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Pushing the limits

Hot Hatches

Ford Focus RS
Base price : $23,000 (est.)
Engine : 4 cyl., turbo, 1998 cc, 16 val.
Output : 215 hp, 229 lb-ft
Transmission : 5-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : strut / multilink
Weight : 2812 lbs
0-60 mph : 5.9 seconds
Top speed : 144 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.90 g
Pros  Very quick, handling, looks
Cons  Torque steer, harsh ride, quality
Ford offers a version of the Focus even more extreme than the SVT in Europe. The Focus RS packs a turbocharged version of the 2.0L Zetec four cylinder engine that powers the SVT Focus. The RS is considered to be the successor to Ford Europe's legendary Escort RS Cosworth, which prove itself worthy in numerous rallies. Even the Focus is doing particularly well in the WRC Rally circuit, but unlike the all-wheel-drive WRC Focus, the street-legal RS comes in front-wheel-drive form only. What it does get is a limited-slip differential, Brembo brakes, 50% stiffer suspension and heavier steering when compared to the basic Focus. Externally, the RS gets flared fenders, unique front air dam, simple roof-mounted rear spoiler, 18-inch alloy wheels and low-profile tires. The torquey engine makes the Focus RS almost as quick as an Impreza WRX, which is impressive considering its front-driven nature. And the Focus RS can actually beat the WRX at the race track with its exceptional cornering prowess. Body roll is non-existent, turbo lag is unnoticeable, braking is eye-popping and mid-range response is amazing. What is not so impressive is the painful torque steer which pops up every time the turbo kicks in on an uneven road. Part of the blame goes to the same stiff suspension that makes the RS a pleasure at the track. On a bumpy road, every road imperfection violently unsettles the car. The rough ride is near unacceptable levels. In short, the Focus RS is only good value as a second car to take to the local track on weekends.

Alfa Romeo 147 GTA
Base price : $26,000 (est.)
Engine : V6, 3179 cc, 24 val.
Output : 250 hp, 221 lb-ft
Transmission : 6-spd manual, FWD
Suspension f/r : double wishbone / strut
Weight : 2992 lbs
0-60 mph : 6.0 seconds
Top speed : 153 mph
200ft skidpad : 0.90 g
Pros  Handling, looks, power, ride
Cons  Price, reliability, build quality
Quite possibly, the most attractive hatchback design to come out of Europe, Alfa Romeo's 147 GTA, in person, is a sight to behold. Unique front-end grille, flowing fenders, clean lines and jewel-like tail-lights make the 147 GTA, penned by Walter de Silva, an ideal case study of form and function getting along. The practical shape houses the most powerful engine fitted in a front-wheel-drive compact hatchback yet. In theory, putting down a massive 250 hp to the road through the front wheels would cause suicidal torque steer, but Alfa Romeo's excellent suspension tuning and electronic nannies make you think that the 147 is anything but front-driven. Cornering prowess is class-leading for a front-wheel-drive car weighing almost 3000 lbs, though this front-heavy Alfa cannot oversteer as easily as the lighter Clio. Handling is still more or less neutral. The V6 engine is lifted directly off its much-celebrated big brother, the 156 GTA. The responsive engine is flexible enough for city driving, while firing up instantly when the throttle is floored, growling all the way out of corners. Huge ABS-assisted brakes and meaty tires wrapped around 17-inch wheels bring the car to a halt at the drop of a hat. Ride quality is very good despite the stiff suspension and lack of body roll. A six-speed manual gearbox is standard but a 5-speed Selespeed automanual is planned for the future. The Alfa is powerful car with great handling, but it suffers from poor build quality, which is a problem with all Alfas. The price does not justify the long term reliability issues that plague all Alfa owners. Pity, since the Alfa rivals BMW in driving pleasure.

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