- The Washington Times - Friday, November 22, 2002

Muscle cars for the masses have evolved in remarkable ways. Back in the 1970s, you got a Dodge, Oldsmobile or some other variant with big, fire-breathing V-8 engines. They could lay a strip of rubber and smoke almost anything on the road, but the handling was questionable and the brakes atrocious.
Now if you're a young person looking for a neat, high-performance car, you might buy a used Honda Civic coupe and tweak it some. It won't have the brute force of the old muscle cars, but the handling is way better and the brakes actually stop the car.
Or, if you can afford it, you can go out and buy a brand-new car with the performance already built in. There are an increasing number of these small coupes, sedans and hatchbacks that offer exhilarating performance and handling, along with reasonable price tags and decent fuel economy.
Among them: the Subaru WRX, Mini Cooper S, Acura RSX Type-S, Volkswagen GTI, Honda Civic Si, the VW New Beetle Turbo S and the Ford SVT Focus, the subject here. Stretching the definition a bit, you could also add the Ford Mustang and perhaps the Chrysler PT Cruiser Turbo.
The SVT Focus made its debut in 2002 as a two-door hatchback with a European six-speed manual transmission and a 2-liter, 170-horsepower four-cylinder engine. It continues essentially the same for 2003, but with a higher price tag, and it now is available as a four-door hatchback as well.
The test car was a two-door, with a base price tag of $19,100. While not particularly cheap, that's for a fully equipped car with such amenities as leather upholstery, performance tires on 17-inch alloy wheels, air conditioning, a radio with a CD changer, power windows, remote locking, side air bags, heated outside mirrors, fog lights and a driver's seat with both manual and power adjustments.
There are only a few options, including an upgraded sound system with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, a motorized sunroof, and a winter package that includes traction control, heated front seats and an engine-block heater.
The test car had the sound system upgrade, which brought its suggested retail price to $19,975.
In Ford parlance, SVT stands for Special Vehicle Team, a group of engineers who inject high-performance modifications into existing models.
In addition to the SVT Focus, the team also engineers the SVT Mustang Cobra and the SVT Lightning pickup truck.
The SVT Focus doesn't floor you right off. But it eventually grows on you. Start with the styling, which is unabashedly European, although the Focus is a so-called world car designed to appeal to everybody from Bangkok to Belgium.
With its high-mounted taillights, it doesn't look like anything else on the road, except maybe a Volvo station wagon, but it is not unattractive.
Where it really insinuates itself into a driver's affection is with its moves and reflexes. It feels strong, with plenty of off-the-line power from the 170-horsepower engine 40 more than in a standard Focus. The rush is such that it actually seems quicker than its specifications indicate.
Zero-to-60 acceleration time is a whiff under eight seconds, which is acceptable but not outstanding.
The six-speed manual gearbox, manufactured by Getrag of Germany, has a shift linkage that is a tad stiff, but accurate and easy to manipulate.
It offers the flexibility of in-town cruising in fourth gear and sedate highway traveling in sixth, along with quick speed-shifts in acceleration runs.
With decent performance tires, a taut suspension system and finely tuned steering, the SVT Focus waltzes its way with alacrity and aplomb through twisting mountain curves, exhibiting moves close to those of an all-out sports car. On the highway, the steering is relaxed and centered, with little need for constant corrections.
Inside, the front bucket seats offer comfort and support, including lateral cushioning for spirited driving. The driver's seat has manual as well as power adjustments, along with a lumbar adjustment, to provide hospitality to almost any size driver.
In the rear, the seats also are surprisingly comfortable for two, with plenty of headroom even for 6-footers, owing mainly to the upswept roof line.
As with any two-door car, however, it's a chore to crawl back there. The rear seatback is split 60/40, and it folds down for extra cargo. But even with the seat up, there's 19 cubic feet of space for luggage, accessible through the big rear hatch.
The instruments, with a titanium look and daytime lighting, are quickly and easily read, except for the add-on oil temperature and oil pressure gauges mounted in the center of the dash, where they replace the coin storage compartment on other Focus models.
Unfortunately for Ford, the Focus has been one of the most recalled cars in the history of recalls. Whether similar troubles will plague the SVT Focus is unknown. If not, it has the potential to be among the more sought-after of the New Age muscle cars.

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