Powered by a spunky 2.0-literI-4 engine (optional), the Focus SE sedan is a pleasure to drive. The DOHC powerplant puts out 130 hp at 5,300 rpm and 135 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. Quite simply, it provides plenty of pep when getting on the highway or passing slower drivers. A five-speed manual transmission links to the Zetec in-line engine. The clutch pedal sits high, but requires little effort to engage, and gearing is precise with short throws. The transmission's low-friction needle-roller bearings and low-viscosity mineral oil in the gearbox help improve fuel economy, according to Ford engineers. However, of minor annoyance (as well as a pet peeve) is the idiot light on the instrument panel that tells when to upshift.

Our test vehicle was outfitted with a street-edition package. This consists of a specially tuned suspension using the same antiroll bars, springs, and dampers found on the European Focus, 16-in. machined-alloy wheels, black body accents and ground effects, fog lights, rear spoiler, and a six-disc CD changer.

For excellent ride and handling, Advance Trac (a $1,225 option) zeroes in on vehicle stability and monitors cornering, steering angle, lateral acceleration, and yaw using ABS and traction-control components. It can be turned off by pushing a button on the console between the front seats. All this, plus a lightweight yet stiff chassis, a zero-offset MacPherson-strut front suspension, and a multilink independent rear suspension, makes the Focus one of the best-handling small vehicles I've encountered.

Like most Fords, controls are easy to operate and intuitively located. As an added interior bonus, windows behind the C-pillar on both sides of the car eliminate blind spots, making lane changes much safer.

Fuel economy is pegged at 33 highway/25 city. According to my less-than-perfect monitoring, I can confirm those figures. Putting the fun-to-drive factor aside, the Focus is also easy on the wallet. Base price for the SE is $14,220. Add the optional equipment and destination charges, and the final tally is $18,275, not a bad price for a sporty sedan

Our test-drive car had what GM calls the "Sun and Sound Package," which included, obviously, a sunroof, AM/FM stereo with compact-disc player, equalizer, RDS, and six speaker sound. The surround-sound setup would have been nice had I not nearly killed myself and other drivers trying to switch discs.

The total price of the Sunfire comes to $16,210, which includes $2,555 for the Sun and Sound package. An automatic transmission bumps the price to $17,000.

The Sunfire is marketed to the 35-year-old and under set. And for an inexpensive car, it has a lot of nice features. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants a sporty car on a budget.

Sherri Koucky