New Digs

I have recently purchased a 2014 Subaru BRZ. Some of you may be surprised by this, especially given that I didn’t exactly review the BRZ favorably when I drove one last year. Well, dear readers, I have (obviously) changed my tune, and I can explain why.

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I didn’t understand the BRZ the first time I drove it. I had never really driven a small sports coupe; the hottest car I had ever driven had been my own Mazdaspeed3 (which is not a coupe), or possibly my dad’s 2004 Corvette (which is not small). And the BRZ basically just put me in mind of a shrunken, less practical version of the Mazdaspeed3. It was very Japanese inside: lots of exciting orange LEDs, lots of shiny plastic trim to break and squeak and rattle as the miles rack up. The story seemed a bit too familiar for my taste; so, I was put off.

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But time marched on, and I test-drove more cars. Months later, I drove the FR-S, and by the time I drove that car, the Toybaru twins had begun to worm themselves into my heart. The sound of the engine, the way the car looked, and even the interior–it had all grown on me. So I convinced myself that the FR-S was just somehow better than its Subaru counterpart, which I had remembered being so skeptical about.

But all the pieces really fell into place after I drove a 2007 Porsche Cayman S this spring. As I hustled that car over the broken pavement of downtown Denver, and subsequently onto the interstate at Warp Factor 7, it hit me: the Cayman is the best car I’ve ever driven, in so many dimensions, and the BRZ is trying really hard to be a Cayman. That happy little horizontally-opposed mill, that center-mounted tach, the nice steering wheel, and all the all the crazy lightness and stiffness and chassis balance–it all adds up to a pretty decent Cayman impersonation.

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And the BRZ isn’t quite the Porsche that it dreams it is. But it’s maybe 70% as good as a Cayman, and being 7/10ths of a perfect car is still damn good. And you can feel that it tries to live up to its German benchmark. That’s what gets me, every time I drive it: it’s endearing the way it wants to be a great driver’s car. It wants you to egg it on. It’s almost like a dog that really wants you to throw a tennis ball for it. I can just hear it every time that little boxer-four clatters up the RPM range: “Come on! Come on! Throw the ball! I’m a Japanese Porsche! I am! I am!”

And it…isn’t. But it’s a hell of a car anyway. And I love how hard it strives to be great. So, as long as the head gaskets aren’t destined for multiple failures, I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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The Jaguar F-Type Coupe.

First things first: I’m back baby! I lament not writing, but it’s been a fruitful semester for me in many ways, and I’m happy to be here now and even happier looking at my schedule knowing that I will be able to contribute more to this place (though Ozo Coffee getting better WiFi would also be a great help, alas).

Onto the single most pressing thing since the beginning of time. This:

F-Type R

The Jaguar F-Type Coupe. This post had many titles: The Best Thing since Sliced Bread. The Bees Knees. The Next Love of My Life. My Future Illegal Organ Sale. Discounted Kidney!!!!. But it has none of those things because this machine needs no introduction.

Those that have spoken with me recently know that I am madly in love with the F-Type Coupe, but let me explain to the lovely readers here: the day this car goes on sale with a manual transmission, I will be camping out in front of the local Jaguar dealer to place an order the second they open. Simply put, I think that the Jaguar F-Type coupe is the most beautiful car ever made. I believe it surpasses the Aston Martin DBS, the 288 GTO, the Alfa Romero 8C and the Toyota 2000GT. 

Because it just is. Every other car in this class right now focuses on Nurburgring and 0-60 times. Their marketing is so embedded in my head. The GT-R is sub-three seconds. The 911 Turbo S comes with features that the German words are four pages long. The Corvette has a seven speed gearbox and is available with fancy features so it can compete with the M3. The M3 has a TURBO and on and on and on. When you turn on the television and watch a Cadillac or BMW advertisement, they show off all of the fancy features of the car. How quick the shift times are. How good the brakes are. How many seat-massaging functions it comes with. The F-Type comes with none of those. There are no lap times. There are no 0-60 times. It doesn’t need them.

