2002 Sport Hatchbacks Comparison Test

2002 Sport Hatchbacks Comparison Test

  • Full Review
  • Pricing & Specs
  • Road Tests
  • Comparison (2)
  • Long-Term

2002 Ford Focus SVT

(2.0L 4-cyl. 6-speed Manual)

  • Comparison Test
  • Editors' Evaluations
  • Data and Charts
  • Editors' Picks and Recommendations
  • Top 10 Features
  • Final Rankings and Scoring Explanation

Through much of the '80s and '90s, the buying public saw hatchbacks as slightly icky cars that were best left untouched. They represented the frugal '70s, back when OPEC was really scary and Jimmy Carter was president. Hatchbacks were items to be forgotten and buried, just like the acid-washed Levis that you wore in middle school.

But here we are in the waxing years of the new millennium. And hatchbacks are back. (They are so back that Mercedes, an automaker traditionally as stodgy as Walter Matthau in Grumpy Old Men, has come out with one). The cool thing about these hatchbacks is that they are as they have always been: economical, inexpensive, versatile and hopefully a bit fun to drive.

Yes, fun to drive. Everyone knows about the '83 Volkswagen Rabbit GTI, a hot-rodded car that nearly single-handedly created the "hot hatch" genre here in the United States.

Almost 20 years later, a revival has happened, and we decided to round up the latest hot hatches to complement our Econosport Sedan Comparison Test. We ended up with three: the Ford SVT Focus, the Honda Civic Si and the Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S. We would have been thrilled to include a Mini Cooper S, but one was not available at the time of our test.

As with other comparison tests we conduct, we assigned a crack team of Edmunds.com editors to determine which car we think is the best. We evaluated each car based on price, feature content, performance, a 23-point evaluation and subjective ratings of which cars our editors would put in their own garages as well as which they would recommend to others.

Over the course of two weeks, our editors racked up hundreds of miles and got intimately familiar with each vehicle. In addition to our normal test loops on public roads, we also booked time at Willow Springs International Motorsports Park, a road course located about an hour's drive north of Los Angeles. Using the smaller and more technical 1.5-mile Streets of Willow track, we were able to push the performance envelope of each vehicle further in a safe, controlled environment.

Sometimes, picking a winner for a comparison test is difficult. Not so for this test. Think you know which car won? Best get clicking, then.

Third Place - Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S

When the Volkswagen New Beetle debuted, America went bonkers over it. It was cute. It was retro. It reminded people of their youth, free love and smoking lots of, well, you know. But that was five years ago. Just like golden retriever puppies, cars grow old. And unless something is done to keep the interest up, the buying public's fascination wears off.

Indeed, New Beetle sales have cooled considerably since 1998. Realizing this, Volkswagen has energized the lineup with the new 2002 Turbo S. Building off the GLX 1.8T model, the Turbo S has a more powerful engine, a more aggressive-looking body and unique interior treatments. Indeed, the Turbo S is the most powerful and sporting New Beetle ever offered in the United States.

For power, this fired-up Bug sports VW's venerable 1.8T turbocharged engine. It's a 20-valve DOHC four-cylinder design, with an iron block and aluminum cylinder head. Thanks to upgrades and optimization of the air intake, ignition timing and fuel mixture, along with a less-restrictive exhaust system, the engine makes 180 horsepower at 5,500 rpm and 173 pound-feet of torque from 1,950 rpm to 5,000 rpm. These numbers are considerably more than the 150 hp and 162 lb-ft of torque provided by the 1.8T in the GLX. To get the Turbo S' power to the front wheels, VW has installed an exclusive six-speed manual transmission.

This powertrain gives the New Beetle an advantage over the Civic Si and SVT Focus. Not only does it have more horsepower, but considerably more torque, too. During instrumented testing, however, the Turbo S did little to back up its specs. Zero to 60 mph took 8.0 seconds, just a smidge faster than the Civic and slower than we expected. Its fastest quarter-mile time was 16.1 seconds at 87.5 mph. While these are certainly respectable numbers, one usually doesn't want "respectable" when spending more than $20,000. However, we will say it's possible that our test car was under-producing: The Jetta GLS 1.8T from the Econosport Comparison test was faster, and Volkswagen's conservative in-house 0-to-60 mph number for the Turbo S is 7.4 seconds.

Below 2,500 rpm, the engine is slow to respond, a problem exacerbated by the clutch pedal's long stroke and high engagement point. But once past this point, the S' 1.8T pulls clean and hard toward its 6,500 rpm redline. The car feels eager and willing, and the gruff-sounding sport exhaust and occasional whistle from the turbo add to the effect. Given the engine's wide powerband, however, the six-speed transmission is overkill. There's nothing wrong with it, mind you, and it certainly fits the "more is better" persona of the Turbo S. But as we learned from the Jetta 1.8T in our Econosport Comparison, a regular VW five-speed is just as good.

Around town, the Turbo S behaves normally. It's easy to drive, and the suspension, just a tad stiffer than the setups found in other New Beetles, is soft enough to provide decent ride quality. And for something so "cute," the Turbo S also holds its own when the roads get twisty. No doubt it's helped out by the special 17x7-inch wheels and 225/45HR17 Michelin Pilot tires. These wide tires give the car plenty of grip. Conspiring against the Turbo S, however, is a pudgy curb weight and a seemingly higher center of gravity than the other two cars have.

Driving the Turbo S aggressively takes some getting used to. Its weight and size dull its responses, and it's not as tossable as the Focus or Civic. The suspension consists of MacPherson struts up front and a torsion beam axle in the rear. One of our editors commented that the New Beetle "doesn't feel very connected to the road." It's best to dial in some steering and allow the car to take a set. Quick transitions, though possible, aren't the car's forte.

