Unless you come from a real ‘car family’ being a young automotive enthusiast sucks. Chances are you don’t have tons of money, you don’t have tons of experience, and your insurance doesn’t give you many options. Like me, you’ll do months of research, and end up settling on three choices: A rear-drive bruiser from the late 90’s or early 2000’s (I don’t fit in Miata’s so the answer, in this case, is not always Miata), an AWD Subaru of some sort, or a ‘toss-able’ front-driver. For a lot of the country—myself included at that age—having a RWD car at this price point means having a half-year car. To cope with any bad weather, all-wheel drive is attractive and AWD means Subaru. Unfortunately, the Subaru you want—the WRX or STI—is too expensive because, well, everyone else wants one as well. Invariably, a great many early car enthusiasts end up driving some sort of FWD car. Looking back, even to just four years ago, when I consider safety, economy, and maintenance, front-wheel drive was the right choice. At the time though, watching drift videos and rally heroes, this was dream crushing. Front wheel drive was boring. Whether this is true or not (not!), the internet, magazines, and Top Gear had all told me so.
The internet also told me, and will tell other drivers in my position, that a fun, affordable (let’s say $7,000, attainable savings or a small loan one may get from a bank or family member at that age) FWD car meant buying a Honda Civic, primarily from the 90’s or early 2000’s. All the forums will toss the same few reasons at you: they are cheap, everywhere, and easy to modify, as well as this era featuring lightweight bodies and simple, robust drive lines. For someone already disappointed at having to drive a lowly FWD car though, having to drive a Civic was just salt in the wound. It doesn’t help that almost every Civic that is modified in my area looks like the car below:
This wasn’t exactly the crowd I wanted to hang with, and so I started shopping the competition. While forced induction cars are cool and are attainable at this price, actually buying one would be a disaster. Besides the fact that the actual turbocharged car you want is a WRX, the SRT-4 Neon’s and Cobalt SS’s at this price are beat. Non-factory turbo or supercharged cars are attainable for cheap as well, but whether they are drivable for cheap is another matter. If it sounds like I am narrowing down the options, it is because I am. Shoppers in this segment will probably come across a few offerings that are left in the naturally-aspirated market, as I did: Toyota Celica’s, VW Golfs, and some other rarer options. I wanted to set myself apart as much as I could, and so I went with option three; the rarer options.
Ironically enough, at this point I had it narrowed down to two cars, one of which was a Civic. I wanted a ‘Euro’ hatchback (thank Top Gear again), not only for the style but also for the usability. This is brought me to the two options: An unmodified ‘EP3’ Civic or a Ford Focus SVT (Desktop Drives anyone?).
It turns out that finding an unmodified Civic, even a less popular one like the ‘EP3’ body style, is almost impossible. Couple that with the fact that I am not a patient man, and I found myself in a 2002 Ford Focus SVT in ZX3 body style. With the Focus RS and the Fiesta ST getting so much good press lately, I thought it would be interesting for this week’s review to look at what I consider America’s spiritual successor to both cars, and the car that was my first enthusiast car, the 2002 Focus SVT. A note on the format of the review: While I am using my own car as a test subject, the review is not on my specific example. Rather, the review will look at the SVT Focus as a whole, how it has aged with modern turbocharged engines, and if it is worth looking at as an enthusiast on a budget.
Brand New: What it Was
The Focus SVT slapped down the competition when it hit the market. Reading a review from when it was new shows that against the normal competition, it walked away in driving engagement. In terms of standard equipment, it wasn’t a stripper model either. Featuring spectacular Recaro heated seats in the front and a specially upholstered bench in the back, a subwoofer and amplifier sound system, and a subtle body kit unique to the American market, the SVT Focus not only set itself apart from other Foci, but also its competition. While well equipped, weight was low at 2,750lbs, and on tap to haul that mass was a 2.0L naturally aspirated inline-four ‘Zetec’ engine producing 170hp and 145lb-ft of torque, capable of revving to 7200rpm. 40bhp, 15lb-ft, and 600 more rpm than a stock Focus was achieved by pushing the ‘Zetec’ motor to its limits, featuring hot cams, oil squirters for cooling, and 4-2-1 headers. These modifications resulted in the engine being about 3 inches closer to the ground than the normal ‘Zetec’ engine, and as such the SVT motor is often termed the ‘long block’ motor. In fact, the motor was so stressed from the factory, that there is not much room in the motor without forced inductiuon. While this limits the mod-ability of the car, most SVT owners like to think of it as ‘modified from the factory’. This power was sent to the front wheels through the same 6-speed Getrag gear box as the Mini Cooper S utilized.
