by Greg Wilson
A hot hatch for enthusiast drivers
I’ve driven quite a few ‘hot hatches’ over the past year, but most look considerably ‘hotter’ than they perform – notably the Mazda Protege5, Suzuki Aerio, Hyundai Elantra GT, base Toyota Matrix and Pontiac Vibe models, and even the Ford Focus ZX3.
Don’t get me wrong – they’re all sporty, good-looking, fun-to-drive compact hatchbacks with the advantage of extra cargo space. Performance-wise, however, they’re not in the same league as cars like the Honda Civic SiR, Mini Cooper S and VW GTi 1.8T. For enthusiasts who want both looks and performance, the choices are limited.
Midway through the 2002 model year, Ford introduced what may be the hottest hatch yet: the SVT Focus. The 2002 SVT Focus is based on the two-door Focus ZX3 model. As well, for the 2003 model year, there will be a new four-door SVT Focus based on the ZX5 model.
SVT, as you may know, stands for Special Vehicle Team, a relatively small group of Ford engineers, marketers and enthusiasts who tune high-performance versions of some Ford vehicles. Examples include the SVT F-150 Lightning pickup truck, SVT Mustang Cobra R, and past SVT Mustang Cobra and SVT Contour models. In the case of the SVT Focus, SVT engineers worked with Britain’s SVE (Special Vehicle Engineering) and Ford’s Cosworth Engines division to tune the chassis and engine of the Focus. The European influence on the SVT Focus is evident in the car’s emphasis on handling rather than sheer brute horsepower.
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Modifications to SVT
There are a number of differences between the Focus ZX3 and the two-door SVT Focus, notably its tuned 170 horsepower 2.0 litre DOHC 16 valve Zetec four cylinder engine (up from 130 horsepower) which now has variable timing on the intake camshaft, a standard 6 speed Getrag manual transmission, a tuned suspension, bigger disc brakes, low profile 17-inch tires mounted on five-spoke alloys, and unique but subtle exterior and interior styling changes.
On the outside, the SVT Focus adds a front air dam and rear skirt with honeycomb grilles, front fog lamps, distinctive side sills, a 75 mm chromed exhaust tip, and a spoiler on the top of the hatch. What’s interesting about the added bodywork is that it’s so subtly-executed, unlike the aggressive spoilers and body-cladding you often see on some Japanese hatchbacks. The SVT’s blacked-out headlight surround is quite effective in softening the sharp angles of the headlight covers.
Inside, the SVT Focus has unique leather sport seats with coloured fabric inserts, ‘titanium’-faced electro-luminescent gauges, metal pedals, leather wrapped steering wheel and shift knob, extra gauges, and aluminum ‘SVT’ trim on the door sill. While the standard audio system is a 60-watt AM/FM stereo radio and single-disc CD player, an optional Audiophile sound system features a 290-watt AM/FM radio, a six-disc in-dash CD changer, upgraded speakers, and an eight-inch subwoofer in the cargo area. Yea, baby!
SVT Focus models are available in four unique colours: Infra-Red, CD Silver, Pitch Black and Sonic Blue – my test car was Sonic Blue which looked classy yet sporty. Two interior colours are available to complement the black leather: red or blue.
SVT engine modifications
Without supercharging or turbocharging, the SVT folks managed to get another 40 horsepower and 10 foot pounds of torque out of the 2.0 litre four cylinder Zetec engine without affecting its LEV (low emissions vehicle) status. The SVT’s engine offers 170 horsepower @ 7,000 rpm and 145 lb-ft of torque @ 5,500 rpm compared to the ZX3’s 130 horsepower @ 5,300 rpm and 135 foot-pounds of torque @ 4,500 rpm.
SVT modifications include forged-steel connecting rods, and lightweight, cast-aluminum pistons which increase the compression ratio from 9.6:1 10.2:1 – that results in the engine needing Premium fuel instead of Regular.
As well, the engine’s aluminum cylinder head has larger intake ports for increased flow, and stiffer intake and exhaust valve springs which allow the engine’s redline to rise from 6,750 to 7,200 rpm.
To increase engine torque, the SVT team introduced an electro-mechanical mechanism to vary the intake camshaft’s maximum opening point. As well, a new dual-stage intake manifold is designed to direct the intake air through four long runners below 6,000 rpm; above 6,000 rpm, the manifold switches position to shorten the runners’ length, which improves peak power output.
The SVT Focus also has tubular headers and a larger diameter exhaust pipe with a polished chrome exhaust tip.