These impressions were backed up during testing and on the racetrack. The New Beetle's speed through the 600-foot slalom was 64.9 mph, considerably off the pace. It did post a quicker lap time at Willow Springs than the Civic, but it was still behind the Focus. During our hot laps, most of the drivers said the car didn't feel particularly rewarding or inspiring to drive at the limit. Part of this is due to the outward visibility, which could be likened to sitting in a bathtub. The other is the suspension (again). Get on the throttle too soon after a corner and the engine's power overwhelms the chassis, creating understeer and making precise cornering more difficult. At least the engine is powerful — the car had a fast trap speed at the end of the racetrack's front straight.

Should a driver somehow out-drive his own talent, the Turbo S counters with an Electronic Stabilization Program (ESP), the same stability control system fitted to Audis. By applying brake pressure to certain wheels or cutting back the throttle, the system helps to prevent dangerous skids and spins. The Turbo S is the first VW car to receive this system, and neither the Civic nor SVT Focus has anything like it. While we appreciated ESP and think it's a great feature, it needs to be turned off to gain maximum handling and acceleration performance.

As you have now likely figured out, the New Beetle's strengths aren't oriented toward weekend club racing. What the car does have, however, is an upscale interior and a pleasant personality. The cabin is certainly distinctive, with its table-like dashboard and circular-shaped vents and displays. The materials used are top-shelf, with body-color door tops, a textured rubber dash, two-tone leather seating and metal door releases. Even the bud vase benefits from a metallic-looking ring. Nearly everything is standard, including a sunroof, an upgraded audio system, one-touch up-and-down windows, rear seat air ducts, heated front seats and side airbags.

On the highway, the Turbo S does a good job of suppressing wind and road noise. The engine is quiet, too, a benefit of the six-speed trans and subsequent low cruising rpm. At speeds more than 49 mph, the rear spoiler deploys automatically from the top of the rear hatch to improve the car's stability. This is a neat feature sure to impress 5-year-olds, but the whirr-clunk! noise it makes when retracting can get annoying. At night, nearly every control is illuminated, and the Turbo S has special white-on-black illumination for the gauge cluster. Still stock — a surprise considering the sporting purpose of this car — is the tiny tachometer and lack of a coolant and oil-pressure gauge.

The special sport front seats feature additional side and seat bolstering to keep occupants from sliding around better. Headroom is expansive, though some of our drivers complained about the hoop-style headrests being uncomfortable. More of a problem is the back seat. Access is easy thanks to the tilt-forward passenger seat, but two people is the rear seat's limit, as there is not a third center-mounted belt. This is probably just as well, because headroom and legroom are quite tight. Raising the rear seat cushion and folding down the rear seatback can expand the rear cargo area. However, the seatback isn't split, and the loading of cargo can be difficult because of the small hatch opening and the long distance separating it from the rear bumper.

Is the Turbo S for you? Maybe, if you like the New Beetle in general and would appreciate the extra performance and features that the Turbo S provides. For this comparison test, however, we were looking for sport first and amenities second. Next, please.


Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Although the VeeDub had some impressive performance hardware, such as a 180-horse turbo engine, chubby 17-inch tires and even a speed-activated rear spoiler, it just didn't feel all that sporty. The driving position is akin to sitting in a bathtub with a table in front of you — a sharp contrast to the Focus, where you feel much more a part of the car. And where the Beetle's instrument cluster has just three gauges, the Focus has six, more in keeping with an enthusiast's car. Finally, although I acknowledge that the Turbo S comes loaded with everything standard, such as leather seating, a moonroof and even stability control, I'd be more inclined to forego these features, take the more enjoyable Focus SVT and save six grand.

Road Test Editor Liz Kim says:
Sure, the Beetle is cute. Sure, the Beetle is fun. But sporty? Not really. The Beetle may have 10 more horsepower than the SVT and 20 more than the Civic, but those 10 horses are all straining against 3,005 pounds of pudginess — that's about 250 more pounds than the other two. All of the weight is widely felt, too, as the car rolls and sways its way through tight corners, even with the bigger wheels. The Beetle feels cumbersome when pushed through corners, and that whirr noise by the deploying spoiler is as annoying as those Carrot Top commercials for 1-800-CALL-ATT.

On the up side, the quality of interior materials is the best in class; you won't notice much of a difference between the Turbo S with its slick metal accents and an Audi TT that goes for $10,000 more. Plus, it has a stability control system, a most useful safety device trickling its way down to the plebian masses. The Beetle's primary appeal is for those who want a noticeable transport with extra push.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw Says:
Those familiar with the driving experience of the standard New Beetle will come away from a test drive in the new Turbo S amazed by the power and poise that has been extracted from VW's aging image car. During a nighttime run over the mountains to the desert, I reeled in a late-model Mustang GT. After I stuck with the American muscle car for several miles, the Ford's driver gave up and let me pass. I wish I could have seen the look on the driver's face when my silver goldfish-bowl-on-wheels blew by on the left.

The problem, in my opinion, is the been-there-done-that styling of the New Beetle. It's so, like, yesterday. Volkswagen tidies things up a bit with more aggressive front and rear fascias, fat 17-inch tires shoeing unique alloy wheels, special two-tone leather bucket seats and classy dimpled metallic-look interior trim. But how long until that speed-sensitive rear spoiler stops working? Will any owner care if it quits after the warranty expires?

At the risk of sounding like an insecure, immature, ignorant cretin, this is a great car for someone who is concerned about image first and performance second. Give me a GTI.

Stereo Evaluation - Volkswagen New Beetle Turbo S

Ranking in Stereo Test: Second

System Score: 6.0

Components: We've long been fans of the stereos offered in the newer VW vehicles, feeling that they not only sound good but mate well with the personality of the vehicle. We still like them, but with a caveat. As anyone knows who visits these pages regularly, the automotive biz is in constant motion. No sooner does one manufacturer come out with a cool feature than a half-dozen others equal or even top it. It's the automotive version of poker's call-and-raise. In the case of VW's stereos, they still sound and look good, but the company has done little in the last three years to change or improve them. And in this game, if you stand still, you go backwards. So if you're reading this stereo eval and comparing it with those written several years back, realize that the company has essentially let the pack catch and pass it.

