If nothing else, the current economic woes that have besieged the U.S. and the world in general have taught us once again the immutable truth that hindsight is always 20/20 sharp. With the automobile industry enduring its time in the public and congressional spotlight as of late, there has been a veritable smorgasbord of "experts" in and out of the industry who have emerged with various explanations as to the cause of the current predicament faced by the auto manufacturers globally. Here in the U.S., one of the most critical arguments placed before the Big Three automakers has been not just the quality of the cars or the perceived lack thereof, but also the type of machines that have been made available for purchase. Many feel that U.S. automakers may have been late to the hybrid, fuel efficiency, green table with the Japanese apparently at the forefront. Agree or not, such matters of U.S. automaker offerings is for another article and probably another magazine.
But the idea of manufacturer offerings, both domestic and foreign, is very much what we are about. Certainly, I have more than once enviously leafed through the pages of an automotive rag showing European offerings from U.S. companies that ultimately will never make the trek to our shores. But it really hasn't been hybrids or other so termed "responsible" machines available elsewhere that typically drew my attention. Instead, my perusals and subsequent lusts were focused on the performance models of American-made cars that were built solely for sale elsewhere and became forbidden fruit here at home
Perhaps one of the most notable of these cars was the Ford Cosworth-powered Escort that was based on the World Rally Championship machine that dominated the series in the hands of such notables as Carlos Sainz. While in the States we ultimately received a FWD version of the Escort with some snazzy body work that was labeled the GT, in the UK the car was a 240hp, turbocharged, AWD monster that carried with it a cult-like following. Sound like something that a couple of Japanese companies currently sell here?
Following and slightly overlapping the Escort came the Focus, the second "World Car" offered by Ford, and again a proper WRC car was developed that enjoyed more than its share of success with the dynamic duo of co-pilot Nicky Grist and the late and truly great Colin McRae. Although Ford's SVT performance group was tapped to build an enhanced version of the Focus for street use in the U.S., hoping apparently to capitalize on the popularity of the AWD 300hp WRC version, the powers that be appeared to give SVT little breathing room. The more-than-capable engineers on Ford's Special Vehicle Team thus did what they could, and came up with a FWD with exceptional handling prowess but a mere 170 hp. In light of Subaru's WRX and Mitsubishi's EVO line, which seemed to provide the American performance driving public with street legal rally cars, the hopped-up Focus was admittedly a disappointment.
Arguments can be made that the Japanese companies in this case were small enough to be able to maneuver themselves to take advantage of what at first was perceived to be a niche market. Whatever the reason, I had always wished that Ford had brought over the Cosworth Escort, had built a beefier SVT version of the Focus or simply took the gamble that Subaru and Mitsubishi did. There is, of course, still hope with the Focus RS, and hopefully it will make it to the U.S. in time. For those who can't wait but still love the idea of a hot-rod Focus, there aren't a lot of options. Don't tell that to Steve Learned, though, as he owns one of the cleanest SVT Focuses I've ever seen.
The original owner of the '02 Sonic Blue SVT Focus No. 1618 was Steve's older bother Rick, and as such the car has become a bit of a family focus group project. Rick bought the car new in December of 2002 and began changes almost immediately. After owning the car for several years Rick moved on to a Mustang and little bother Steve bought the breathed-on Focus and still owns it today.
No. 1618 now sports a wide variety of mods, although two of the most notable are the excellent Jackson Racing supercharger with requisite Ford Racing big boost kit and the KW coilover performance suspension kit. The original car came with almost everything that Ford offered in terms of cockpit-based amenities, but a short-throw shifter was added and a shift light was mounted on the steering column. Although the key still does work for the accessories and ignition, a fully functional starter button from an S2000 was added; certainly not necessary, but it's a cool little addition. To keep an eye on the manifold pressure produced by the JR supercharger, a boost gauge was placed on the dash.
Brakes were left stock and the Focus still rides on the stock SVT based five-spoke wheel, although the original Continental tires were traded out for a set of sticky Goodyear GS-D3s. The KW coilover suspension lowered the shimmering purple hatchback perfectly, giving the Focus the lower meatier stance that characterizes a WRC Focus set up for the tarmac Monte Carlo rally.
After the hardware was installed, the Focus received a proper tune on the ECU from Black Oak. Maximum revs were increased to 7400 from the stock 7200-rpm redline and the combination of elements boosted horsepower from 170 to 215 at the flywheel. Torque had a marginal increase of 30 from 145 to 175 ft-lbs. After just one run up through the gears, the increased power was noticeable and seemed in line with the published numbers. While certainly no threat to an STI, EVO or even a WRX, the Jackson Racing/Black Oak combination appeared to breathe new life into the Focus. SVT's original target for the Focus was the Acura RSX Type-S, and although the stock version fell somewhat short of that order, Learned's improved Focus offers a suitable rival to the ultra-slick Honda.
Although the stock SVT Focus offered a nimble chassis and responsive suspension, Learned's car took the handling equation to another level and was the single best quality of the car. With Eibach sway bars front and rear, roll control was tight and flat, and steering response seemed to be improved with a limited off-center dead feel. There was still a somewhat overboosted feel to steering effort that was similar to the stock system.
Although left stock, and with a similar pedal feel to stock, the braking itself actually felt improved over the standard SVT Focus. The lower CG and the improved drive control from the KW/Eibach setup helped to keep the platform level and ultimately gave all four corners of the car some good bite under braking. A big brake kit might not really help this particular Focus unless Steve ends up seriously tracking the car and sees some higher temps at the rotor and caliper sites.
While the short-throw shifter afforded a better and more precise feel to the superb Getrag gearbox, the pedal placement in Steve's Focus had not been addressed, and as such the throttle still sat absurdly high above the brake pedal. Heel-and-toe downshifting in Learned's SVT Focus was nearly impossible and became even more difficult under harder braking as the brake pedal moved lower. While on the street the pedal placement in this particular instance probably has little effect on the day-to-day drive, a spirited romp with this car on a mountain pass or a casual track day would be dampened by the difficulty in getting a precise rev match on the downshifts while braking. It would also have been nice to see a better seat placed in the Focus to provide some better lateral support and an overall more performance-based feel to the cockpit. In this area of driver ergonomics above almost all, American car companies have long struggled, although newer models seem to show substantial improvement in seat support.
Learned's Focus is a terrific study in building an extremely clean, uncluttered, detail-oriented car. However, while the suspension offers some great apex-carving ability to the little hatch, I was still hoping the addition of forced induction might completely change the dynamic of the car. While there was certainly more power, it was more of an enhancement as opposed to a true change. While that may have in fact been Learned's intent, I thought the car could have handled a fair amount more thrust.
It may well have been the case that the potent 170 hp churned out by the Ford factory 2.0-liter Zetec Cosworth-enhanced four-cylinder was done at or near the limitations of the internals. With that in mind, reliability in forced induction mods would mean marginal boost levels and thus modest power gains unless a true and comprehensive re-engineering of the internals was undertaken. A re-engineering is exactly what it sounds like Ford has done with the RS in Europe. We know you can build it, Ford, now just bring it to the States, please. With people like the Learned brothers taking it upon themselves to turn the potential laden Focus into a solid performance car, it should be clear that the demand is there. And if that isn't proof enough, maybe the sales of EVOs and STIs over past five years will show that the market is ready. We'll be waiting.