All the current clamor for the Euro Focus is reminiscent of the happenings nearly a decade ago. Ford's Escort had quite run its course with a third and final design refreshing having hit the streets in 1997. The very next year, an actual small-car contender wearing the Blue Oval launched in Europe. It was capable, well turned out, and wore Ford's sharp New Edge sheetmetal. American customers took one look at the Escort ZX2, which was supposed to fill the shoes of the Escort GT and kick it against the GTI, Civic Si, and others, and decided that it just wouldn't do, decent performance or not. Much like the current U.S.-Focus versus Euro C1 Focus debate, buyers set their gaze across the Atlantic and decreed the grass greener than the warmed over Mazda B platform ZX2.
While the Escort was yanked off the stage with a hook to make room for the Focus in 2000, the ZX2 remained on sale until 2003. The SVT team's masterful reworking of the basic Focus into a real contender for the hot hatch cage match dropped in 2002 and emptied whatever air was left in the final Escort derivative's balloon.
Already established as a phenom in Europe, the Focus hit U.S. streets causing double takes and craning necks, even in base form. The shape was edgy and wedgy, or at least as wedgy as a hatchback can be. Wearing the new "New Edge" idiom, Ford owners no longer had to hang their heads in shame when parking next to a GTI. The SVT version was tarted up with a mean looking bodykit that included new bumper fascias front and rear, 17-inch rims, rocker extensions, and of course, a blattier exhaust tip.
The ZX2 hasn't managed to earn the hushed, reverent tones that people use when speaking of the Focus SVT, and while a regular Focus was marginally outperformed by the ZX2, the SVT was no chump. The 2000cc Zetec went off to Cosworth for finishing school. Cosworth often means "new cylinder head," and that's what it meant for the Zetec. Feeding the newly enlarged ports was a two stage intake, and a header was fitted on the other side to increase exhalation. Variable camshaft timing also aided the Zetec in making the most of its newly found deep-breathing prowess. In the lower end, Cosworth changed the pistons and connecting rods to heavier duty units, while also bumping the compression ratio to 10.2:1 and adding oil squirters for temperature stability with the relatively high level of squeeze. Engine tweaks were good for a substantial 40-hp gain to 170.
Gearchanges were handled by a Getrag unit sporting six ratios, all necessary to keep the newly-peaky Zetec on boil. While Cosworth transformed the standard Focus four-cylinder into a revver with most of its punch delivered north of 5,000 rpm, it also made the engine smoother than the workaday growler it had been. Some complaints about engine revs hanging and dashing hopes of snick-quick gearchanges in the heat of battles have been registered; possibly some emissions-compliance air-bleed weirdness that drives us nutty in many cars.
One of the best things about the Focus SVT was that underneath it all, it was a Focus. The interior was surprisingly adept at swallowing way more than you would think possible, especially with the rear seats folded, and normal sized people fit well, also. A five-door SVT model was even added in 2003 to expand the car's usability. The edgy exterior styling also meandered inside to the dashboard, with joyously simple ergonomics spiced up with some cut-line busyness.
Perhaps the fact that we're still rocking this basic platform in 2008 is a testament to the baked-in goodness that Ford bestowed upon its first generation Focus, and indeed, the SVT won praise back in the day for its structural solidity. That tight bodyshell allowed the suspension to do the twin jobs of absorbing irregularities while also clinging to the tarmac. Not all cars can do both well, trading suppleness for tenacity in the turns, but the SVT struck an everyday comfortable balance. Body roll might be slightly more than desirable, but it's a tradeoff your kidneys will thank you for making.
Nobody bought an SVT by mistake, and it's a vehicle that will command a premium over its lesser brethren. Finding an unmolested example may also be increasingly difficult as SVTs are swimming in sub-$10,000 territory now, making them a starter car for sideways-hat wearing numbskulls who'll roast the clutch right out of its home in the dual-mass flywheel in no time flat. The highest premium will be paid for the 2003/04 Focus SVT with the European Appearance Package. The EAP added full leather seats from Recaro, 15-spoke dark metal wheels, standard HID headlamps and was available in two new colors, Screamin' Yellow and Competition Orange.
If rowing the shifter and peaky power delivery aren't exactly your thing, you could always seek out the ZX4 ST with which Ford followed up the Focus SVT. It's more torquey, a little more relaxed in its demeanor, but no less enjoyable, if slightly less sporty. Take one look at the current Focus, and the first-generation is classic in the way it shifted Ford's small car line away from the moribund Escort and has been eclipsed by a much more strangely styled SVT-less replacement. Besides that, trendsetter Neff wants one.