EXPERT REVIEW

Boston.com's view

Sometimes, even for the all-knowing, prescient, and infallible automotive journalist, a car arrives that is full of surprise.

I am driving such a car as I enter a climbing S-curve at 50 miles per hour. I am in third gear, the exhaust is rumbling behind me, and just for giggles I shift up into fourth at 4,000 rpms and stomp the gas. The car rockets forward, the exhaust note deepens, and the smile on my face broadens. Am I in a hot, tuned Honda? No. Am I in a screaming Subaru Impreza WRX? No.

I am in a front-wheel-drive Ford Focus and I have come to realize that there is a theme to this car: Drive it hard, drive it fast, corner it fast, brake it hard.

It is not, of course, just any Ford Focus. It is the 2002 SVT Focus, built by the professional Ford tuners from the base that is the three-door hatchback Focus ZX3.

From the outside, the special vehicle team’s changes are noticeable to true fans of hot, front-wheel or all-wheel-drive performance cars (the muscle cars of this decade for speed aficianados), yet subtle enough to go largely unspotted by those for whom a car is just transportation.

The bumpers and rocker panels are molded and fitted in a more muscular grip around the lower body; a mesh grille gives it a European flair; a rear spoiler gives a saucy flip to the roofline; 17-inch, five-spoke wheels with low-profile tires are a snazzy addition; and if none of these elements catches your eye, the bold SVT badging won’t tell you anything anyway.

But where the SVT Focus really departs is under the hood (and with some nifty interior touches).

It has the 2.0-liter, 16-valve, inline four-cylinder, DOHC Zetec engine that is in the ZX3 — sort of. Sort of given that this one has forged steel connecting rods, cast-aluminum pistons, a dual-stage intake manifold, variable cam timing on the intake shaft, bigger intake ports (we’re talking bigger gulps of air here, folks), and a tuned underbody catalyst sytem.

That means that instead of the ZX3’s 130 horsepower and 135 lb.-ft. of torque, the SVT delivers 170 horsepower and 145 lb.-ft. of torque.

It is mated to a six-speed transmission that clicks firmly and quickly up through the gears. That’s a good thing because, with torque lacking at the lower end, you need to zip right through first and second to get where the fun begins — up around 2,000 rpms. Let it wind from there in second, or go right into third. You’ll find the redline — and the next shift — soon enough.

It moves so smoothly and benignly through the lower gears that driving it in traffic is not a pain, as is often the case with high-revving, twitchy cars. With this one, it’s just a matter of realizing that as you move up, it lives to rev.

Autoweek magazine ran the SVT against the Honda Civic Si and the Nissan Sentra SE-R Spec V and, at 7.32 seconds from 0-60, it was faster than either by a fraction of a second. More im pressively, Autoweek found that on the slalom course, it was quicker than the Sentra SE-R, the Mercedes-Benz AMG C32, and the Subaru Impreza WRX. That’s cookin’ and cornerin’.

I hurled this car into corners, made snapping lane changes on the highway, downshifted before I entered corners and stomped the gas exiting them, and the car sat flat with virtually no body roll. It was that stiff. Yet, surprisingly, in normal driving, it felt pliant and almost gentle.

With stiffer shocks and stiffer spring rates than the ZX3, and beefed up antiroll bars, the SVT suspension has struts, coil springs, damper units and antiroll bar up front. In the rear, there is an independent multilink system with dampers and antiroll bar.

Brakes are all discs, nearly a foot in diameter, with ABS. In emergency braking they stopped the SVT quickly and on a virtually perfect straight line.

Inside, the SVT people did a fine job of giving this Focus a sporty feel.

Two- one seats are trimmed in leather (inserts match exterior colors) and the front buckets have excellent thigh and torso bolsters found on far more expensive sports cars. The shift knob and handbrake are wrapped in leather, each has leather boots, and the steering wheel is leather-wrapped as well. Aluminum pedals with black knobs add to the performance car feel.

Gauges are black lettering on titanium, with the tachometer and speedometer big and centered right behind the wheel.

The sound system tops the center-dash control pod and its controls include one large volume knob and large, rectangular adjustment/tuning buttons.

Climate control consists of three large circular knobs, a pair of triangular buttons for air conditioning and circulation, and a lone triangle for rear window defroster. Simple and clean all around.

Headroom is excellent up front, moderately good in the rear. The rear seat is quite comfortable for two while the middle passenger had best be a small child. Leg room in the back is just OK.

Standard features on the SVT Focus include: ABS, front fog lamps, 60/40 split rear seat with fold down back and flip-up cushions, power folding and heated outside mirrors, power windows, door locks, and trunk release, air conditioning, and rear window defroster. Also thrown in are cruise control buttons on the steering wheel and extra audio controls on a pod just below the turn signal on the left side of the steering column.

The only options (and they came on the test car) include a winter package with heated seats, traction control, and engine block heater (at $395 a good deal here in New England); a power moonroof ($595); and an upgraded sound system with a 290-watt in-dash AM/FM stereo with six-disc CD changer, premium speakers and an 8-inch subwoofer with amplifier ($675).

All these extras and the car still costs less than $20,000. And it runs with the best of the hot tuners of today.

Hey, sometimes even the prescient get surprised.

2002 Ford SVT Focus

Base price: $17,480

Price as tested: $19,660

Horsepower: 170

Torque: 145 lb.-ft.

Wheelbase: 103.0 inches

Overall length: 168.1 inches

Width: 66.9 inches

Height: 56.3 inches

Curb weight: 2,750 lbs.

Seating: 4 passengers

Fuel economy: 20.2 miles per gallon

Source: Ford Motor Co.; fuel economy from Globe testing.

Nice touch

The single button remote mirror control in the “V” where A-pillar meets the front of the driver’s armrest. Logical placement, easy to use.

Annoyance

Not much in the way of interior storage bins. Where’s a hot young tuner going to put all those CDs? The lip balm? The sunglasses?

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