I don’t like things that try too hard. The GT-R has something to prove — that it out-911-Turbo’s the 911 Turbo. The Americans compete against the Germans. Ferrari has such a long waiting list that it doesn’t matter. But The Jag. I postulate that you won’t care about the lap times that the F-Type will do. (I don’t). You won’t care about 0-60, or any of that other garbage. It’s so drop-dead gorgeous I can almost actually look past it’s 8-speed automatic gearbox. The F-Type doesn’t try to impress me. I feel like it knows what it is and what it isn’t. It’s not a track monster and it’s not a reliable Japanese Econobox. I’ll cut to it:

This car makes me feel special just by looking at it. That’s what everything in life is supposed to do. Going out to dinner with the love of your life is supposed to make you feel special. Having friends over in your nice well-appointed house is supposed to make you feel special. Reading a good book is supposed to make you feel special. Yet, driving a GT-R would make me want to put a bag over my head, I’d feel like I was trying too hard to be a “boy racer” or something. The Jag though really just is. If it makes me feel special just by looking at it (I have goosebumps from writing this post), then while I can’t imagine what it feels like to drive, I don’t care — just look at it; God it’s Beautiful.

Dealer Test: 2014 Ford Fiesta ST

It’s finally here.  The car I have been anticipating since the release of its big brother, the Focus ST.  It’s very unusual for me to hold a car in such high regard, as I have always been a firm proponent of rear wheel drive cars.  I have recently started understanding the value and attraction of a high-performance, front wheel drive hatchback, after being exposed to several small hatchbacks set up for autocross and road racing.  After this much time waiting, I was worried that the car wouldn’t live up to the near-fantasy levels of expectation I attributed to it.  I’m happy to say that it is almost everything I could ever want out of a car like this, which is especially good, as I am in Ford’s target market for this car.  So without further ado, let’s get this started.

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The Looks:

    Well, the ordinary Fiesta is a rather ordinary, but somewhat handsome car to look at, although the front end is a bit busy, and the whole car lacks any particularly exciting design features.  The same things can not be said about the ST version.  To start with the big, obvious part, the front end is totally reworked and cleaned up.  The grille is shaped with much more distinct and aggressive angles, that help to accentuate the striking lines that follow the headlights along the flanks of the vehicle, all the way to the back.  To add to those lines, the Fiesta ST has an aggressive body kit all around, with a sharp, exaggerated chin splitter, wider skirts, and a different rear bumper.  Sitting atop the rear window is a sharp, angular spoiler that lends a sportier profile, as well as better aerodynamics.  The ST sits noticeably lower than the standard hatchback, on ST-specific alloy wheels, and features several colors not available on the standard Fiesta.  Overall, I would give the exterior appearance of the Ford Fiesta ST a 9 out of 10, my only complaint being the wheels are a bit on the boring side for such an aggressively styled car.  Ford’s designers definitely fixed everything I didn’t like about the normal Fiesta in this model.

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The Inside:

     Starting with the dashboard and center console, there really isn’t much to report.  Aside from some subtle touches of perforated leather on the shifter and handbrake, as well as a red-painted shift pattern on top of said shifter, the dashboard and center console are identical to the standard Fiesta.  The layout of the dashboard is attractive to the eye at first glance, and follows the styling of the car.  Worryingly however, after operating the stereo, I began to worry that the interior had been designed with more thought given to form than function.

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Don’t get me wrong, form is important, but you have to remember that everything you are designing is actually going to be used, not just looked at.  After some familiarization, I did get used to the layout and operation of the stereo, but not everything is exactly where you would expect it to be.  My biggest complaint from a functional standpoint is that a huge percentage of the interfaces here are either redundant, or exclusively operated by the MyFord Touch infotainment system, which I will talk about in the Tech section later on.  While this does lend a very clean, uncluttered look to the rest of the dash, I find it more difficult to use while actually behind the wheel, when attention should be on the road, not how to change the radio station.

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   Moving back towards the actual driving aspect of this car, we get to the instrument cluster.  As you can see, the instruments are well lit and distinct, albeit a bit on the small side.  More sign of form over function I’m afraid.  The trip computer is also not the easiest thing to operate, but like the rest of the car, I got used to it in time.  Next come the seats, and this Fiesta was equipped with the optional Recaro package, which came with upgraded, heated seats, heated mirrors, and a handful of other bits that aren’t available unless you buy this package.

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  These seats are UNBELIEVABLY supportive.  They wrap around you like a tight hug, holding you in place through the most aggressive of bends, and their heating elements keep you warm when it is cold out, as it often is in Colorado.  I had no problem with these seats, as I am not a particularly big guy, but some people may find the seats a bit on the snug side.  I also noticed, very occasionally, that the enormous side bolsters would slightly interfere with the shift throw or aggressive steering.  Again, nothing that you can’t get used to, but this would require a very slight adjustment in your driving style.  I also did find myself rubbing arms a bit with my friend in the passenger seat, due to the size of the car.  Leg room in the back is not particularly good, but is acceptable considering the size and class of car.  Aside from the go-fast stuff, it’s a city car, not a big family sedan.  I found the trunk reasonably spacious for this size car, but not exactly something to write home about.  The salesman I spoke with assured me that, with the rear seats folded down, it is possible to fit a mountain bike in the back, though I suspect you would have to take the front wheel off.