This Monsoon-branded system begins with an attractive-looking head unit that burns a kind of burnt orange color when the sun goes down. Although the radio has cosmetic appeal, it lacks overall user-friendliness. On the plus side, it offers a round, ridged volume knob that is a snap to use, a mid tone control for increased sonic flexibility, and both cassette and CD (a six-disc changer is mounted in the trunk). On the downside, the head unit lacks essential ergonomics. This is sort of a no-no list of lackluster design. Faux pas include tiny buttons and crowded controls, little to no space between functions and a general lack of ergonomic feel. For instance, there are two circular posts on either end of the head unit that contain a multitude of functions (on the left, treble/mid/bass and balance/fade; on the right, tape, AM, FM, CD). We found these controls hard to use, particularly when driving, because they flow in a circle instead of straight across. They also have virtually no space between them, and their topography is mostly flat. Lastly, there is no ridge below them on which you might steady your hand while making adjustments. OK, so we've picked our nits, but there you have it.

Speakers are the strong suit in this system. VW has done something here we rarely see in factory systems in any price range: It has offered up a true three-way speaker array. A pair of 6.5-inch mid-bass drivers occupy the front doors, complemented by tweets in the A-pillars and upward-firing mids in the corners of the dash. An additional pair of 6.5-inch full-range speakers fire from the rear quarter-panels.

Performance: This is a good-sounding system. Not only is it loud, but it is sonically "warm" and lifelike. Great attack on drums and percussion, excellent voicing on sax and horns, clear and unsullied acoustic strings, and superb vocals. Unfortunately, the tweeters are mounted off-axis, at 90 degrees to the passengers, and this throws off the soundstage. And, more troublesome, the right door buzzes at higher sound levels, prompting us to question build quality. (And this car only has 3,000 miles on it!)

Best Feature: Three-way speaker design

Worst Feature: Poor head unit ergonomics

Conclusion: This is one of the better-sounding systems in this test, but we marked off heavily for ergonomics. If sound is your only criterion and you just gotta own a VW Beetle Turbo, you won't be disappointed in this sound system. But be forewarned: The radio is no fun to use. A couple of other minor complaints: Six-disc in-dash changers have become the industry standard; VW should join the party and jettison the trunk-mounted changer. And speaking of the trunk, when we went to eject the CD cartridge to retrieve our discs, it was so dark in there we couldn't find the eject button. We had to "feel around" for a long time before locating it. The trunk bulb is far too dim and mounted on the opposite side from the CD changer. If VW insists on using such a low-wattage bulb, it should at least mount it above the CD changer so you can see what the heck you're doing. — Scott Memmer

Second Place - 2002 Honda Civic Si

Disappointing. That's best word to describe the new 2002 Civic Si.

Surprised? Incredulous? So were we after putting the Civic up against the SVT Focus and VW New Beetle Turbo S. It's not so much the car; the product is decent. The disappointment came from what was expected.

This is Honda we are talking about. This is a company that has faithfully served up spicy, entertaining and affordable rides for thousands of enthusiast drivers. Back in 1986, Honda got things started with the Civic Si and CRX Si. Today, Civics are by far the most popular car for youths in their late teens and early '20s to hot-rod and modify. One would think that with so much riding on the car, Honda would have come up with something, well, a bit more spectacular.

Read Honda's press kit, and the '02 Civic Si seems impressive. The Si starts off with a three-door hatchback body style, a body style that is new for this year and available only with the Si trim. There's a unique interior, and under the hood is the most advanced and biggest displacement Si engine yet. Other tasty tidbits include a sport-tuned suspension, electrical power steering and upgraded brakes.

Somewhere in the move from paper to reality, Honda fumbled the handoff. The first bobble happens to be the exterior styling. While styling has never been a strength of the Civic hatchback, the consensus during the test was that the car has sunk to new lows. Squint, and the Honda's high cowl, raked windshield and boxy rear end might confuse you into thinking you're looking at a shrunken Mazda MPV minivan. "Rolling doorstop" was another common snide remark. Our test car's Euro Yellow paint didn't do it any favors, either, as it was colorfully renamed "Urine Yellow." (Hint: When automotive journalists fall over themselves trying to come up with witty derogatory remarks, you know a car's in trouble).

For power, the Civic Si utilizes an all-aluminum 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine. It's from Honda's latest family of engines, and a very similar version resides inside the Acura RSX. It features i-VTEC, a variable valve timing and lift system that also adjusts the timing of the intake camshaft. Listed specs are 160 horsepower at 6,500 rpm and 132 pound-feet of torque at 5,000 rpm, making the Civic the least powerful car in the test. The engine is connected to an Si-exclusive close-ratio five-speed manual transmission.

Fire the Si up, and it makes very familiar and comforting Honda four-pot sounds. It also has the Honda trademarks of smoothness and refinement when revved. But unlike the previous Civic Si, the engine does little to inspire the driver. Redline is set at an un-Honda-like 6,800 rpm, and, on the road, the Civic feels merely adequate in terms of acceleration. Additionally, the high-rpm VTEC rush found on older Hondas and Acuras has been massaged out. Perhaps Honda listened to people who thought Integra GS-Rs and Civic Si coupes were too peaky. Around here, we dug those sweeping and frantic tach sweeps to eight grand; they gave the cars some personality.

Instrumented testing backed up this impression. Zero-to-60 mph took 8.1 seconds, the slowest of the three cars and 0.6 seconds off the Focus's time. The quarter-mile time of 16.1 seconds at 86.8 mph was also off the pace. If there's a bright spot for the powertrain, it's likely the transmission. Thanks to a rally-style shifter mounted on the dash and a smooth-acting clutch, drivers can crack off impressively quick shifts.

On the highway, the transmission's short gearing has the engine spinning rapidly (4,000 rpm at 80 mph), but the cabin is still pretty quiet. This helps to make the Si a comfortable cruising machine. The suspension, consisting of the front MacPherson struts and rear double wishbones, soaks up road hazards nicely even though it's considerably more sport-oriented than a regular Civic suspension.

