2003 Ford SVT Focus
By Joe Wiesenfelder, cars.com
The Special Vehicle Team, which has developed souped-up versions of Ford vehicles such as the Contour, F-150 pickup and Mustang, introduced an SVT Focus in 2002 based on the 3-Door body style. For 2003, Ford has expanded the SVT treatment to the more versatile 5-Door body style.
The SVT Focuses join the likes of the Honda Civic Si and Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V in offering a heck of a lot of performance in a relatively affordable package. The most significant SVT upgrade is in engine power, as reflected in the following table, which also shows specifications for the Zetec engine evaluated in the Going & Stopping section of this Vehicle Profile. Like the Zetec and base SPI engine, the SVT’s displacement is 2.0 liters. The increases from 130 to 170 horsepower and 135 to 145 pounds-feet of torque come from a higher compression ratio (10.2:1 vs. 9.6:1) and changes in the intake and exhaust systems. Modifications include forged-steel connecting rods and cast-aluminum pistons.
The SVT engine’s intake ports are 1.5 mm larger than the Zetec’s, and they feature Ford’s first application of variable valve timing in a North American model. Stiffer springs on those valves increase the engine’s redline from 6,750 rpm to 7,200 rpm. The final intake provision — one that contributes to low-rpm torque — is a dual-stage intake manifold, a feature typically seen on more expensive cars. Engines perform better at low rpm when the intake air enters through a long channel and at high rpm when the intake runner is shorter. The SVT engine switches the intake runner from long to short at 6,000 rpm.
Engineers also fitted the SVT Focus with a header exhaust that steps down to a single, larger-than-stock exhaust pipe, which terminates with a chrome tip. The system is tuned to be more audible than a regular Focus. It has too much of the tuner import put-put sound for my old-school ears, but that’s just one opinion.
The SVT Focus comes only with a six-speed-manual transmission from German supplier Getrag. Ford describes it as a close-ratio unit, but the gear ratios aren’t so close that they overlap too much, as in some such gearboxes. I like this transmission quite a bit. It’s one of the things that makes the SVT Focus superior, in my opinion, to the 2002 Sentra SE-R Spec V, whose five-speed manual left plenty to be desired. (That may change in 2003, because Nissan is now offering a six-speed upgrade.) All the gears, including Reverse, are synchronized, so if you put it in Reverse while rolling slightly backward, you won’t embarrass yourself by grinding.
Don’t be fooled by the SVT Focus’ specified torque peak, which occurs at a high 5,500 rpm. The torque curve is very broad, and there’s a respectable amount of “grunt” from a standing start. I much prefer this over the Civic Si’s high-rev power. The Si’s engine is a highly technologically advanced, efficient, clean power plant. Like all Honda engines, it commands respect on many levels. But when it comes to the driving, I — like many Americans — don’t want to have to wind the engine out just to get a move on. This is an area where I prefer the torque characteristics of the SVT Focus, SE-R and supercharged Mini Cooper S (see the Vehicle Profile) over the whine of a Civic Si pushing 9,000 rpm. (Though it’s technically in the same price class, I’m making few comparisons to the Cooper S because its scarcity prices it way out of bounds in the real market.)
The SVT Focus, Civic Si and SE-R Spec V are comparable in terms of quickness, able to break 7.5 seconds in a 0-to-60-mph sprint. None can break 7 seconds. If you’re looking for a real rocket, the Subaru Impreza WRX with a manual transmission can break 6 seconds. Its all-wheel drive also adds appeal, but this is a more expensive car than the others mentioned.
The quickness doesn’t come for free. The SVT Focuses get 21 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway, compared to 26 mpg city/34 mpg highway for the same body styles equipped with the Zetec engine and five-speed manual. Also, Ford recommends premium unleaded gasoline, with a minimum of 91 octane, for the SVT models.
When it comes time to halt the SVT Focus, the standard four-wheel disc brakes with ABS really do the job. They stop the car very quickly, offering fine control and linearity. From driving the car, I thought Ford had gone all out with a brake upgrade. In reality, all the SVT folks did was increase the front brake rotors by 1.65 inches in diameter and replace the standard rear drum brakes with discs. As on any Focus, the calipers are relatively simple single-piston units. Whatever the formula, it delivers results.
