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October 11, 2004updated 07 Apr 2021 12:32pm

Ford’s Focus Two project: interview with Adrian Whittle

The outgoing Focus has been a car of the year on both sides of the Atlantic and was a tough act to follow. Chief programme engineer, Adrian Whittle, explains to Jesse Crosse how he and his team set about the daunting task of designing its replacement and benefited from sharing the common C1 platform with Volvo and Mazda.

By bcusack

The outgoing Focus has been a car of the year on both sides of the Atlantic and was a tough act to follow. Chief programme engineer, Adrian Whittle, explains to Jesse Crosse how he and his team set about the daunting task of designing its replacement and benefited from sharing the common C1 platform with Volvo and Mazda.

Arguably one of the world’s most successful ever C-segment cars breaking new ground in both design and dynamics, the original Focus set a new benchmark in both disciplines. The question is, how do you follow it? Getting the call to work on the successor could either be looked upon as a golden opportunity or a poison chalice depending on your point of view. Or as chief programme engineer, Adrian Whittle, put it “to be chosen to work on this car was like wearing a badge of honour, but it was also pretty daunting.”

Clearly, the starting point lay with the existing car and that meant not just considering its obvious strengths, but its weaknesses too. “Ride was one example,” confirms Whittle, “and noise transmission another, but the original car traded both against great handling and steering.” Whittle rates customer research as an important part of the process but also emphasises the impact on the segment made by MPV-style spin-offs such as Ford’s own C-Max. Niche models mean that the old adage of ‘one car fits all’ no longer applies as it did when the original Focus appeared and that had to be taken into account when conceiving the way the new car went together.

Achieving the right fit is one thing but how about image? In the UK at least, the Mondeo is struggling despite remaining a benchmark when it comes to handling, roadholding, steering, performance and cost. Its problem is that it has become transparent. “Image is a concern for us,” admits Whittle, “but I believe, from an engineering standpoint at least, if you keep on producing the optimum product then the brand will sort itself out over time. There are other factors in the mix to, like marketing for example. But what I do as chief programme engineer is I agree with the company what the product should be, then go away and deliver it.”

Of the famous Focus dynamics, Whittle thinks that while improving on the original is difficult, experience helps make the task more straightforward. “We known how to deliver the right blend of attributes when it comes to steering and handling and we know how to take the guesswork out of the process. We also know how to drive the characteristics we want down into the hardware and how to tune that hardware up to a high level.”

In essence though, the basic requirements haven’t changed that much, Ford still views fine dynamics as being a key characteristic of any Ford car. “I’d say the attribute that really defines Ford is the steering. You get in a Focus and you really know it’s a Focus.” That’s something we hear a lot about when it comes to Ford cars but how is steering quality defined? Whittle explains. “The first interaction you have with a steering system is when you take it off-centre. As soon as that happens, the driver experiences yaw followed by roll, combined with a linear build-up of torque, enough to prevent the car darting off centre.

“When you want the car to enter a manoeuvre, that’s exactly what it does,” concludes Whittle. There are two rule of thumb tests used by those who are not steering specialists in the team to check whether the steering passes muster. The first is called the 50 metre test and as the name suggests means that the car must be identifiable as a Ford within that distance. The second thing Whittle looks for is the ability to hold a precise line through the corner without correcting the steering at any speed, from urban crawl to full tilt.

Technically, the underpinning of the new Focus remains fundamentally similar to the old. The rear suspension retains the control blade architecture but the new system is more robust than before with ten percent more stiffness in the blades and 50 percent bigger shock absorbers. The track has been widened so there’s a lot more width to work width and consequently, it’s been possible to move the anti-roll bar mountings outwards, increasing its effectiveness. Improving roll control with the anti-roll bar means less of a reliance on the shock absorbers for doing the same job and that helps the ride.

The anti-roll bar is connected through double ball joints avoiding lost motion and reducing friction. “Friction is your enemy and lack of stiffness is also your enemy,” quips Whittle. “Remove both from the system and you can be confident of delivering more than you do today, whether that be better roll control, superior handling or improved steering. You also have the option of using some of the reserve you’ve bought yourself elsewhere – like in the ride for example.”

Another key aspect of Ford’s mission to achieve peerless dynamics is that the car must enable the expert driver to get better performance out of the car while not frightening the novice. It’s got to appeal to everybody, which is a tall order. The ride has been improved by letting anti-roll bar system take care of body control but also by larger diameter shock absorbers. Whittle also believes his team has succeeded in dialling more “plushness” into the new Focus. “You feel isolated from the road,” he says, “but in touch with it at the same time.” As usual, a lot of work has been done with tyre manufacturers in order to arrive at the right balance between handling, road holding and ride. But now the game has been raised. “A few years ago we would have driven two tyres on the same setup and got two sets of results. But in the last couple of years we’ve improved things so we’ve ended up with the same results each time,” maintains Whittle.

Arguably, one major drawback of the previous car relating to its potential for producing niche ‘halo’ cars was its incompatibility with four-wheel drive. Though revered in a couple of the specialist magazines, the RS Focus was undeniably limited by the effect that the turbocharged engine’s torque and a Quaife torque sensing differential had on Ford’s precious steering feel. Compared to some of the earlier rear-wheel drive or 4×4 RS cars the Focus RS was a let down. In this case, however, Ford, Volvo and Mazda will share foundation systems such as engines, mounting systems, braking systems and floorpans. The new Focus floorpan has a noticeable transmission tunnel in the floor and Whittle confirms that “yes, we can fit the Volvo 4×4 transmission if we wanted to.”

Using a common platform gives huge advantages in terms of resource. ““We have a finite number of engineers and the fact that a couple of hundred of them are not tied up with basic architecture means I can have them working on other things.” As a result, Whittle believes Ford to be one of the only manufacturers to have all versions of the Focus including three, four, five door and an Estate at the Paris Show debut, instead of one following the other over a period of time.

From a quality perspective, Ford hopes it is moving the game forward too. An internal company slogan “DC, DQ” stands for dependability, contemporary, driving and quality. “Driving quality used to mean simply the best dynamics and that is still a major component,” explains Whittle. “But the next level we’re aiming at also considers the environment you’re in while driving. In other words, you’ve got a car that does everything you expect from a dynamic standpoint but the ergonomics are also superb with a particular emphasis on the touch zones and especially those where primary controls are mounted.

Ford has been working hard on interior quality and anyone who hasn’t sat in a Mondeo for two years will be surprised at the ‘Audi-esque’ quality of the trim, especially on the instrument panel. The new Focus is no exception. “Considerable effort has gone into the interior as well as money,” Whittle continues. “But a good interior doesn’t have to be that expensive.” One aspect of the quality is the use of soft surfaces on the instrument panel. “Some manufacturers substitute a hard and soft instrument panel finish to save money. So the top 10 percent of cars have a soft, slush moulding and the lesser models don’t. That’s fine except that 90 percent of the customers never get to enjoy it. We have been careful not to get into the position of only offering it on the Ghia. We want to offer premium quality across the range at an affordable price.”

Again, platform sharing has also helped with quality by reducing the investment needed on simple, fundamental components. “Things like Bluetooth and adaptive lighting may have fallen by the wayside in the past. But I can honestly say we didn’t have to sacrifice one thing we set out to deliver two and a half years ago. This is the third programme I’ve put together but the first in which I haven’t been forced to make some of the difficult choices I’ve made in the past.”

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