The cabin is clean and attractive with generally easy-to-use controls and high-quality materials. Thanks to the metallic-looking instrument panel, large white-faced gauges and orange nighttime illumination, the look is quite modern. The front seats, similar in design to the seats in the old Acura Integra Type R, are firmly bolstered to hold occupants tight during hard cornering. They don't offer much adjustment, however, and one driver complained that in order to sit close enough to the dash to operate the radio, his legs were scrunched up uncomfortably in the footwell.

Build quality on our test car was excellent, and there was not a rattle or squeak to be heard. Accessing the comfortable rear seat is easy thanks to a sliding passenger seat, and there's enough headroom and legroom provided to keep two adults relatively content. With the rear seats in place, the Civic can hold 15.7 cubic feet of cargo, more than the New Beetle but less than the Focus.

Interesting? Sure, but we hope you're reading about this car to learn about its sporting potential, not its ability to swallow baby strollers and Coke cans. Driven on curvy canyon roads, the Civic Si glides about, generally unconcerned with the pavement below. Going from corner to corner, the car has a solid and neutral feel, a result of the stiff body structure and idealized suspension tuning. The car is easy to drive fast, and the electrical-assist steering is light to the touch and easy to wield (though it doesn't provide much information as to what's going on with the front tires' grip).

Because of the competent suspension and smooth drivetrain, it's hard to do anything wrong in this car. The same holds true on the racetrack; pushing the car to its limits brings out no surprises. But compared to the SVT Focus, the Si is not as sharp, direct or involving. The tires, modestly sized 195/60VR15s, are certainly a liability here, and wider rubber would help to improve maximum grip. The car's lap times were consistently behind the Ford's and about equal to the New Beetle's. Braking, too, is soft with a 60-to-0 mph stopping distance of 129 feet, 11 more than the Focus. One editor summed up his track experience with the Si thusly: "Blah."

Of the five categories that we use to score our comparison tests, the Civic didn't win one. It came in second place for the final scoring, though this is almost by default: The New Beetle is playing toward a different crowd. The Civic and SVT Focus should attract the same buyers. Pitting the two against each other, the Civic goes down, K.O.'d by the third round.

For Honda, we offer the following Civic Si version 5.1 patch: Offer it in black only, give the car the 200-hp RSX Type-S engine, install the European Type R body kit and bolt on some slick 17-inch wheels. Call it the Civic SiR. Have a nice day. We anxiously await the update.


Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
I get it — Honda wanted to show that it can be human, right? The last Civic Si (a coupe) was stylish and a blast to drive. So what's up with this high-cowl, snub-nosed mini-minivan that lacks the spark of the last Si? I even prefer the looks of the 1988-1991 Civic hatchback to this thing!

This Civic also failed to stir up any excitement dynamically when driven back-to-back with the SVT Focus. Sure, it has the typical Honda refinement: sewing machine-smooth engine, precise gearshift and capable handling. But out on the track, the engine didn't feel as zesty, even though only 10 horsepower separate the two. And the Civic's Michelins slid around as if someone had sprayed Armour-All on their tread, making it hard to get the most out of the chassis. This wasn't as apparent on the street loop, where I obviously didn't push the car as hard, and here, the handling was mildly entertaining. Even putting aside the tire issue (one could always put on stickier rubber), the Civic, although certainly competent, just didn't come close to the Focus in terms of generating smiles per mile.

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
After endless laps in the Focus, it was hard not to feel a little let down by the Si. Even with its ultra-slick shifter and smooth four-cylinder, there just wasn't enough juice under the hood or tire on the ground to keep it playful. The steering is too light for proper feedback, and the excessive body lean makes it hard to position properly in the turns.

During less aggressive driving, the Si reverts to typical Honda goodness. The build quality is impeccable, the ergonomics are excellent, and you could easily spend thousands of miles behind the wheel with few complaints. Noise from the high-tech four-cylinder is nicely muted, making this low-budget pocket rocket feel more refined than its sub-$20K sticker would suggest.

This may appeal to buyers who merely want a slightly sportier Civic, but for those craving all-out performance, the Si will fail to stir up much enthusiasm. As it stands now, this Si is nothing more than a slightly amusing daily driver living in the shadow of the far superior SVT Focus.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
Honda has ensured high resale values for the 1999-2000 Honda Civic Si Coupe with the release of this uninspiring 2002 Civic Si Hatchback.

Where has the traditional Honda low-cowl dash design gone? I feel like I'm sitting on the floor of this car, struggling to see out. Where is that light and lithe feel I've come to associate with Hondas? This hot hatch feels pudgy and lethargic. Where is the usually clean Honda ergonomic design? The stereo is littered with tiny buttons, and the cruise activation switch is buried behind the wheel spokes and turn signal stalk. Additionally, the wingback sport seats are not terribly comfortable, pinching my shoulders the way they do.

Mechanically, the Civic is the most refined of our group, but I miss that added zing and burst of energy exhibited by the old original-flavor VTEC system, whose action and response wasn't as linear as what is found on this new iteration but was vastly more entertaining.

Styling? The new Civic Si most resembles a doorstop — ugh. And don't even get me started on the switch to front struts. Excuse me while I check listings for a clean, unmolested certified-used '99 or '00 Si.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Honda Civic Si

Ranking in Stereo Test: Third

System Score: 4.0

Components: We've written a number of stereo evaluations of Honda vehicles, almost all of them underwhelming in their praise. It amounts to a simple formula: great car, not-so-great stereo. The 2002 Civic Si follows in that grand tradition. While we've seen some inkling that Honda may be prepared to enhance its stereo offerings (the system in the newly redesigned 2002 CR-V, for instance, is not too bad), the Civic Si leaves a lot to be desired. Our estimation is that Honda feels it'll sell every Si that rolls off the assembly line, so why reduce profits by sticking a better stereo in the dash? Our guess is that Honda will come to the party in the next couple of years with better stereos. But for now, in this comparison test, it continues to lag behind.

