You never know what you're going to get when you buy or rent a Ford Focus. If you're lucky, you'll enjoy the mini-hot-rod experience of driving the 2002 Focus SVT sport hatchback. If you're not, you'll wind up with a base ZX3 LX hatch and a passport to the nearest Ford dealer's service bay.

I got lucky for a week. I drove the 170-horsepower Focus SVT, developed by Ford Motor Co.'s Special Vehicle Team. The SVT people take ordinary Fords and turn them into something substantially better, such as the Mustang Cobra R and the F-150 SVT Lightning pickup truck. SVT members strive for performance. They try to avoid mediocrity.

Perhaps Ford should use the SVT concept in all its vehicle-development programs. Maybe then we could see more consistency in product quality. That would help lift Ford out of its current doldrums more than any syrupy TV commercial by the company's chairman and chief executive, William Clay Ford Jr.

If you detect a little nastiness here, you're right. Ford is driving me nuts. The company has good people with good ideas. It also has an array of very good products. The problem is that those cars and trucks are mixed in with other cars and trucks, often from the same model lines (the Focus SVT is based on the ZX3, for example), that are not so good. It is an unfortunate inconsistency that has damaged public acceptance of the otherwise commendable Focus compact-car series.

Oh, stuff! What am I saying? Even the SVT people make mistakes. For example, the test model I drove was delivered after Ford corrected a defect in the car. The problem involved a throttle-control cable that could get stuck at high speeds after you take your foot off the accelerator. That's not a good thing, which is why Ford on April 24 recalled 534 Focus SVTs assembled from November 2001 through April 2002. There were no reported deaths or injuries stemming from the defect.

See what I mean? I've got to tell you something like that in what really is a favorable review. The truth is, in its repaired form, the Focus SVT is one heck of a fine little car. It is fast, nimble, tight. It is a worthy competitor in the front-wheel-drive "hot hatch" market that is attracting young buyers today the way big-muscled rear-wheel drive V-8s drew the young and the restless in the 1950s and 1960s.

I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the Focus SVT. In fact, I drove it way more than I drove the luxury Lexus GS430 sedan that was in my driveway at the same time. Why? A car doesn't have to be draped in finery and outfitted with every conceivable gizmo to be fun. All it needs is get-up-and-go and the ability to dance well in the corners. A little personality helps, and here I'm not talking about the need to be gorgeous.

Goodness knows, my test car was anything but good-looking! It was a little wedge-nosed thing with an extremely elliptical grille and a high rear end. It had a black body with a black-and-b lue interior, which was marred only by the tendency of the hand-brake cover to separate from its base, lift up and expose internal mechanicals.

But the tested Focus SVT, overall, was as right as the right jeans and tennis shoes, as lovable as the beau next door when you were more interested in making time than making an impression. I just wish that Ford would do a better job of giving us these neat little cars without giving us a whole bunch of unnecessary problems.

The company doesn't need a better idea. It needs better quality on every car, every truck in every assembly plant on every shift every day. If it does that, we'll all be happy. You hear me, Bill?