by Jim Kenzie
It’s been a hill-and-gully ride for Ford’s sub-compact Focus. A huge critical success from Day One, the car garnered Car of the Year honours in Europe, in Canada and in the North American (combined Canada/U.S.) competitions.
Praise was heaped on the car’s huge interior package, outstanding dynamics, and innovative, if not universally loved, style. It’s a popular success too – currently, it’s the best-selling car in the world.
But its history in North America has been littered with recalls and reliability issues; Focus should be vying for top-selling car in Canada,
but instead is currently just sixth.
All I can really tell you about the latest version of the Focus is how the individual cars I drove felt during the time they spent in my custody.
Yes – cars plural, about which more anon.
Click image to enlarge
It’s the SVT Focus, the three-letter prefix standing for “Special Vehicle
Team”, a “skunk works” gang of enthusiasts who take Ford’s standard-fare cars and trucks and turn them into (relatively speaking) bargain-priced
performance machines. The SVT Cobra Mustang and F-Series Lightning – until recently, the latter was built right here in Oakville – are SVT’s
With the re-emergence of the “hot hatchback” segment among street-smart youth, Ford felt they had to give Honda Civic a run for its money.
The Focus was the obvious starting point, since it already was a great-handling car. And the obvious variant was the ZX3 two-door hatchback
(Ford calls it a three-door, but doors are what people, not suitcases, go in and out of…).
Ford employed the services of their British subsidiary, engine magicians Cosworth, to massage the 2.0 litre Zetec four cylinder twin-cam 16-valve engine, and not merely to increase power. As John Coletti, chief engineer at SVT puts it, “Typical DOHC [double over-head camshaft] four cylinder engines with four valves per cylinder are great for peak power, but not so strong in the low-end torque department.”
So the SVT Focus gains variable valve timing on the intake camshaft, and a two-stage intake manifold which provides a shorter airflow path for
high-r.p.m. (above six grand) conditions, and a longer one for low-r.p.m. running. In the latter mode a resonant pressure wave sets up, boosting
So while peak torque of 145 lb.-ft. does occur at a lofty 5,500 r.p.m., 85 percent of that value – 123 lb.-ft. – arrives by 2,200 r.p.m. OK, so it won’t make you forget your big-block Mustang, but it beats the tar out of most of the head-to-head competition.
Peak power has not been ignored, mind you – the SVT’s 170 horses is a full 40 more than the normal Zetec-equipped Focus. The engine runs cleanly to 7,200 r.p.m.
To make sure this urge doesn’t get splattered all over the pavement, SVT Focus adds forged connecting rods, larger wrist pins, and lighter aluminum
pistons, raising the compression ratio from 9.6:1 to 10.2:1. Premium fuel is recommended.
A new cylinder head casting, bigger valves, stronger valve springs and a very hot-roddy tubular exhaust system complete the engine mods.
The transmission is an all-new, German-built, Getrag six-speed manual, with two “layshafts”. I don’t want to get too technical here, but in effect,
this is two gearboxes in one casing, each set of gears having its own final drive ratio. Complex and innovative, it is also no larger than the regular Focus’s five-speed, a real consideration in a tightly packaged front-wheel drive car. Stronger half-shafts and bigger constant velocity joints are fitted, again for durability.
Suspension changes were aimed at sportier, if not race-car-like, handling. In other words, ride quality couldn’t be completely sacrificed. Springs are
stiffer by 10 percent at the front, 20 percent at the rear. Chunky 21 mm solid anti-sway bars are fitted at both ends. Shock damper settings and the
boost curve on the power-assisted rack and pinion steering have all been retuned for sportier response.
If a car goes fast, it better be able to stop fast. The SVT Focus gets big four-wheel disc brakes with four-channel ABS.
And in what is a deliberate slap in the face of Honda Civic SiR’s 15-inch skateboard wheels and tires, SVT Focus comes with 215/45-17 Continental
ContiSport Contact tires, on handsome five-spoke alloys.
In keeping with SVT’s philosophy of subtle appearance changes, SVT Focus has a discreet roof-mounted spoiler, black honeycomb grille inserts,
revised front and rear fascias, and small rocker panel extensions. Understated; attractive. Of course, if you order the “Sonic Blue” paint of one of my test cars everyone will know you’ve got an SVT – it’s exclusive to this model.
Inside, modified front seats with extra lateral support are trimmed in black leather with exterior-colour-specific (blue or red) fabric inserts.
The seatbacks can be tilted forward with a high-mounted release catch, and the seatback adjustment isn’t lost when you do (Honda, please copy…).
Lumbar support, tilt-and-telescope wheel, and power cushion height adjustment mean anyone should be able to get comfortable.
Chrome-trimmed pedals and titanium-faced gauges add a sporto-luxo touch. To paraphrase that offensive and tasteless beer commercial, good sporty cars are “all about balance”. It’s not enough to be fast if it doesn’t handle. No point in looking cool if it won’t stop.
And with all due respect to supercars, it’s a WHOLE lot better if the average punter has a half a chance of being able to afford to buy and run it.
The SVT Focus scores highly on all counts.
The engine pulls strongly from low revs; you can red-line it in every gear, but you don’t have to. It is reluctant to return to idle, especially when cold – surely, an emissions issue – which can lead to some jerkiness in traffic. The engine comes close to overpowering the front-drive chassis; torque
steer – tugging back and forth at the wheel – can be felt when you’re booting it.
My tester had the optional “winter package” which included traction control; it was appropriately discreet in operation, only coming into play
when really needed.
The steering is terrific, as it is on the regular Focus, making it a joy to explore the outer reaches of this car’s positive, nimble handling.
Be warned; those limits are ‘way out there; you probably shouldn’t reach for them too aggressively on public roads.
The biggest and best surprise is the ride. I did find a couple of potholes that defeated the springs, but for the most part it’s composed and
comfortable, despite the car’s handling prowess. And those brakes do work.
The only problem I had with the car is variability in transmission feel. I actually drove three SVT Foci over the past few weeks, one (briefly) in the
States, two up here. In one, the shift feel was near-perfect. In another, it was so bad I took the car back. Car three was OK, but not great. Getrag
knows from transmissions, so presumably there is a shift linkage adjustment procedure…
Oh yes – Ford’s monumentally annoying automatic power door locks, which, unlike Chrysler’s equally irritating system, can’t be re-programmed without a visit to your dealer. A pox on them all.
The SVT Focus lists at $27,240. With every option available (there aren’t many; that winter package, power sunroof, an “Audiophile” sound system with in-dash 6-CD changer) it came to $29,910, plus freight, delivery and taxes. A lot for a Focus, but a good deal for a car which can offer the enthusiast driver genuine capability and entertainment when she’s the mood, but can double as a thoroughly practical and comfortable family car when her adrenaline is on vacation.
- Well-balanced blend of performance, handling and brakes.
- Comfortable, roomy interior.
- Exclusivity at an affordable price.
- On-going worries about reliability.
- Make sure the dealer gets your gearbox sorted.
- Those damned automatic locks.