Goodbye, Mediocrity.

You've been replaced by intelligent design and engineering. It was bound to happen, especially in the arena of small cars, where you reigned supreme.

Witness the 2000 Ford Focus ZTS sedan. There's no trace of you there, Mediocrity. Perhaps you'd like to know why.

The Focus essentially was developed by Ford of Europe, where small cars and the people who buy them are taken seriously.

It is not a vehicle conceived in Detroit, where small cars often have been commercial throwaways made to help automakers meet federal fuel economy standards.

You remember the routine: Roll out a bunch of high-mileage but marginally competent small cars. Sell them at distressed prices. Use those sales to earn fuel economy credits against sales of thirstier, much larger, and substantially more popular and profitable pickup trucks, minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

That old Detroit strategy--with the notable exception of the Saturn project--placed people second in the small-car chain. That is why so many small cars were cramped, uncomfortable, noisy, underpowered, unattractive econoboxes. Who, other than strict utilitarians and the working poor, wanted to buy them? Ford has a better idea, and it goes something like this: Make an attractive, comfortable, tightly built, fuel-efficient, exceptionally safe and fun-to-drive small car, and people will pay good money for it. Heck, they might even name it "Car of the Year," which is the 1999 honor won by the Focus in Europe, where it was introduced in March 1998.

The Focus sedan, along with its three-door hatchback and wagon iterations, goes on sale in the United States this fall. Buyers will be pleasantly surprised.

The tested Focus ZTS, for example, has a relatively short overall exterior length of 174.9 inches. The car sits atop a 103-inch wheelbase. Yet its passenger cabin easily accommodates five adults.

Comfortable? I asked Martha Hamilton, one of my more critical colleagues, to take the car for a spin. Her comment: "The Ford Focus was incredibly comfortable for such a little car, although if I were 6-foot-2, as opposed to 5-foot-5, I might not have thought so. What's more, my 85-year-old mother, Evelyn McNeil, found it comfortable, too.' "

Which brings up another point: As a group, small cars tend to be age-specific, aimed at financially struggling youth. But the Focus is so well designed, it breaks that mold. It has the rare ability to appeal to young and old, the well-off and the not-so-well-off, which proves that everyone likes quality at a reasonable price.

Everyone also likes a little bit extra, what we native New Orleanians call "lagniappe." And, ooh-whee, baby! You got lots of lagniappe in the Focus ZTS.

Along with a spacious and ergonomically well-designed interior, there is a super-stiff yet wonderfully quiet body structure. Very few road and engine noises reach the passenger cabin. The car weighs 2,564 pounds--light by conventional automotive standards. Yet it feels solid, substantial.

It's a hoot on the road too! The Focus ZTS runs fast in highway traffic without huffing and puffing. The standard five-speed manual shifter moves smoothly though the gears, free of the vibrations that affect manual shifters in other small cars. The clutch is a cinch.

Equipped with a fully independent, multilink rear suspension, the Focus ZTS even turns a trip along the District of Columbia's horrible roads into an almost pleasant ride. Impressive. Very impressive. Nothing mediocre about it. Ford gets kudos for this one.

Nuts & Bolts

2000 Ford Focus ZTS

Complaints: You can feel the front-drive Focus's light weight in strong winds. The car gets pushed about. Park this one in a safe place during hurricanes and tropical storms. Otherwise, it could wind up in Oz.

Praise: F-O-C-U-S is one of the best ways available to spell relief for the small-car blues.

Head-turning quotient: Ford's "New Age Design" emphasizes sharp exterior angles and elliptical and semi-elliptical interior panels. I didn't like this approach on the new Mercury Cougar, but it works quite well on the Focus.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Triple aces. No complaints. Excellent braking. Brakes include dual-circuit, diagonally split, hydraulically operated front discs and rear drums. Anti-lock brakes are optional.

Engines: The Focus ZTS, the top of the line, gets Ford's 2-liter, 16-valve, double-

overhead cam, Zetec inline four-cylinder engine. It produces 130 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 127 pound-feet of torque at 4,250 rpm. Lesser models get a 2-liter, inline four-cylinder, 107-horsepower engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. A four-speed automatic is optional.

Body styles: Three-door hatchback, four-door sedan, station wagon.

ZTS capacities: Seats five. Carries 12.9 cubic feet of luggage and 13.2 gallons of gasoline; premium unleaded recommended.

Mileage: About 31 miles per gallon in mostly highway driving. Estimated 398-mile range.

Safety: Side air bags available. Automatically tensionioning seat belts. Excellent body construction. Great crumple zones. But it's still a small car. The laws of physics. . . .

Price: Prices not yet firm at this writing. Preliminary range is from $12,280 for the hatchback Focus to about $15,500 for the ZTS. They most likely will change.

Purse-strings note: Easily one of the best small cars coming to market. Compare with any car, foreign or domestic, in the small-car category.