The most lamentable part of this stereo is the head unit. Unlike many offerings in this test, such as the aforementioned Focus, which utilize a larger opening in the dash and thus give the radio a wider topography for improved ergonomics, the Honda Si designers have chosen to go with a smaller, older-style radio (known in the biz as a single-DIN opening). This means everything is scrunched together in a small faceplate, with undersized buttons, crowded controls and poor ergonomics. Although this is offset somewhat by the excellent elevated radio position (near the top of the dash), and separate round knobs for volume and tuning (quickly becoming the industry standard), it's not enough to tip the scales the other way. This is still one meager head unit.

Things get a lot better on the speaker side of the equation. This two-door coupe offers a bounteous pair of 6.5-inch full-range drivers in the rear quarter-panels, plus an identically sized pair of mid-bass drivers in the front doors. These, in turn, are mated to a finely aimed pair of 1-inch tweeters, tucked inside the side mirrors in their own enclosures.

Performance: When we saw the speaker offerings in this car, we had high hopes that Honda had finally come to the party and offered sufficient bang for the buck to compete straight up with other stereos in the Si's class. Unfortunately, a quick listen told us otherwise. The main problem here, aside from the disappointing head unit, is poor amplification. This system just runs out of gas before it gets up and dances. While it may be true that you want the best speakers money can buy, it's also true that you need enough power to get them to perform — an area sorely lacking in the Si. As a result, the system sounds hollow, almost reedy, at higher volume levels.

Best Feature: Elevated radio position.

Worst Feature: Lackluster power amplification/poor radio ergonomics.

Conclusion: You probably won't buy the Civic Si for its stereo, but if you do purchase one, consider adding an aftermarket power amplifier to make it sound better. What we heard in our testing suggested the speakers are pretty decent and just need some help to sing their song. —Scott Memmer

First Place - 2002 Ford SVT Focus

It is with rare exception that a domestic automaker builds a good small car. Most offerings during the last 20 years have been highly mediocre. Some have been so bad that they rival The Very Best of Yanni in their unpleasantness. Only a select few have been able to match up against the traditionally superior Japanese products. For the SVT Focus, we have unhooked the velvet rope. Welcome to the exception club.

Not since the days of the Escort GT has there been a sporty compact Ford worth talking positively about. SVT (Special Vehicle Team, Ford's in-house tuning division) has worked up an impressive stat sheet for the car: Cosworth-developed engine, six-speed transmission, sport-tuned suspension, bigger brakes, 17-inch wheels and tires, special interior trim and unique exterior elements. And unlike the Honda Civic Si, the Focus makes good on its promises.

The massaged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine (with an iron block and aluminum head) doesn't imbue the Focus with supernatural grunt. If the tachometer is below 4,000 rpm, power is only adequate. Above this mark, however, the Focus becomes the snarly pocket rocket it's supposed to be.

Compared to a regular Focus ZX3 hatchback's, this engine features stronger connecting rods, lightweight pistons (along with a higher compression ratio) and a freer-flowing cylinder head. The intake camshaft timing is variable, making this the first time the technology has been applied to a North American Ford vehicle. This feature helps to improve low-end torque, and a dual-stage intake manifold bolsters high-end power. The result is 170 hp at 7,000 rpm and 145 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm, and redline is set at 7,200 rpm.

The six-speed transmission, manufactured by German transmission-specialist Getrag, is well matched to the engine. The gearing is short, as are the shifter throws and the clutch pedal stroke. Zero-to-60 mph took 7.5 seconds, and the quarter-mile was achieved in 15.8 seconds at 90.2 mph. Not only were these the best acceleration times in the test, they aren't far off from the times we've recorded for 200-hp sport coupes like the Acura RSX Type-S and Mitsubishi Eclipse GT.

SVT has seen to it that the Focus can stop and turn as well as it accelerates. Thanks to larger front rotors (compared to the ZX3's), rear disc brakes, standard ABS and sticky tires, hauling down from 60 mph requires a short 118 feet. Our drivers commented that pedal feel is excellent and the brakes are easy to modulate.

Around corners, the Focus sucks itself to the pavement like a 15-year-old drinking a Wendy's Frosty through a straw. The suspension — MacPherson struts in front and an independent multilink rear — features stiffer springs, retuned shocks and different antiroll bars that allow the Continental 215/45WR17 ContiSport Contact tires to work at maximum adhesion. Steering, already a Focus strong point, is even better because of a revised power steering system.

Linus from the Peanuts comic strip said happiness is a warm blanket. We say happiness is an SVT Focus ripping down a curvy road or arcing around a racetrack. Turn-in is quick as the car zips from apex to apex. Whereas Honda played it safe with the Si, the SVT is tuned to be lively and reward skilled drivers. The rear end will actually step out in extreme situations, but it's never fear-inducing. The SVT blasted through our 600-foot slalom at 68.2 mph. Not only was it faster than the Civic and New Beetle, its slalom speed was higher than that of cars like the Chevy Corvette Z06, BMW M3 and Subaru Impreza WRX.

A racetrack is the place to put it all together, and the Ford performed brilliantly for us. Its lap times were consistently faster than the cars in this test, as well as the cars from the Econosports test. Some of our drivers complained that the positioning for the gas and brake pedals made it difficult to heel-and-toe downshift, but this is nitpicking. If you want bang for the buck, this is the car to get.

Another nice aspect: Utility and comfort haven't been sacrificed for performance. Certainly, the ride quality is stiffer than a stock ZX3's, but none of our drivers complained about it being too firm considering the performance gained. Our editors felt that the Focus has the highest amounts of wind and road noise, but it still wasn't excessive.

Compared to the New Beetle's opulence or the Civic's refinement, the Focus is lacking cabin ambiance, but SVT has done its best to spruce things up. This effort includes racer-style pedals, an aluminum shift knob and white-faced gauges that light up indigo-style at night. There are also two additional gauges — oil pressure and oil temperature — taking up what used to be a small tray to the right of the main gauges.

