Is it souped yet?
Ford and others are making a furious push into the sport accessories market.

Sport compact "tuner" car culture - a la "The Fast and the Furious" - emerged in the mid-'90s when a generation of new drivers began fixing up their beloved first cars, mostly used Honda Civics, Preludes and Accords. These cars, while exceptionally sound mechanically, were about as sexy as corrective headgear.

Kids wanting to invest these grotty hand-me-downs with some style and performance had to rely on their ingenuity, for the most part. High school auto shop classes became crowded with kids laying up their own fiberglass air dams, welding megaphonic extensions to tailpipes and taking cutting torches to springs.

In this respect, sport-compact tuning materialized out of the same ether as hot rodding in the 1940s and '50s. Both were grass-roots, anarchic, existentially D.I.Y. Both began as eyeball engineering, where if something looked fast, then it was fast.

And both movements quickly aroused vast, highly specialized industries to support them. By the late 1960s, hot rodders could draw from a pornocopia of high-performance goods found in the back pages of Hot Rod magazine or Hemmings Motor News; brands like Edlebrock, Hurst, Holley, Rochester and Flowmaster have become bits of gear-head Americana.

Likewise, current issues of Sport Compact Car magazine -- what Guns and Ammo is to the rifle-in-the-tower set -- are crowded with ads shilling everything from screaming "Stage III" turbochargers to carbon-fiber rear spoilers the size of blackjack tables. Some aftermarket companies are familiar, blue-chip firms like AP Racing, Eibach, Neuspeed and Momo. Some evolved out of racing, such as CompTech and NOS. Others are purely creatures of the tuner phenomenon, like Greddy, APC and Wings West. The sport-compact aftermarket is now worth more than $3.2-billion a year.

The limiting factor to all this rampant prosperity is that relatively few people have the tools or know-how to properly modify modern cars. This is a key difference between hot rodding and tuning: Most tuning is not D.I.Y., but D.I.F.M., "do it for me." Bad things happen when inexperienced hobbyists stuff leaf-blower turbochargers, lumpy cams and Taiwanese electronic control modules under the hood. Such monstrosities often detonate in festive clouds of carbon-fiber shrapnel.

You may ask why anyone beyond a hormone-sotted teenager should care. It's because the aftermarket is heading your way.

This I predict: Very soon, car buyers will be able to choose from a punch-list of factory-approved tuner parts available through your local dealer -- HKS exhaust system? Check. Brembo brakes? Check -- and all conveniently installed and financed as part of the car's purchase price. No tools, no mess, just a checkbook.

It seems inevitable: What began as a fringy, outlaw car hobby -- born in teenage status anxiety and bred in thousands of garages stinking of smoked pistons -- will go mainstream as part of an increasingly sophisticated array of dealer options. Why? Because that's where the money is.

It's already happening. Toyota has its own aftermarket division, Toyota Racing Development, whose parts are sold through authorized dealers. You can now order its superchargers for most of the engines in Toyota's paddock. The superchargers come with a one-year guarantee. If the dealer installs the unit, Toyota will honor the vehicle's powertrain warranty.

Is your 230-hp Dodge SRT-4 feeling a little limp? DaimlerChrysler's Mopar division will soon offer, through its authorized dealers, a thermonuclear turbo upgrade that will raise the engine output to 300 hp and 300 pound-feet of torque.

And last month, Ford Racing Performance Parts introduced its own catalog of aftermarket pieces for its Focus coupe, one of the best-handling and most popular hot hatches on the market. The "F t Focus" wish-book offers everything from whiteface competition gauges and carbon-fiber shift knobs to a Jackson Racing supercharger kit, all available through Ford authorized dealers, with optional installation.

Mass customization: It's not just an oxymoron anymore.

I spent a couple of weeks recently in a Ford Focus SVT that had been breathed on by the folks at Ford and Roush Racing, using parts from the new Fast Focus catalog. It felt like the future. No screwy suspension geometry to make the car all wonky on straight roads. No strange noises or burning smells. The car felt bone-stock, only faster.

The Focus is a leading contender in the FIA World Rally Championship, and our test car had a distinctly Euro flavor to it. The aggressive body cladding -- styled after the Focus Rally RS package -- looked like it had grown in place. The test car was kitted with the European Appearance package, including high-intensity discharge headlamps, mirrored tail lamps, moon roof, rib-gripping Recaro seats and a stereo system fully capable of making manhole covers jump from their sockets.

With its glossy black wheels and glittering, prismatic eyes, the yellow car had the capricious malevolence of an angry bee.

The performance parts integrated seamlessly into the car. This car's SVT engine -- a 2.0-liter Zetec four-banger -- had been fitted with the Jackson Supercharger. On the hot side of the engine, the car exhaled through a Borla cat-back system (a high-flow exhaust replacing the stock pieces from the catalytic converter back, for $479). Thus ventilated, the Focus gusted along on 220 horsepower, 50 more than the stock SVT and enough to slap-shot the car to 60 mph in just under seven seconds.

Beneath its composite-panel petticoats, the Focus had been modified with a lowered sport suspension -- up-rated springs and struts -- and shod with the black-anodized 17-inch wheels. These pieces didn't change the Focus SVT's handling so much as scaled the limits upward. Grippy, balanced and easy to drive on the limit, the catalog-enhanced SVT negotiated the coils of the Angeles Crest like a bubble-shaped BMW.

And there you have it: an off-the-shelf tuner car, no assembly required.

There are some curiosities to report. The Jackson supercharger for the Focus SVT retails for $2,795 if ordered directly from the company. Ford charges an additional $305 for the same piece. Also, Jackson offers a one-year guarantee on the unit, while Ford makes no such offer. Such price premiums and stingy warranty policies may change as more of the automakers compete in the dealer-side aftermarket business.

Hot rodding was never quite co-opted by the major manufacturers, though before the first oil crunch of the early 1970s low-volume performance vehicles like the Corvette LT-1 and Pontiac GTO did vie for enthusiasts' attention. As the automakers move further into the tuner aftermarket, something of the culture 's raw exuberance and wildcatting spirit is diminished. But the engineering is getting better. Will this underground hobby survive when it's exposed to the sun?

Stay tuned.

2004 Ford Focus SVT Tuner

Wheelbase: 103 inches

Length: 168.1 inches

Powertrain: 2.0-liter DOHC inline four-cylinder, supercharged, six-speed manual transmission, front-wheel drive

Optional equipment: European Appearance Package (sound system, Recaro seats ); Jackson Racing supercharger, Borla cat-back exhaust system, coilover suspension system, 17-inch rally wheels, Ford Racing floor mats

Horsepower: approximately 220 at 7,000 rpm

Acceleration: 0 to 60 mph in seven seconds

Price, base: $18,590

Price, as tested: $27,420