Whether or not Ford’s Special Vehicle Team (SVT) is dead almost is a moot point. More significant: the auto maker is glaringly out of lockstep with competition it once led.

Ford was a frontrunner when it launched its SVT performance division in 1992. It occupied rarified air with BMW’s M (Motorsport) division that launched with the E12 in 1979. Mercedes-Benz followed in 1995 with the C36 AMG.

Ford boldly introduced SVT on the Mustang Cobra and F-150 Lightning pickup. They became synonymous with performance and SVT quickly became a badge of honor that was expanded to the Ford Contour and Focus.

But product rollout ended in 2002 when the SVT unit was reassigned to build the Ford GT supercar. The last two SVT models, the Cobra and Focus, were discontinued in 2004, amid promises of as many as five products upon its resurgence.

Today, SVT’s highest-profile in-house champions are no longer with the company and the prognosis doesn’t look good, even though Ford says the team is working on the ’07 Shelby Cobra GT500, among other projects.

But a next-generation Lightning was killed and, more recently, plans for the Sport Trac Adrenalin pickup were quashed as part of a restructuring. A performance Ford Fusion never materialized.

While Ford has diluted the power of SVT, others enthusiastically have entered the fray.

Audi has its RS line, Mazda is growing its MazdaSpeed lineup and Subaru has turbocharged STi vehicles.

General Motors has SS versions of the Chevy Cobalt and Silverado, as well as the Cadillac V-Series and Saturn’s Red Line models.

Perhaps the most aggressive is Chrysler, which launched its Performance Vehicle Operations in 2002, changing the name two years later to Street and Racing Technology to reflect the SRT branding of the vehicles the in-house team was creating.

The aggressive rollout runs the gamut from the Caliber SRT-4 to the Chrysler Crossfire SRT-6, Viper SRT-10 and Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup that had the Ford Lightning clearly in its sights. Sized in between are SRT-8 variants of the Chrysler 300C, Dodge Magnum, Charger and Jeep Grand Cherokee.

And everyone is dabbling in sport appearance packages, for those who can afford the look but not the performance.

Ford insists it will not throw away the equity in the SVT name. The new plan seems to be fewer products, but all dealers – not just SVT-certified – can sell the specialty vehicles when they re-enter the market.

Whether the SVT nomenclature adorns more products than the Shelby Cobra is the stuff of office pools.

Performance vehicles may be low volume, but they are profitable. These souped-up versions sell without incentives to loyal, young, affluent male buyers, while drawing others into the showroom.

In troubled financial times, launching a performance division is not prudent. But letting an established brand and valid revenue stream slip into oblivion speaks to more than Ford’s ability to support it.

It says something about the current heart and soul of the company that gave us the Mustang.

apriddle@wardsauto.com