The leather-trimmed front seats come with either blue- or red-colored inserts and have firm bolsters that keep occupants tight during cornering. Our editors were somewhat split about the actual comfort of them, but the final scores show that, overall, they were the best in the test. The 60/40-split rear seat (also leather-trimmed) is unquestionably comfortable and roomy. It also has a third center-mounted headrest. The seats can be folded nearly flat once the bottom cushions are raised and the headrests removed.

Even the features list is solid. Nearly every item is standard, with the only options being a sunroof, an upgraded audio system and a winter package.

How good is the SVT Focus? In our search for cons, the best we could come up with is a high level of wind and road noise. We're guessing most buyers in this market couldn't care less about that. The SVT is a fantastic package. Its final score was 91.6, the best score in any comparison test we've conducted over the past two years. Ladies and gents, boys and girls — this is your winner.


Road Test Editor John DiPietro says:
Anyone who's single and not getting any younger has heard it from a well-meaning friend or relative: "She (or he) isn't gorgeous but she's (or he's) got a great personality." The Focus SVT is similar in that I wasn't exactly struck by its looks, but once I discovered its spunky personality, I loved it anyway. I was so impressed by this Ford that it obliterated any remaining doubts I had about an American car company being able to build a world-class four-cylinder engine.

Yes, it's that good. A few of the motor's endearing traits include high output and a broad power spread, two things that usually aren't found together in a small-displacement engine. Topping it off is a ripping exhaust note, though I wonder if that soundtrack will make the final edit, as this was a pre-production car.

And she can dance! Backing up the spit and vinegar is a taut, balanced chassis matched up to a very communicative and precise steering system. All the bases are covered: strong brakes, a shifter and clutch pedal with short throws and a pair of supportive buckets up front leave almost nothing to be desired. I thought it'd be a cold day in you-know-where before I'd take a small Ford over a Honda Civic, but that day has arrived.

Road Test Editor Ed Hellwig says:
As factory-tuner projects go, it doesn't get much better than the SVT Focus. That's not much of a stretch considering the already capable vehicle they started with, but still a pleasant surprise nonetheless.

Without a doubt, this car's real strength lies in the fully reworked suspension. Out on the racetrack, this Focus is about as nimble and predictable as any car I've ever driven. It hunkers down hard in fast sweepers and turns on a dime in tight hairpins. Stay in the throttle and it understeers progressively, with a quick lift of the foot or tap of the brake bringing the nose back in line.

Of course, track time is scarce in the real world, but rest assured that this little gem is every bit as fun on the street. The terrific seats and compliant suspension keep it comfortable on less-than-perfect highways, and even the "tuned" exhaust manages to keep itself from being a constant nuisance.

If you're looking for the most performance for the least dinero, the SVT Focus is a no-brainer. Even if the looks don't float your boat, you can't argue with the numbers. This is one serious performance machine that effectively puts the imports on notice.

Senior Editor Christian Wardlaw says:
I have two primary gripes about the outstanding Ford SVT Focus: 1) I cannot successfully heel and toe this car, which is maddening because the rest of the hardware package is nearly perfect, and 2) the seats, while greatly improved over the regular Focus', still aren't models of comfort and support.

Otherwise, the SVT is the best car in the test from a performance perspective. Unlike some other hopped-up econosports, this one allows you to feel mature and intelligent when driving. It's a more serious piece of hardware than your prototypical Fast and Furious-style street racer, one that young and old can enjoy equally turn after turn.

The Ford's inherent utility and functionality, good looks, brilliant handling and attractive price make it unbeatable. This one was my favorite, the one I'd buy. I only wish there were a more family-friendly sedan version. Or even a wagon.

Stereo Evaluation - 2002 Ford SVT Focus

Ranking in Stereo Test: First

System Score: 7.0

Components: The sound system in most Focus models has remained virtually unchanged since the car's introduction in the 2000 model year. (There are a few exceptions to this: The ZX5 and ZTW models come standard with a six-disc in-dash CD changer, and the changer is also available as an option on all other models except the LX Sedan.) This aging system has it pluses and minuses. On the plus side, the head unit is unique and user-friendly, offering an exceptional ergonomic feel that ranks as the best in the segment. On the downside, the industry has somewhat passed the Focus by, at least as far as sound quality. This system, which received an 8 a mere two years ago, now gets only a 7.

That being said, this is still an impressive little setup, better than a lot of systems on the market. The vehicle boasts two pairs of 5-by-7 full-range loudspeakers — one pair in the rear doors and a second set in the rear quarter-panels. Amplification is generous and clean, producing almost no distortion at full gain. But the piece de resistance, as mentioned above, is the head unit, an excellent representation of man-machine interface. Surprise and delight features include wide button spacing on all controls, a removable anti-theft preset pad, automatic volume control (AVC) that adjusts the gain level to compensate for road and wind noise, and a rubberized volume knob that has superb tactile feel.

Performance: Placement of speaker components in the upper portion of the front doors is unique in the segment. This makes the speakers much more accessible to the ear. The result? Better dispersion of high frequencies and improved stereo image. The upper frequencies were just a little too crisp for our tastes, but still good overall. Strings (violins, violas, cellos) were clear and unsullied, lower strings were full and rich without sloppiness or inaccuracy. Rock music was also good on this system, with a loud, punchy bass and good attack on percussion. Female vocals had just a slight graininess at higher gain levels. All-in-all, not a bad system for the bucks.

Best Feature: Ergonomic head unit.

Worst Feature: No separate tweeters.

Conclusion: We've heard through sources that the Audiophile Package, available as an option in the SVT Focus, is a real smoker. Unfortunately, we were unable to get our hands, er, ears, on one for this test. As these cars get out on dealership lots, you may want to take the time to listen to it — especially if you're considering buying an SVT Focus. With an MSRP of only $675, this sounds like a real bargain and could be well worth the extra cash. Ford has a habit of surprising us with its sound systems every once in a while. — Scott Memmer


After hundreds of miles, a day at a racetrack and thorough objective and subjective testing, we came up with a winner for this comparison test.