Despite the engine’s extra performance, it still meets LEV (low emissions vehicle) standards due to new engine calibration which retards the spark during cold starts, and quickly heats the catalytic converter for a cleaner exhaust.
The SVT Focus’ compact, close-ratio six-speed manual transmission is built by well-known German transmission specialist, Getrag, and the clutch includes a new dual mass flywheel. All six forward gears, plus reverse, are fully synchronized.
The Focus already has a great suspension, and modifications were done mainly to improve balance and stability during aggressive cornering. The front has tuned MacPherson struts with angled coil spring/shocks and lower A-arms mounted on a separate front subframe, and an anti-roll bar; the rear offers a tuned independent ‘control blade’ multi-link design with separate shocks and an anti-roll bar. SVT springs are 10 percent stiffer in front and 20 percent stiffer at the rear compared with those on the Focus ZX3.
Steering and brakes have also undergone some modifications: the boost curve on the power rack-and-pinion steering system has been retuned to provide heightened feel and precision control; and the SVT’s four wheel disc brakes feature larger 300 mm vented front rotors and 280 mm solid rear rotors. Four-channel, four sensor ABS is standard, and new Continental 215/45R-17 ContiSportContact tires and 17 inch alloy wheels are also standard.
The SVT also comes equipped with Ford’s sophisticated Personal Safety System which includes features that work together to protect occupants in a collision. In the SVT, these include a crash severity sensor, dual-stage driver and front passenger air bags, driver’s seat position sensor, front seat belt retractors and pretensioners, and front seat belt usage sensors.
The SVT Focus is lower than the ZX3, but it’s not difficult to get in to or out of – except if you’re sitting in the rear seat. The Recaro-like front sport seats don’t slide forward automatically to access the rear seats.
The two-tone front sport seats offer excellent side and thigh support – and look great too. The driving position is comfortable and visibility to the front, sides, and rear is unobstructed – the Focus hatchback’s bodystyle features big rear side windows and a large rear window which virtually eliminate the blind spot often found in many sedans.
Though there are many good things to be said about the SVT Focus’ 170 horsepower 2.0 litre DOHC 16 valve ‘Zetec’ four cylinder engine, it tends to be reluctant when accelerating from a dead stop unless you give it plenty of gas and engage the clutch quickly. My advice is to rev it up to about 2000 rpm and quickly slip the clutch.
From then on, the engine is a smooth, free-revving powerplant that revs eagerly to its 7200 rpm redline and exhibits a loud, raspy exhaust note on its way up. It feels less constrained than the 130 horsepower version in the ZX3 – and is responsive in mid to upper rev ranges, particularly around 4,000 to 5,000 rpm. Despite its high-revving nature, the transmission can be left in sixth gear going up slight grades without having to shift down, and it’s easy to tool around town in third gear without shifting up and down.
On the freeway, the engine idles along leisurely at just 2,600 rpm at 100 km/h. As I mentioned, the SVT requires Premium gasoline, and I noticed there is no locking fuel door or locking gas cap.
The 6-speed manual transmission offers relatively short, ‘well-oiled’ throws and clutch pedal effort is firm but not too heavy. Brake pedal modulation is linear and stops are very short – ABS is standard on the SVT Focus.
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Handling is the SVT’s strong suit – its SVT-tuned independent suspension and grippy 17 inch Continental tires contribute to what seem like very high lateral G forces. Compared to the Focus ZX3, the SVT leans less, exhibits less dive under braking, hunkers down less under hard acceleration, and responds more quickly to steering input. High speed stability is also greatly enhanced, and there is a greater feeling of control and safety when driving the SVT.
And though the SVT has a lower, firmer suspension than the ZX3 Focus, the ride is not unduly harsh – just firm. Bumpy roads definitely feel bumpy, but the Focus’ solid body and great shock absorbers take the bite out of sudden bumps.
Steering responsiveness is quick and accurate, just the way a hot hatch should be.
Overall, the SVT Focus exhibits excellent vehicle dynamics which makes it great fun to drive – even to the video store.
Interior also impresses
I thought the SVT Focus’ interior was very attractive, even though I’m not a fan of the Focus triangular-themed dash design. My SVT’s leather upholstered front sport seats had large side bolsters and attractive blue cloth inserts which matched the cloth door inserts The driver’s seat includes a power height adjustment, and a manual rake and lumbar adjustment – the latter two operated by large dials on the right side of the driver’s seat and left side of the front passenger seat. My car had optional seat heaters, but there’s only one temperature setting which gets a bit toasty if you leave it on for more than five minutes.
