Company-Made Mods

Tricked-up right out of the factory, and aimed young.

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The Focus SVT (top) packs in the tech, creating a vehicle that’s a driver’s delight. The Civic Si (bottom) is a rocket right out of the box, in the spirit of its highly modified ancestors.

Build a car well, and it’ll be successful (see Toyota Camry). But create a culture around it, and it’ll be a legend (see Corvette, Viper, Mustang). So it was just a matter of time before Ford and Honda looked at the growing numbers of buyers modifying their products and wondered: “How can we get a piece of that?”

The answer is the Ford Focus SVT and–returning this year after a brief hiatus–the Honda Civic Si, entry-level cars kicked up with performance enhancements by in-house teams of engineers. The goal: Offer one-stop shopping to those who want the high performance of an aftermarket mod without the hassle of turning a wrench.

The Focus SVT follows in the tire tracks of the SVT-tuned Mustang Cobra R and F-150 Lightning, squeezing a 170-horsepower engine and 6-speed Getrag transmission into what was already a competent economy car. The engine incorporates variable valve timing, two-stage variable intake runners, and a dual-mass flywheel to maximize power–technology that belies its sub-$20,000 base price. The result: pulling power through the rev range, and a smooth, quiet demeanor. Ford’s team also beefed up the suspension, brakes, wheels, and tires, creating a genuinely fun-to-drive vehicle. In our tests, the Focus outaccelerated the lighter Civic Si and demonstrated razor-sharp handling, nearly pulling a full G in corners.

Honda’s reputation for technical prowess is hard-earned, so any car with the Civic Si moniker is sure to be a good one. This latest offering introduces the first rally-inspired dash-mounted shifter, ensuring the driver’s hand leaves the wheel for only a split second to change gears. During our tests, the Si’s 160-horsepower iVTEC engine was enthusiastic but uncomfortably more raucous than the Focus’s. And its 5-speed manual is no match for the Focus’s six-pack. The Si’s handling is notably crisper than a regular Civic’s.

Bottom line: These are both very good cars, but don’t look for many Vin Diesel types driving them off dealer lots. For all the enhancements, both are still a bit, well, ordinary. That said, they both represent dramatic improvements over the base models that spawned them. Consider them credible top-of-the-line models: fast, fleet, and affordable.

BY THE NUMBERS

Ford Focus SVT

As-Tested Price: $17,995
Engine: 2.0-liter 170-hp inline-4
Weight: 2,820 pounds
0-60 mph: 7.8 seconds
60-0 mph: 135 feet
EPA fuel economy: 21 city/25 highway
Popsci power rating*: 18.97

Honda Civic Si

As-Tested Price: $19,440
Engine: 2.0-liter 160-hp inline-4
Weight: 2,720 pounds
0-60 mph: 8.0 seconds
60-0 mph: 139 feet
EPA fuel economy: 26 city/30 highway
Popsci power rating*: 20.79

* Weight divided by torque; lower is better

Dan Carney

Dan Carneyhas been riding motorcycles and driving cars since before it was technically legal for him to do so. Along the way he has picked up automotive journalism awards from the International Motor Press Association and Washington Automotive Press Association for his work, and he wrote books about two significant sports cars, the Honda S2000 and Dodge Viper. He has been a PopSci contributor since 1998.