It wasn't the New Beetle Turbo S. The Turbo S trim is meant to stoke the New Beetle product line, an issue brought about by cooling New Beetle sales. In this case, it succeeds. This is certainly the fastest and sportiest New Beetle to date. It's less cute and more Rambo. The problem is that the car is limited by the same weaknesses that are causing the sales decline in the first place. After the Beetle hype wears off, what's left? A rather heavy hatchback with limited rear seat room and cargo space. Unless you are absolutely smitten with the New Beetle's looks or its posh interior, an upcoming 20th anniversary 2003 GTI would be a more useful package for long-term use.

Taken in isolation, the latest Honda Civic Si is a solid car. It's refined, capable and distinct from the rest of the Civic lineup. If you buy one, you won't feel ripped off. Put next to the SVT Focus, however, the Si's shiny "H" emblem suffers from a case of shrinkage. In nearly every area, the Focus is better. We hope the 2003 Civic Si comes with a sticker that shouts, "New & Improved! Now Has 20 Percent More Fun!"

What was expected of the Honda became reality in the SVT Focus. With its aftermarket-sounding exhaust, short-throw shifter, optional audiophile sound system, color-insert seats and blacked-out headlights, this is the factory version of what today's youth is building out of '96 Civic hatchbacks. The execution is nearly flawless. Grade A.

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Evaluation - Drive
Evaluation - Ride
Evaluation - Design
Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Evaluation - Drive

Engine Performance
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.3 1
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.3 2
Honda Civic Si 6.5 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 9.3 1
Ford SVT Focus 8.8 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 6.5 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 8.5 1
Honda Civic Si 7.3 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.0 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.5 1
Honda Civic Si 7.0 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 6.3 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.5 1
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.3 2
Honda Civic Si 6.5 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.3 1
Honda Civic Si 7.5 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 6.3 3
Vehicle Score Rank
VW New Beetle Turbo S 6.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 5.5 2
Honda Civic Si 5.3 3
Fun to Drive
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.5 1
Honda Civic Si 6.3 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 5.5 3

Evaluation - Ride

Seat Comfort Front
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 7.8 1
Honda Civic Si 7.0 2(t)
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.0 2(t)
Seat Comfort Rear
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.0 1
Honda Civic Si 6.8 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 5.3 3
Wind & Road Noise
Vehicle Score Rank
VW New Beetle Turbo S 8.0 1
Honda Civic Si 7.3 2
Ford SVT Focus 6.5 3
Rattles & Squeaks
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 9.5 1
Ford SVT Focus 9.0 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 8.3 3

Evaluation - Design

Interior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 9.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 7.8 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 6.0 3
Interior Materials
Vehicle Score Rank
VW New Beetle Turbo S 9.3 1
Honda Civic Si 8.0 2
Ford SVT Focus 7.5 3
Climate Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 9.5 1
Ford SVT Focus 9.3 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.8 3
Audio System Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 8.3 1
Honda Civic Si 7.7 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.0 3
Secondary Control Design/Operation
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 8.5 1
Honda Civic Si 7.8 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.3 3
Exterior Design
Vehicle Score Rank
VW New Beetle Turbo S 8.0 1
Ford SVT Focus 6.8 2
Honda Civic Si 3.5 3
Overall Build Quality
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 9.5 1
VW New Beetle Turbo S 8.8 2
Ford SVT Focus 7.8 3

Evaluation - Cargo/Passenger Space

Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 7.8 1
VW New Beetle Turbo S 7.5 2
Ford SVT Focus 7.3 3
Expanding/Loading Cargo
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 9.0 1
Honda Civic Si 8.0 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 5.8 3
Storage Space
Vehicle Score Rank
Ford SVT Focus 7.0 1
Honda Civic Si 6.5 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 5.8 3
Vehicle Score Rank
Honda Civic Si 8.5 1
Ford SVT Focus 8.3 2
VW New Beetle Turbo S 4.3 3
Engine & Transmission Specifications
Warranty Information


Exterior Dimensions & Capacities
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Length, in. 168.1 165.6 161.1
Width, in. 66.9 66.7 67.9
Height, in. 56.3 56.5 59.0
Wheelbase, in. 103.0 101.2 98.7
Curb weight, lbs. 2598 2744 2954
Turning circle, ft. 34.3 34.8 35.8
Interior Dimensions
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Front headroom, in. 39.3 37.8 41.3
Front legroom, in. 43.1 42.2 39.4
Front shoulder room, in. 53.7 53.1 52.8
Rear headroom, in. 38.7 36.7 36.7
Rear legroom, in. 37.6 33.0 33.5
Rear shoulder room, in. 53.5 50.9 49.3
Luggage capacity, in. 18.6 15.7 12.0

Engine & Transmission Specifications

Engine & Transmission
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Engine type Inline four cylinder Inline four cylinder Turbocharged inline four cylinder
Displacement, liters 2.0 2.0 1.8
Horsepower (SAE) @ rpm 170 @ 7000 160 @ 6500 180 @ 5500
Max. Torque, lb-ft @ rpm 145 @ 5500 132 @ 5000 174 @ 1950
Transmission six-speed manual five-speed manual six-speed manual
EPA Fuel Economy City/Hwy, mpg 28/36 26/30 24/31


  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Zero-to-60-mph acceleration, sec. 7.5 8.1 8.0
Quarter-mile acceleration, sec. 15.8 16.1 16.1
Quarter-mile speed, mph 90.2 86.8 87.5
60-to-0-mph braking, feet 118.0 129.0 122.0
600-ft slalom, mph 68.2 66.0 64.9
Fastest lap time on 1.5-mile road course, secs. 123.09 126.0 125.72


Warranty Information
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Basic Warranty 3 yrs./36,000 miles 3 yrs./36,000 miles 4 years/50,000 miles
Powertrain 3 yrs./36,000 miles 3 yrs./36,000 miles 5 years/60,000 miles
Roadside Assistance 3 yrs./36,000 miles N/A 4 years/50,000 miles
Corrosion Protection 5 years/unlimited miles 5 yrs./unlimited miles 12 years/unlimited miles

Personal Picks

Personal Picks
Vehicle Total Points Percentage
Ford SVT Focus 12 100
Honda Civic Si 7 58
VW New Beetle Turbo S 5 42

Recommended Picks

Recommended Picks
Vehicle Total Points Percentage
Ford SVT Focus 12 100
Honda Civic Si 8 67
VW New Beetle Turbo S 4 33

We asked the editors who participated in the test to pick the top 10 features that they would want if they were buying a sport hatchback. In general, we were looking for items that improved or added distinctiveness to the cars compared to their base-trim brethren. Points were awarded based on whether or not each feature was standard or optional, and whether or not our particular test vehicle was equipped with that feature.