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     Overall, as much as I like this car, I am forced to give the interior mediocre marks, sitting at a 6.5 out of 10.  From a driver’s standpoint, it isn’t distracting, the seats are supportive, and the instruments are easy to read for the most part.  From an every day perspective, I worry about struggling a bit with the interface, and running out of room when I have several friends or cargo in the car.

The Muscle:

     Here is where this car indisputably starts to comes into its own.  The Fiesta ST is equipped with a transverse-mounted 1.6 Liter turbocharged inline four cylinder Ecoboost engine, mated to a six-speed manual transmission.  Producing an awesome 197 horsepower, and 214 foot-pounds of torque, I was in no way lacking for power when driving this car.

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     During a quick blast down a winding, industrial back road near the dealership, the Fiesta belted out power with no hesitation, providing all the low end torque, smooth and aggressive power, and intoxicating noise I could want.  I was staggered to find that, despite being a turbocharged engine, I could select virtually any gear, plant my foot on the accelerator, and watch the revs climb and climb and climb.  Power delivery is seamless, and allows for easy modulation of the gas pedal in fast corners.  Rolling into the power rewards you with a turbo whistle just noisy enough to be exciting, and a fantastic, throaty growl I did not expect from an engine this small.  I found myself constantly running the car through the gears, just to get more of the fantastic noise it made.  This is, unfortunately, in part to a synthesizer that creates, and feeds noise into the cabin of the car.  I was not able to find out if that feature could be turned off or not.  I have just one concern with the engine: if you aren’t careful, the torque is a bit overwhelming.  Attempting to launch the car from a standing start ended in a substantial amount of the front tires smeared across the pavement.  Following launch, however, the short, fast shifter allows for lightning-fast gear changes, and the communicative clutch make the car very easy to drive in any situation.

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     I have to give the drivetrain in this car a 10 out of 10.  For such a small engine, the way it delivers its power is just intoxicating, and will definitely not leave you wanting for more.  My complaint about too much torque isn’t enough to knock down the rating, as it would only take practice, like any other car, to meter it out in a controlled manner.

The Handling:

     The Fiesta ST continues to shine in this category.  The car comes stock with low-profile summer tires to accentuate the modified performance suspension it has been equipped with.  The car sits just over half an inch lower than the standard Fiesta, and features different springs, shocks, and sway bars.  The front suspension is a modified version of the very capable Fiesta setup, and the rear suspension is Ford’s fantastic “Control-Blade” rear suspension, like what is found on its big brother the Focus ST.  The steering is also faster than the stock Fiesta.   All of these details combine to give an extremely fast, responsive, and capable suspension system.  I hate to use the phrase, but “Drive-by-telepathy” comes to mind.  The car is point and shoot; your hands follow your eyes, the nose of the car follows your hands, the tail follows the nose, every single time.  Understeer is tamed by the traction control system, and, when deactivated, the car simulates a limited-slip differential, by controlled braking of the inside wheel.  The aggressive rear suspension lends an element of tail-happiness that is not common to front wheel drive cars.  It can be a bit of a surprise to the inexperienced, but is definitely nothing you can’t handle.  Even the ride is hardly compromised with the new suspension.  It will be noticeably more firm of a ride, but is still comfortable enough for a daily driver.  10 out of 10.

The Tech:

     Now, back to the every day world.  This car is equipped with heated seats and mirrors (with the Recaro package), and a semi-retro climate control interface that I like very much, using actual dials instead of buttons to adjust the settings.  As can be expected, the car has Traction Control, as well as Anti-lock brakes.  This is all well and good, but not we get to the infotainment system, which I have a few things to say about.  The MyFord Touch system is cluttered.  Operating EVERYTHING inside the car, from climate control to the stereo, to all the settings, and Navigation, there is a lot going on on that little screen.  The touch screen response is reasonably good, but a bit slow, and I did not like trying to navigate it while behind the wheel.  I don’t understand why they needed to put so much data onto that system.  I know it is the trend nowadays to have fancy, high tech touch screen systems, but I much prefer an analog interface where I can actually feel what I am touching before operating it.  If Ford were to clean up the system, and put controls back onto the console, instead of being redundant, I would be much more satisfied.  That being said, I have to give the tech package on this car a 7 out of 10, because it does still have a lot of features.

