this means is that the Focus wagon gives such a smooth ride you forget you're driving an economy car. The ride height rivals that of minivans which amazed me as I passed a few on the highway on a trip to Detroit. According to Ford engineers, this is because of a high roofline and raised seating positions. Along with the additional height, extended rear side windows eliminate any possibility of blind spots.

For stopping power, brakes have new friction materials and a larger brake pad area to shorten stopping distances. This explains why I was able to stop without becoming intimate with the rear end of a car in front of me during an unexpected traffic jam on the highway.

Our test vehicle had an optional "SE comfort group" that includes a tilt/telescoping steering wheel, cruise control, driver armrest with storage, and front map lights for $395. The Zetec engine is an extra $200. The stereo system was upgraded with a $140 single CD player. Other optional equipment includes a $15 smoker's package (which I suppose translates into an ashtray and lighter), and $55 for front and rear floormats.

Base price for the wagon is $15,380. With the optional equipment, and a $415 destination charge, the price jumped to $17,645. Loathe as I am to admit it, I would be excited to buy this vehicle, killing my self-proclaimed image as a power-driven, boy-racer wannabe.

-- Sherri Koucky