Top 10 Features

Top 10 Features
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Minimum 16-inch wheels S N/A S
ABS/Rear Disc Brakes S S S
Unique Interior Trim S S S
Tilting and Telescoping Wheel S N/A S
Sport Seats S S S
Split-Folding Rear Seat S S N/A
Easy-Access Rear Seat N/A S S
Upgraded Audio System O N/A O
Sunroof O S S
Side Airbags S O S

S: Standard
O: Optional
N/A: Not Available

Minimum 16-inch Wheels & Tires: Most stock hatchbacks come with a basic wheel-and-tire package consisting of 14- or 15-inch wheels. Increasing the wheel size provides a larger tire contact patch and a smaller tire aspect ratio, thereby improving handling performance. Plus, larger wheels just look better. Both the New Beetle and SVT Focus came with 17-inch wheels and wide tires as standard equipment. The Honda is stuck with 15s.

ABS/Rear Disc Brakes: With increased horsepower comes the need for better stopping power. For this comparison test, we deemed it important that the cars have antilock braking systems as well as rear disc brakes. These items are usually optional or not even offered on hatchbacks. In this case, all three cars have them standard.

Unique Interior Trim: Economy cars usually come with basic interiors full of hard plastic and bland cloth. We thought these cars should offer something more. The New Beetle has special leather seating, unique trim pieces, racer-style pedals and different gauge cluster illumination. The SVT Focus comes with black-leather trim (along with two optional seat insert colors), racer-style pedals, and special gauges and controls. The Honda's dash design is completely different from the one found in the Civic sedan and hatchback. A sport steering wheel, metallic-looking trim and special Si gauges are also included.

Tilt-and-Telescope Steering Wheel: This feature appears very frequently on our comparison-test feature lists. With a tilt-and-telescope feature, driver comfort and safety are improved.

Sport Seats: Seats featuring additional bolstering are important for this class of car. After all, who wants to be sliding around at the first hint of cornering? All three cars in this test had this feature.

Split-Folding Rear Seat: A split-folding rear seat improves functionality and maximum cargo capacity. The Beetle's seat folds forward, but it isn't separated like the Ford's and Honda's.

Easy-Access Rear Seat: With just two side doors, access to a hatchback's rear seat is compromised. Having a passenger-side front seat that easily moves out of the way helps to improve entry and exit. The New Beetle's front passenger seat tilts upward and forward. The Civic Si's seat has a release that allows it to slide forward easily. The Focus' passenger-side front seat does not have an easy-access option and has to be moved manually.

Upgraded Audio System: As these type of cars are marketed toward today's youth, we deemed a powerful audio system a worthy feature. We added that, to be considered, the system had to include a six-disc CD changer. None of the three cars came with an upgraded sound system as standard. The SVT Focus offers an Audiophile Sound System that includes a 290-watt six-disc in-dash head unit with an 8-inch rear-mounted subwoofer. The New Beetle comes with an eight-speaker Monsoon sound system, but a CD changer is optional. The Civic Si comes with an upgraded sound system, but a CD changer is not offered from the factory.

Sunroof: A sunroof can make a cabin seem more airy, and it's certainly a popular feature with consumers. The Civic Si and New Beetle Turbo S have one standard. It's optional on the SVT Focus.

Side Airbags:
Safety is just as important on a sport hatchback as it is on a family sedan. The SVT Focus and New Beetle Turbo S have them standard. They're optional for the Civic Si.

Final Rankings

Final Rankings
  Ford SVT Focus Honda Civic Si VW New Beetle Turbo S
Personal Rating (10% of total score) 100.0 58.0 42.0
Recommended Rating (10% of total score) 100.0 67.0 33.0
Evaluation Score (20% of total score) 81.5 73.1 68.6
Feature Content (20% of score) 76.7 63.3 86.7
Performance Testing (20% of total score) 100.0 76.8 76.8
Price (20% of total score) 100.0 92.0 64.4
Total Score 91.6 73.5 64.8
Final Ranking 1 2 3

Scoring Explanation:

Personal Rating: Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars he or she would personally buy. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are an accumulation of the opinions of all participating editors.

Recommended Rating: After the test, each participating editor is asked to rank the cars in order of preference based on which cars she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the opinions of all participating editors.

24-Point Evaluation: Each participating editor ranks every car based on a comprehensive 20-point evaluation. The evaluation covers everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring is calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on the evaluations of all participating editors.

Performance Testing: Each car is put through a battery of instrumented testing. For this test, we evaluated the vehicles via 0-to-60-mph acceleration, quarter-mile acceleration, 60-to-0-mph braking and speed through a 600-foot slalom. We also recorded the fastest lap times of each car at the 1.5-mile Streets of Willow race track at Willow Springs International Raceway. For each test, the car that obtains the best result receives a maximum score. The remaining cars receive scores based on how closely their results matched the top car. The final number shown is an accumulation of results from each test.

Feature Content: For this category, the editors pick the top 10 features they think would be most significant to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each car, the score is based on the amount of actual features the car had versus the total possible (10). Standard and optional equipment are taken into consideration.

Price: The numbers listed are the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the least expensive car in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the least expensive car receives a score of 100, with the remaining cars receiving lesser scores based on how much more each one costs.

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