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My husband and I recently decided to purchase a Ford...

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Dear Tom and Ray:



My husband and I recently decided to purchase a 2002 Ford Focus ZTS. Our current car is a 1995 Ford Escort, which has served us pretty well. The Focus was in the right price range, and all the test-drive reviews I found were fairly positive. We ended up having to order the car, because we wanted the ABS with AdvanceTrac option and couldn't find one with that. We expect the car to be delivered sometime in the next month. About two days after we ordered the car, Consumer Reports issued its 2002 buying guide, which rated the car far below average in reliability, but in other ways rated it positively. I was a bit disappointed, but still OK. THEN, a story appeared in the paper and on National Public Radio stating that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had opened four defect investigations into the Focus for the 2000 and 2001 model years. My mother called in a panic, urging us to cancel our order, but my husband seems to think that the NHTSA investigations aren't that serious and favors going ahead with the purchase. So my questions are: How bad does a car have to be to be investigated by NHTSA, and how serious is such an investigation? Does the investigation into two prior model years have any impact on the 2002 Focus, and what is the likelihood that the problems have already been fixed for the 2002 model year? Thanks! -- Jessica

TOM: Well, we also liked the Focus when it came out. And we continue to like the design of the car and the way it drives. But Ford certainly does seem to be having some quality issues with the Focus. And yes, they are serious, in our opinions.

RAY: According to NHTSA, the Focus is now the subject of six open investigations -- those are investigations that could lead to possible safety recalls.

TOM: NHTSA says that any investigation it opens is serious, because it believes there might be a defect that could lead to the injury or death of the car's occupants. Once it investigates, NHTSA might opt to issue a recall, close the investigation with no action taken, or expand the investigation (into other model years, for instance).

RAY: The current issues it's looking at on 2000 and 2001 Focuses are: a collapsing front suspension, a rear-wheel bearing failure that could lead to a wheel falling off, burns resulting from air-bag deployment, air bags deploying when they shouldn't have deployed, engine-compartment fires, and an engine-stalling problem that can happen at any speed. I might be assuming too much here, but I'm going to guess that that's a list of things you'd like to avoid.

TOM: The only positive thing we can say is that the actual numbers of affected cars (or at least the number of incidents reported to NHTSA) are fairly low: fewer (sometimes far fewer) than 100 incidents per investigation. That means, at least statistically, that there's a low likelihood of these things happening to YOUR particular Focus. Of course, your mother's point is that there's NO chance of them happening to you in a 2002 Honda Civic. Which is hard to dispute.

RAY: So far, all of the investigations concern only 2000 and 2001 models. Ford has a policy of not commenting on open investigations, and it won't say whether any of these problems have been addressed for the 2002 or 2003 model years. We can only hope they have, but we don't know.

TOM: A Ford spokesman did say this about the Focus: "We are obviously not happy it has had more than its share of recalls and has been figuring in NHTSA investigations. That said, we are committed to the safety of our products. If we identify an issue, we move quickly to take action, regardless of how many prior recalls there have been. We also have made quality a top priority and are implementing new processes that will upgrade the quality of all our vehicles."

RAY: Well, what did you expect him to say? "Yeah, it's junk. You caught us"? So it's a tough call, Jessica. But I think I'd have to side with your mother. I guess if it were me, I'd ask for my deposit back and would buy something else. And I don't think we can recommend the Focus again until Ford or NHTSA addresses these problems.

TOM: That means either NHTSA has to close the investigations and conclude that the problems don't exist, or Ford has to tell us what it's done on future models to make sure these things don't happen anymore.

RAY: It's too bad, because the Focus is a very nice car to drive. But with fires, air bags deploying and wheels falling off, it's not a car we can endorse right now. We'll keep an eye on the situation and report back when we have an update. Meanwhile, Jessica, I hate to tell you, but your mother is right -- again.
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