Ed Kim
July 27, 2006
Photos By: Dale Amy

Focus Fact: According to Ford SVT, only 4,788 SVT Foci were produced during the first model year, 2002. Of those, 1,320 were black, 1,025 were red, 1,184 were blue, and 1,260 were silver.

When Ford set out to develop the first-generation Focus, one of the primary goals was to create the best-handling compact on the planet. Millions of dollars were spent to develop a sophisticated chassis, not only in terms of actual hardware spec, but also how it worked together. After all, we can name quite a few cars that boast trick multi-link suspensions and rigid platforms like the Focus', but don't handle that well. With Focus, Ford created a car that not only possesses an impressive chassis spec sheet, but also can claim best-in-class dynamics. Particular emphasis on suspension geometry and steering feel and linearity ensured the Focus felt special while ambling down the road, to say nothing of attacking the twisties in anger.

With these sorts of credentials, it was inevitable the Focus would eventually become a star in the grassroots racing circuit. Autocrossers can appreciate an economical car that can be driven to the track, provide hours of fun while racking up the points, and be used afterward for the daily grind. Ford's acclaimed SVT Focus, which debuted for the '02 model year, upped the game even further. With 170 hp, a close-ratio six-speed manual, and an SVT-massaged chassis that made a great platform even better, this car can be unstoppable on the track in the hands of the right driver.

Aaron Williams, an avid autocrosser who is a fixture at SCCA, TSSCC, and GMCI events throughout Illinois, knows how to extract the best performance out of an already capable performer. His '02 SVT Focus sports a relatively mild number of modifications-surprising since he competes in the Street Modified class, which allows a significant number of engine, drivetrain, and chassis modifications. All the more a testament to the capabilities of both car and driver.

For those of you who have never tried autocrossing, in many ways it requires a rethink of your performance priorities. Most people equate performance with outright acceleration and speed, but for autocrossing these factors are less important. Autocross courses are tight and twisty, usually laid out over large parking lots with hundreds of traffic cones marking the course. Handling and driver finesse matter most here; a powerful car with poor handling simply won't cut the mustard. A modestly powered car with a finely fettled chassis and an astute driver can really shine on an autocross course. In fact, Aaron's car has no significant powertrain mods aside from a Venom VCN 1000 nitrous kit and an AEM cold-air intake; it mostly relies on carefully chosen chassis enhancements and sticky rubber to pull its fast times around the course.

The relatively mild chassis modifications to Aaron's SVT demonstrate just how good a handler the Focus is out of the box. Eibach Sportline springs, which lower the Focus by about 2 inches in front and 2.2 inches in back and stiffen up the suspension considerably, replaced the stock SVT springs, while Koni shocks replaced the stock dampers. Up front, the stock lower control arms were replaced with trick Focus Central control arms made from tubular stainless steel that are far lighter and stronger than the stock versions. High-performance EBC Red Stuff brake pads, which stop the car more quickly and are resistant to fade, were also employed to help with the hard and repetitive braking seen in autocross courses.

And what else? Big sway bars? Giant Brembo rotors? F1-style pushrod suspension? Not here. Just some basic and simple bolt-ons help maximize the car's potential on the track, proving the inherent good quality of the chassis. It would take far more to make most other compacts this competitive around the track. Other competitive Street Modified compacts often have more enhancements under the skin, which the Focus' vaunted platform simply doesn't need to stay at the top of its class.

Like most serious autocrossers, Aaron has two separate sets of rolling stock-one for the street and one for the track. For the street, his SVT looks sharp rolling on 17x7 Kazera alloys shod with P215/40R17 Toyo TS1 high-performance tires. For autocross days, Aaron switches to his other set of wheels and tires: lightweight Kosei K1s wrapped in P205/40R17 Hoosier R3S04 R-compound race tires that are also DOT-legal for street use. He retained the stock 17-inch wheel size for both his street and race rolling stock-in the world of performance driving, bigger wheels aren't necessarily better. Huge wheels are often heavy while extremely low-profile tires often lack the compliance necessary for good handling on real-world roads.

Interior enhancements consist only of items needed for track use, though the simple honesty of the accessorization gives it an appealing businesslike look. Sparco Speed seats and a Sparco harness keep Aaron firmly ensconced in the proper driving position, while a grippy Sparco steering wheel provides a wonderful interface to the Focus' excellent steering rack.

That's basically it-no wild body kits, no suspension airbags, no retina-searing paint job. This car is all about excelling on the track while retaining day-to-day usability. It's also a textbook example of what makes autocrossing so appealing on so many levels-the car you use every day can also be a weekend warrior, giving it a true dual-use personality. Using the right car as a base, one can spend a relatively small amount of money to create a dominant force on the autocross circuit. All the modifications to Aaron's SVT Focus consist of simple and economical bolt-on components. We know of many show-stopping cars with thousands of dollars' worth of modifications that have far less usable performance than this car does.

Ford designed the Focus to be all about dynamic excellence in a practical and stylish package. The car's popularity among car enthusiasts, motor journalists, and amateur racers alike is testament to Ford's success with the Focus' engineering and development. And with the low cost of entry into the world of autocrossing, all the engineering that went into its chassis can be put to full use on just about any budget. Entry into an autocross event typically runs around $25, and numerous classes exist for just about any type of car or level of modification-even bone stock. To become a competitive autocrosser, Aaron's monetary investment was minute in the grand scheme of things: a few well-placed bolt-ons, an SCCA membership, and the token entry fee for each autocross event.

Try it. Like Aaron Williams, you might find yourself hooked on one of the most fun-and legal-things you can do on four wheels.