As I explain in the Ride & Handling section, the regular Focus has relatively sophisticated front and especially rear suspensions for a car of its price. I also describe the regular Focus’ handling performance as nothing short of heroic. Take that and multiply it, and you’ve got yourself the SVT Focus. The four-wheel-independent suspension’s coil springs are 10 percent firmer in front and 20 percent firmer in the rear than those in the comparable non-SVT Focus, and the shock absorbers are retuned. These changes and a slightly larger front stabilizer bar (the rear is the same) reduce body roll.
I’ve always found the Focus’ dynamics impressive, but the suspension and tire upgrades make the SVT version unflappable to the point of being almost boring. The tires are low-profile Continental ContiSportContact rated P215/45R17, fitted to 17-inch, five-spoke aluminum-alloy wheels. They provide excellent grip in all directions, and you really have to make an effort to make the SVT Focus slide around under normal conditions. The tires are so sticky and the brakes so effective that I had a hard time getting the ABS to trigger in simulated panic stops on a warm day. I was concerned that the tires would be expensive to replace, but I found a reasonable retail price of $117 apiece for the same Continentals and other high-quality performance tires of the same size for $100 – $150 apiece.
One of the Focus’ better attributes is its power steering, which does a good job of communicating to the driver the position of the wheels, and of the car itself. Engineers backed off the power assist somewhat on the SVT version to increase road feel even more.
To hold onto occupants during sporty driving, the SVT Focus’ front seats have more prominent side bolsters on the backrest and particularly the seat cushions, even compared to the regular hatchbacks’ sportier seats. Unique to the SVT models, these seats are the only ones with power adjustment of any kind, in the form of a driver’s height adjustment. Both front seats are black leather with blue or red cloth inserts. The seats also replace the outboard backrest-adjustment lever with a less ergonomic inboard knob. Both seats also have manually adjustable lumbar supports on the inboard side of their backrests . In 3-Door models, a release lever on the top corner of either backrest allows it to tilt forward for ease of backseat access. One minus to the SVT treatment is the omission of a center armrest, which I wished I had on longer drives.
Other interior differentiators include SVT-labeled titanium-faced instruments with a 160-mph vs. 140-mph speedometer. Personally, I’m not a fan of white gauges, but the titanium looks pretty good during the day and is electroluminescent at night — something like a Timex Indiglo effect. There’s a black center control panel with silver ventilation control bezels, the reverse of the hatchback color scheme. The parking brake lever and aluminum gearshift knob are leather wrapped. The steering wheel has perforated-leather sections and is the only one in the model lineup to include stereo controls. Finally, there are rubber-nubbed metal pedal covers. They’re not real lightweight-aluminum pedals, but anything that differentiates a special model is a plus, in my opinion.
The same is true of the outside, where several elements distinguish the SVT models. They have lowered rocker-panel moldings and front fascias that are smoother than on the regular Focus, with honeycomb grilles, smoked headlight lenses and round fog lights located farther outboard. The rear fascia also is cleaner, and there’s a small spoiler on the top edge of the SVT Focus’ liftgate.
The SVT Focus comes with a series of standard features not already mentioned, including remote keyless entry, cruise control, a CD stereo, and power windows, locks and side mirrors. Stand-alone options include xenon high-intensity-discharge headlights (later in the year) and a power moonroof. A new SVT Cold Weather Package includes the traction control described in Going & Stopping, front seat heaters and an engine block heater. Finally, the optional SVT Audiophile Package, with which my test vehicle was equipped, includes a premium stereo with six speakers, 290 peak watts, an in-dash six-CD changer and a hatch-mounted subwoofer.
Mazda’s Mazdaspeed Protegé is the car most likely to challenge the SVT Focus for supremacy, but I have not tested it as of this writing. So at this point, if forced to pick a favorite among the niche of sporty compacts erroneously called “hot hatches” (not all of them are hatchbacks), I’d definitely go with the SVT Focus.
Size 2.0-liter 2.0-liter
Cylinders 4 4
Horsepower 130 @ 5,300 rpm 170 @ 7,000 rpm
(lbs.-ft.) 135 @ 4,500 rpm 145 @ 5,500 rpm
Redline 6,750 rpm 7,200 rpm
Required Gasoline regular unleaded
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....