The Figures:

  • Starting MSRP: $21,400
  • Horsepower: 197
  • Torque: 214 foot-pounds
  • Tires: Potenza RE050A Summer Tires
  • 0 to 60: 6.7 seconds
  • Top speed: 137 miles per hour

My Rating: 42.5 out of 50 points

Quick Spin: 2013 Scion FR-S

I’ll be honest with you: I wasn’t expecting much from the Scion-branded version of the Toyobaru. Why not, you may ask? Well, I was quite disappointed by its Subaru counterpart.  Since the Scion is effectively the same car as the Subaru, but with different badges and a (slightly) different interior, I had no reason to expect that the Scion would be measurably better than the Subaru. My worry was compounded by the fact that the FR-S is positioned as the cheaper, younger sibling of the BRZ; did I really expect it to have a nicer interior, or make a nicer noise, or ride more smoothly than its more expensive brother? I wasn’t hopeful. Well, I don’t mean to spoil the review, but folks: I was wrong.

This is the actual car I drove--and I think it looks great in black. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This is the actual car I drove–and I think it looks great in black. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Exterior: 8/10

Not a single fake vent in sight!

Nary a fake vent in sight!

The exterior of this car scores one point higher than the Subaru for me because, joy of joys, THERE ARE NO FAKE VENTS ON THIS CAR! That makes the exterior a hundred times better in my book–it’s just more honest design. As it turns out, the more honest design of the FR-S is a bit of a pervasive theme in this review, so keep an eye out for other areas where I find that to be the case. Otherwise, it’s basically the same as the BRZ–a quite well-proportioned sporty 2+2 coupe that vaguely recalls the Toyota 2000GT. There is one notable difference between the two exteriors, and that is in the front fascias and the headlights. The BRZ has a strange sort of “mouthguard”-looking thing covering the top half of its grille (which is shaped like a trapezoid), whereas the FR-S’s hexagonal grille has a subtler piece of plastic in its upper half. The FR-S also has two sort of fang-like (or dagmar-like, if you prefer) protrusions underneath the grille, whereas the BRZ’s front end lacks these, favoring a more rounded edge in profile. Neither one is really more attractive than the other to me; both exteriors excite the eye, but not to the point of overstimulation. The BRZ also gets standard LED running lights (which look really snazzy), whereas the FR-S has to make do with halogens, no matter what trim level you select. This is a bit of a bummer, but I think that even the halogens look great on this taut, sinewy sheetmetal.

The only thing that spoils my impression of this car’s exterior (apart from the lack of the Subie’s LED running lights) is the Scion badges. I don’t think of myself as a brand-snob, but it will take a little while before I’m willing to mentally disassociate Scion from all of those dreadful, boxy economobiles they’ve been producing since their inception. Still, if any car has a chance of making me appreciate the Scion badge, it’s a Toyobaru.

The car I drove came with a tasteful little spoiler on the edge of the trunk. I didn’t expect to like this very much (generally I find spoilers on road cars to be fairly excessive), but it was actually very slick in person.

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source: boulderscion.com)

The little deck spoiler looks really nice on this car, and very subtly enhances the aggressive look of the car. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Interior: 7/10

As you can see, there's not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ's--notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear.

As you can see, there’s not too much difference between this cabin and the BRZ’s–notable changes include the head unit and the HVAC switchgear. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This interior is broadly the same as the BRZ’s, so you can check out my BRZ review for an overview of what it’s like to sit in this car. But the little differences between this interior and the Subaru’s interior were surprisingly significant; in total, I ended up awarding this car an extra two points for its improved cabin. Let me explain why.

The FR-S shares many common components with the BRZ–and this is both good and bad. For instance, they both have the same fabulous steering wheel, the same expensive-feeling handbrake, the same pedalbox, which is nicely oriented for heel-toe, and the same intuitive Toyota switchgear (for turn-signals and cruise-control). On the other hand, they both share the same gear knob, which is a bit tragic–it looks and feels cheaper than it should, even on an entry-level car. Moreover, much like the BRZ, this car lacks a center armrest. I still don’t know who thought that was a good idea.

