Ford's SVT Focus reminds me of the original Volkswagen GTI: Quick, agile and inexpensive, it bubbles with enthusiasm yet has all the daily practicality of a three-door hatchback. Its exhaust has a nice bark, the six-speed transmission begs to be shifted and it darts around corners like a real sports car. A price of $17,995 only makes it sweeter.

Putting a hot engine in an economy car and beefing up the suspension is not exactly a new recipe for building an economical performance car, but the notion has been revived in the last year by the Mini Cooper, Honda Civic Si and SVT Focus. VW's GTI still exists but it has a fairly low profile these days.

The higher-performance Focus was jointly developed by SVT and a team of engineers from Europe. The nearly identical Focus ST 170 is sold in Europe. The base price is $17,995 including delivery, and a fully loaded model still won't exceed $20,000. The SVT Focus is available only as a three-door now, but later in the fall a five-door model will be offered.

The SVT Focus has a distinctly European personality. Big brakes and cat-quick reflexes take precedence over horsepower. The styling is subtle, too. A tiny ducktail spoiler sits above the rear window, and narrow-spoke, 17-inch alloy wheels give a good view of the brakes. Subtle changes are found inside, like deeper seats and brighter upholstery, but other than that you can hardly tell this Focus from a regular model. Until you drive it, that is. Then, you get a taste of inexpensive fun.

The 2.0-liter, Zetec four-cylinder from the Focus ZX3 is massaged to raise its power from 130 to 170 horsepower, and it is mated to a six-speed manual Getrag gearbox whose ratios are stacked close together for optimum acceleration. Rowing the car through its paces with the six-speed shifter is considerable fun. A dual-stage intake manifold and a dual-mass flywheel enable the engine to rev quickly and pull strongly across a wide powerband. These two items probably do the most to give this engine a feeling of energy. Fuel economy is 21 miles per gallon in the city and 25 on the highway.

Earlier in the summer I had a chance to drive an SVT Focus for a couple of laps around a road-racing track, and its balance and handling were outstanding. The chassis has been tuned to keep the body flat in turns, and the four-wheel disc brakes were more than up to the task of erasing speed with confidence. Except for instances where raw horsepower had an advantage, it was nearly as fast on parts of the track as SVT's Cobra.

Part of the driving pleasure comes from great steering, and this little Focus excels at that. The basic Focus has pretty good handling and a nice balance, so modifying the suspension for better performance is not that hard.

Changes to the interior include sports seats trimmed in black leather, blue or red tweed cloth inserts and deeper side bolsters. The seats are an important aspect of keeping the driver in place during sporty driving, an d these do a fine job. The rest of the interior is black with accents of brushed silver trim. The instrument cluster has electro-luminescent gauges with silver faces. Restraint is the theme throughout.

The Focus has a tall roofline and seats that are pretty upright, facilitating entry and exit. Rear-seat legroom is decent, and folding down the rear seat creates a nice-sized cargo space.

One downside to this Focus is that its styling is beginning to look a bit dated, and getting the SVT model into production in Hermosillo, Mex., took longer than expected because Ford wanted to be sure there were no unsettled quality or manufacturing issues.

Now that SVTs are rolling from the factory, driving enthusiasts have one more car from which to choose. If you value driving fun that won't break your bank, the SVT Focus is worth a look.

The base price of the SVT Focus is $17,995, including destination and delivery. A six-disc CD player on the test car brou t the sticker price to $18,670.

Three years or 36,000 miles. Point: The SVT Focus is a hatchback with a high-energy personality, crisp roadholding and a sticker price that wonÕt break your bank. It stops and corners with confidence, has leather-trimmed sports seats and understated styling.

Counterpoint: The styling looks a little out of date compared to some of the newest models from abroad, and it has taken a while for Ford to get production of this special model up to speed.

Engine: 2.0-liter, 170-hp 4-cyl.
Transmission: Six-speed Front-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 103 inches
Curb weight: 2,750 lbs.
Base price: $17,995
As driven: $18,670
Mpg rating: 21 city, 25 hwy.
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