Can you be more specific about the investigations you talked about regarding the Ford Focus?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jan 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have listened to your radio show for maybe 20 years, and I read your column religiously. I've enjoyed every minute of it, and I've never disagreed -- you're funny, knowledgeable and fair -- until recently. You wrote a column about the Ford Focus, in which you cited "investigations" into safety problems with the car. Not proofs, not findings, not manufacturer's recalls ... just investigations. You then recommended that people not purchase this car until these problems are solved, based on this less-than-factual evidence. I had just purchased a Ford Focus two weeks earlier. Your column has caused great consternation. I think you should apologize, be more careful in the future and -- at the least -- follow up on this story when NHTSA or Ford releases more information. -- Patrick

TOM: Gee, Patrick, we certainly do apologize for causing any consternation. I was consternated for a whole week once, and boy was that unpleasant!

RAY: The investigations we cited on the 2000 and 2001 Focus were taken up by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And in our opinion, NHTSA doesn't open investigations lightly or without significant reports of problems. Plus, the Focus was the subject of an unusual number of investigations. But you are correct -- an investigation is not proof of a defect.

TOM: Fortunately, there have been several developments on the Focus front in the past few months, and we're happy to report on them here. First, Ford acknowledged that the Focus has had too many quality problems. The company responded by slapping a 5-year, 100,000-mile drive-train warranty on all Focuses to help regain customer confidence. That's certainly a step in the right direction.

RAY: Ford also tells us that its internal tracking shows quality problems and warranty costs going down steadily since 2001, reflecting the improvements it says it's been making. We can't verify that, but if it's true, that's also good news.

TOM: As for the recall investigations we mentioned, here are the updates: The 2000 model had a problem with the left rear wheel falling off. Ford discovered that the problem was caused by an underdesigned seal in the wheel bearing. In the middle of 2001, Ford changed to a "more robust" seal. Cars manufactured before mid-2001 can be fixed for free at Ford dealerships (provided you get there before the wheel falls off).

RAY: The investigation into air bags in the 2000 and 2001 Focuses causing burns and fires was closed. That means there was not enough evidence to suggest that a defect exists, and the case was dismissed.

TOM: The problem of front suspensions collapsing while 2000 and 2001 Focuses were being driven has resulted in a recall and a manufacturing change. The problem is a bolt that comes loose. Ford dealers will inspect and tighten or replace the offending bolt under the recall. Those cars built after May 2001 were subject to a manufacturing change that made sure the pinch bolt was properly tightened. Ford says this will solve the problem going forward.

RAY: The engine fires in 2000 and 2001 cars also resulted in a recall and a manufacturing change. That problem was caused by wires that were routed near the battery. Those wires were rerouted for the 2002 model year, and all previous vehicles have been recalled so their wires can be moved, too.

TOM: That leaves only a couple of open investigations. One is the front suspension collapse on the 2002 Focuses (the recall only covered 2000 and 2001). Ford says its internal data suggests that the problem did not continue into 2002. We'll let you know what NHTSA decides.

RAY: And there's still an open investigation into a problem with engine stalling that's related to the fuel-delivery module on 2000 and 2001 models. NHTSA has upgraded that investigation to an "engineering analysis," which is the next step up the ladder toward a possible recall. We'll follow that one, too.

TOM: So, while many of the open investigations have been resolved, we're still dismayed at what we consider the "rookie mistakes" that Ford made on this car. I mean, engine fires and wheels falling off were things we thought the industry solved ages ago.

RAY: So, it's hard for us to tell you it's fine to go buy one now. We simply don't know whether the problems have truly been solved, or whether more will pop up. We won't know that until the 2003s have been on the road for a few years.

TOM: We still like the way the car drives. It's got a good warranty now, and it's a lot of car for the money, relative to the competition. But given its history, you need to have your eyes open if you decide to buy one. Let us know how yours does, Patrick. And we'll keep folks posted on any other news from NHTSA.

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