All this equipment and extra power was tuned into the suspension by the boys at SVT, resulting in a lower ride by about 15mm than a stock Focus. The body kit extends the sight line of car about 2 inches closer to the ground as well, around the full length of the car. Coupled with larger 17in wheels, the Focus looks like an absolute bruiser, especially when compared with the competition from Honda. More than just improving looks on the road, the suspension, coupled with the engine and gearbox, dramatically improves the performance of the car when the going gets windy. The engine provides just enough scoot to make the SVT feel quick, and the 6-speed gearbox is an absolute gem to row through the gears. The suspension is never harsh, controls body roll well, and when combined with the 17in wheel and tire combo SVT wisely chose, raises road handling qualities multiple price points above the SVT Focus.
Anyone who bought an SVT Focus in 2002 was rewarded in multiple ways. Not only did they get a fast, fun, useful car, it was somewhat unique on the road not only because of its European origins, but because the SVT model and its special body kit was a limited edition. In 2002 4,788 SVT Focuses were made, further separated by 6 different color combinations. For people ‘in the know’ this only increased the cool factor and desirability, and for everyone else, the body and engine could do the talking as to its specialness.
|2002 Ford Focus SVT ZX3
Engine: 2.0 L 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 170 hp @7000rpm
Torque: 145lb-ft @5500rpm
MPG: 21 city / 25 highway
Curb weight: 2,750 lbs
Dimensions: 168″ L x 67″ W x 56″ H
15 Years: What it is Now
My particular 2002 Ford Focus SVT was acquired for $5,500 with 118k miles on the clock. It was already modified when I purchased it, and while I would normally discourage buying a pre-modified example of any car, the modifications on mine were very limited. These included an AEM cold air intake, an FSwerks ‘Stealth’ exhaust, wheels+tires, and an audio system. While I would have preferred a stock head unit, the exhaust and wheels were certainly appreciated. The air intake was unusable in the wet, potentially sucking water into the engine, and as such I replaced it with a shorter AEM Intake. Despite the modifications, the car itself was very clean. The paint was unmolested, the leather was uncracked, and the dash was intact. For a 20-year old who had been without a car for a year, it was perfect.
After replacing the intake, and putting new tires on it (stock size Michelin Pilot Super Sports and 16” wheels with Bridgestone Blizzak tires for the winter), all I have done is put miles on it. As such, after almost 25k miles with it, it sits at 141k miles and is still going strong. Reliability has not been an issue, although an O2 sensor has recently started to act up (throwing a light every now and then). 141k miles on, and the Zetec motor is still running strong, and is a surprisingly smooth engine. Cruising around town is a dream with it, and touching 7300rpm on a back road is just as magical. The gear box shifts smooth, with no issues, and all of the electronics work. In other words, 15 years and 141k miles on, the car is still the same.
My very first impression when sitting in the car, and something I learned the reviewers when it was new mentioned, was how good the seats are. Made by Recaro, the seating position is not very sporting seeming, with the height over the floorboards more akin to a truck seat. Despite the high nature of the seat, it was obviously designed for the car, with the views it provides, and the reach from the seat to the wheel and shifter, being second to none, even compared to new cars. Able to hold you in within the cars limits on a back road, the seats are also comfortable on hour 7 of a long road trip. Even those who can’t appreciate the sporting nature of the car, can certainly appreciate the seats designed to cope with it.
15 years ago, the SVT Focus was an affordable, rare car made for the discerning enthusiast. Now, with depreciation bringing the prices down to around $3,000 for a beat example and $7,000 for a clean example, and attrition decreasing the numbers on the road, the SVT Focus is a cheap, rarer car made for the really discerning enthusiast. If you can find an unmolested example, or a very-slightly molested example, they are a perfect car for an enthusiast on a budget. The best part of the car is despite the cost, or lack thereof, the car still has a very premium feel to it.
On a side note, if you are lusting for a Fiesta ST, the weight, power, and suspension basics are all almost identical, although later Fiesta ST’s do feature more power. For the discount in price though, it is up to the individual to decide if it is close enough.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.