- The Washington Times - Friday, February 9, 2001

CHICAGO In what fast is becoming a race among automakers to lure young and stylish buyers to showrooms, Ford Motor Co. thinks a bit more Focus should keep it right on track.

Ford pulled the wraps off its SVT Focus on Wednesday at the Chicago Auto Show's media preview, showing off a souped-up version of the popular subcompact car.

"We believe this entry will give us leadership in the small car performance market, which until now has been dominated by imports," said Jim O'Connor, Ford division president.

Ford's research shows that 45 percent of Focus buyers are under 35, and 25 percent are under 25. And to some analysts, the company is making a smart move to capture their business.

Ron Pinelli, of Autodata Corp. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., said he expects the car to appeal to the kind of driver who would buy a Honda Civic, and add some flashy touches.

"It's good to see a domestic auto company catering to the automotive purist," Mr. Pinelli said.

The SVT, short for the "special vehicle team" that designed it, has a four-cylinder, 170-horsepower engine 40 more horsepower than in the template Focus ZX3 and the first manual six-speed, front-wheel-drive in any Ford model.

To enhance the car's muscular stance, designers gave it 17-inch wheels, black honeycomb grills, a back-end spoiler and a large diameter tailpipe its tip accented with polished chrome. The interior features leather trim on the seats, shift knob, steering wheel and handbrake lever.

Wes Brown, an industry analyst with Nextrend, believes Ford will lure young buyers to the "cool" SVT Focus and benefit from it through free, word-of-mouth advertising typical among such consumers.

"Those buyers almost become advocates of the brand they really go out and talk about it," Mr. Brown said. "Those cars effectively will be sold out."

Ford said the target price for the SVT Focus' base model will be about $18,000 a sticker price Ford considers affordable to young buyers with limited finances who already have helped make the basic Focus a success.

Last year, the Focus was the fifth-best-selling car in the United States with 286,166 sold. It trailed only the Toyota Camry, Honda Accord, Ford Taurus and Honda Civic.

The company's next challenge may come a couple of years down the road as the first wave of Focus customers gets ready to trade up and decides whether to remain loyal to other Ford models.

Regardless, the race to lure the teen-agers and 20-somethings is unlikely to end soon.

Ford said it plans to produce about 7,500 SVT Focuses for the 2002 model year for North America. It will be built in Hermosillo, Mexico.

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