2000-2004 Ford Focus SVT

The core idea presented here—a sports car disguised as a breadbox—is far from new. Volkswagen created the hot hatchback with the first Rabbit GTI back in 1983, and many others, including Ford, have made contributions to the class—contributions that often involved cars not available for sale in the U.S. Despite a number of Escorts bearing perfidious GT badges over the years, we've never seen anything offered by Ford in this country to rival the GTI.

The SVT Focus is a refreshing departure from that tradition of faux Ford hot rods, a small-scale street tiger that burns particularly bright against the dreary backdrop of the badge jobs of the past. And it represents a point of particular pride to the staff at Ford SVT Engineering, the get-it-done arm of the Special Vehicle Team. Chief engineer John Coletti and his wild bunch groveled, kicked, screamed, and fought to keep the U.S. edition of this mini-marauder from becoming a watered-down version of the European Focus ST170.

And they were successful. True, there are a couple guys here who wistfully point out that there's an even hairier Euro Focus due, the 220-hp turbocharged Focus RS, and that it'll never set foot in Ford stores on these shores. Still, we agree that the Focus SVT is one of the more entertaining Fords we've seen in a long time.

To review: The raw material here is the Focus ZX3, a nifty compact three-door hatchback with a fun-to-drive quotient limited only by its power. That's a pretty significant limitation, though. With 130 hp and 135 pound-feet of torque, the ZX3 needs 8.7 seconds to hit 60 mph.

We won't know how much quicker the SVT version is until we get a production car to the test track, but it may be at least a second faster to 60 mph, maybe more. Not too astonishing, in light of the SVT's power advantage—170 horsepower and 145 pound-feet of torque.

There are no mysteries in this power gain. Starting with Ford's DOHC 16-valve Zetec four, the SVT Engineering troops bolted in new pistons to raise compression from 9.6:1 to 10.2:1, changed the cam profiles, and added variable intake-cam timing, a two-stage intake manifold, new exhaust headers, a low-restriction catalytic converter, and a more open muffler that also lends a note of refined menace at the tailpipe.

The Zetec's enhanced potency is mated to a six-speed Getrag gearbox rather than the standard Focus five-speed manual, and it's a slick setup that puts an exclamation point on the powertrain upgrades.

Moreover, almost every element of the standard ZX3 suspension system, including the bushings and anti-roll bars, has been replaced with sterner stuff, lending an instantly tangible increase in roll stiffness, and there's extra braking power to balance the improved hustle: bigger (by almost an inch) 11.8-inch vented front rotors and solid discs at the rear in place of the standard drums.

Flatter cornering attitudes and bigger brakes don't mean much without enough rubber to exploit the improvements, and the SVT wears 215/45ZR tires on 17-inch aluminum alloy wheels. That's a pretty serious upgrade from the stock 195/60R-15 tires, and it pays off in grip.

The SVT Focus has only the barest hint of torque steer to go with its quickness. Its reflexes are distinctly sharper, its steering is precise, and it stops with authority. But perhaps its most remarkable dynamic trait is how well it blends its enhanced athleticism with civilized ride quality. It's one thing to make the suspension go-kart stiff to maximize handling on smooth roads. It's quite another to upgrade responses without a corresponding degradation of ride quality when the pavement gets warty. But that's what seems to have been achieved here. The SVT Focus hustles around lumpy corners without rattling your bicuspids, delivering a level of supple compliance that has the added benefit of keeping the tires in constant contact with the asphalt—very helpful when you're trying to unkink some country road.

BMW is the current master of this dynamic alchemy—handling and smooth ride—but this car suggests that Ford SVT Engineering isn't far behind.

Coletti and company have shown commendable restraint with the SVT's cosmetics, inside and out. The exterior gets revised bumpers, rocker panels, mesh grillework, and, of course, those handsome five-spoke 17-inch wheels—a fairly standard go-faster look, but tastefully subdued; we think it works. Inside, the engineering team installed a white-faced, black-numbered instrument package—almost obligatory if your car is going to be seen as cool these days—plus a sportier steering wheel, aluminum-clad foot pedals (no functional benefit, but well calculated to stimulate the inner boy racer), and a set of raceworthy bucket seats with extra-deep thigh and torso bolsters. The seats alone are almost worth the price of admission.

Which brings us to the bottom line. The SVT Focus will have a base price of $17,995, $5060 more than a ZX3. The price includes a nice array of standard equipment—ABS, power everything, air conditioning, a decent audio system, and, of course, lots more performance. The car you're looking at here, which had a power sunroof and an in-dash CD changer with a massive rear subwoofer, would retail for $19,285.

We think the SVT Focus adds up to a pretty good deal. And with due respect to the Mustang Cobra, we think this car also adds up as the best thing the SVT consortium has done to date.

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