The grippy, leather wrapped steering wheel features thumb grips at the 10 and 2 positions, cruise control buttons, and tilt and slide functions. Combined with the height adjustable driver’s seat, just about any driver can find a great seating position. Silver-faced overlapping gauges include a tachometer with a 7200 rpm redline, and both oil pressure and oil temperature gauges.
There’s no doubt that the SVT Focus’ instrument panel is functional – controls are easy to reach, and gauges and numerals are large and easy to read. My SVT test car included the optional premium ‘Audiophile’ sound system with a 6-disc CD in-dash changer and rear subwoofer. I was quite impressed with the depth and clarity of the sound from this stereo, and would recommend getting it even though it’s an extra $995. As well, the system includes a lever behind the steering wheel that operates volume, station, and seek functions. The lever is operated by pulling with the left forefinger, so it’s possible to hold the steering wheel while adjusting the stereo volume. However, the lever doesn’t turn with the wheel, so it can only be used while going in a straight line.
The SVT Focus also includes variable intermittent wipers and a rear wiper with a washer function – however, I noticed the rear wiper doesn’t have an intermittent function. Other features I liked were power window buttons on the doors which face the driver, front and rear roof grab handles, and a pen holder beside the gear lever.
Though it’s a small car, SVT Focus rear passengers have adequate legroom and headroom – and even though the sunroof lowers the roof height in front slightly, the headliner is sculpted out at the rear to allow more headroom.
The rear seat will accommodate three people – there are three height adjustable rear head restraints and three three-point seatbelts – but the Focus’ narrow width and the sculpted design of the outer rear seats makes the rear seating more comfortable for two passengers.
Outboard rear passengers have two cupholders at the back of the centre console, two storage bins near the outboard armrests, and map pockets on the back of the front seats.
The split folding rear seatbacks are easy to fold down with one lever, and provide generous cargo room for such a small car. First, the rear seat cushions must be folded up against the front seatbacks, and then the seatback folds down flat with just one hand. When folded down, the seatback is almost flush with the trunk floor.
I noted the cargo area’s floor and walls are fully carpeted (to prevent scratching), and it includes a cargo net and privacy cover.
The week that I drove the SVT Focus, I went to a garage sale and brought home a fully assembled computer desk and a side table inside the SVT’s cargo area, with the hatch closed! With the rear seats up, the cargo area is 3 feet wide by 29 inches deep by 31 inches high. With the rear seatbacks folded down, the cargo floor is about five feet long.
I found the rear hatch easy to open and close, and it can be locked and unlocked with a key or with the remote keyfob – the latter is handy when you’re fumbling with groceries in one hand and the key in the other.
Major competitors for the SVT Focus ($27,240) would include the Honda Civic SiR ($25,500), Mini Cooper S ($29,600), and the VW GTi 1.8T ($26,150). In my opinion, the SVT Focus ties with the Cooper S for the best handling – though each has a different character when it comes to vehicle dynamics – the SVT Focus is racier with better steering and brakes, but the Cooper S has a better ride and amazing agility. The Civic SiR is probably more refined than the SVT Focus, but its tires and suspension don’t match the SVT’s. The VW GTi has more torque, a smoother engine, and goes faster in a straight line, but doesn’t handle as well. The SVT Focus doesn’t offer an automatic transmission, but in this class, most buyers will opt for a manual. For true enthusiasts, I think it would come down to a choice between the Cooper S and the SVT Focus.
2003 prices weren’t available at press time, but the 2002 Ford Focus SVT test car that I drove had a base price of $27,240, which includes most of the features I’ve mentioned above. Options include a Cold Weather Package (traction control, heated seats) for $595; power moonroof $980; and the Audiophile package for $995. Total as-tested price came to $30,700.
The SVT Focus is built in Hermosillo, Mexico.
Technical Data: 2002 Ford Focus SVT
|Freight||$790 (navigation system)|
|Options||$2,570 (navigation system)|
|A/C tax||$100 (navigation system)|
|Price as tested||$30,700|
|Type||2-door, 5-passenger compact hatchback|
|Layout||transverse front engine/front-wheel-drive|
|Engine||2.0 litre 4 cylinders, DOHC, 16 valves, variable cam timing on intake camshaft|
|Horsepower||170 @ 7,000 rpm|
|Torque||145 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm|
|Transmission||Getrag 6-speed manual
||215/45R-17 Continental ContiSport Contact
||2616 mm (103.0 in.)
||4270 mm (168.1 in.)
||1699 mm (66.9 in.)
||1430 mm (56.3 in.)
||527 litres (18.6 cu ft)
||Premium 91 octane
||3 yrs/60,000 km
||5 yrs/100,000 km