What struck me as I was driving this Scion–something I forgot to mention in my BRZ review–is how small this car feels inside. It’s low to the ground, and quarters are close between driver and passenger. It’s not nearly as close as in, say, a Lotus Elise, but it is cozy in this car. When I drove the BRZ, I interpreted this feeling as “suffocating;” but, for reasons I cannot explain, I really did feel like the FR-S was a pleasantly snug fit rather than a claustrophobic little car. The two cabins really don’t differ much at all; perhaps the interior has simply grown on me.

Nice seats--I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

Nice seats–I truly adore them. They are well-bolstered and hug you in the corners, but they are also remarkably comfortable.

The seats on this car are different than the ones you get in a BRZ–all-cloth, rather than Alacantara with leather bolsters. I can’t say that I minded, honestly. They hug the body quite well, and are also remarkably comfortable due to some great cushioning in the very middle of the seat. I could see taking a road trip in these seats and being perfectly happy about it [Ed.: This is based entirely on a hypothetical scenario, and I’ve only ever had 10 or 20 minutes of seat time in this car, so take this with a grain of salt].

One or two small differences that I noticed: I really like that the Scion’s tach is set against a white background, as opposed to the black background behind all of the Subaru’s IP gauges. Moreover, I like the font on the Scion’s IP better. It feels just the slightest bit more mature than the BRZ’s Voltron-looking font does (to my eyes). I’d also like to state for the record that the switches to turn off traction control and engage Sport Mode may look a little flimsy, but they feel very positive and solid to the touch. Oh, and quite happily, the gearknob doesn’t rattle around in its housing like it did in the BRZ; I expect this is due to a recent service bulletin which called for the replacement of the shift bushings in all Toyobarus.

The differences that really caused me to bump this score up two notches are small but important. First of all, this interior feels a lot more honest than the BRZ’s does. The materials and surfaces are all a little bit simpler than the ones in the Subie (because the FR-S is ostensibly the cheaper of the two variants), and the overall effect of this is that the car’s interior feels a lot less…fiddly. If that didn’t make sense to you, then let me see if I can explain anecdotally: the FR-S and the BRZ are both budget sports cars; the price difference between them is not so great that they really appeal to different segments of buyers. But the BRZ is festooned with a mess of Subaru “luxury” equipment: partial leather, climate control knobs with little screens on them, and a truly dreadful integrated stereo head unit and nav screen. All of these things complicate the design of the car’s interior with added “features,” but they’re not high-quality additions, so the inside of the BRZ ends up feeling like a failed attempt to grasp at a luxury/high-tech interior.

The FR-S interior, on the other hand, acknowledges the limitations of its selling price, and because of this, the simple materials and controls come by their simplicity much more honestly. The HVAC knobs in the FR-S are chunky plastic things that don’t purport to tell you exactly how many degrees your side of the car will be set at (Good lord! It was set at 73, but I will positively wilt with the thermostat set even a degree above 72!); it’s a hot-to-cold gradient, with fan speeds ranging from 0-4, and all of the digital gimmickery is left aside. Masterful. And–hold onto your hats–the stereo actually works. More on this later.

In this, among other ways, the FR-S is a bit like using stock Android after having tried a really cumbersome corporate skin (like something from LG, or HTC Sense). You realize that all of the so-called “features” that the skin offered were really just getting in the way of using the device.

Still, the FR-S’s interior is far from perfect. I wish for a better-looking and better-feeling gearknob, and for a center armrest; and, of course, only time will tell if the trim on this car will shake itself to pieces, as I predicted in my BRZ review. And the backseat is still a joke. But the FR-S feels like a far more pleasant place to be than the BRZ ever did. Again, I chalk this up to a combination of my becoming accustomed to the interior, as well as a greater degree of honesty in the use of interior materials.

Ride: 6/10

I had read that the FR-S ride was tuned differently from the BRZ’s. That difference is said to be a subtle one, but during this test-drive, I had very few complaints about the ride on this car. Some bumps were worse than others, but on the whole, my experience of this car’s ride was nowhere near as uncomfortable as my memory of the BRZ led me to expect. The ride was firm, to be sure, but not jerky or painful. I would say that it was well-balanced, leaning decisively toward the sporty side of the equation, and at both city and highway speeds, I found the ride to be a non-issue.

After some reflection, I think I finally understand the Toyobaru’s ride: it really is quite cleverly tuned. Over cracked pavement, potholes, and uneven pavement, the chassis and suspension filter out most of the unpleasantness. You can hear and feel the car’s suspension and chassis reacting to the impact of the broken surface, but you, as an occupant, aren’t actually impacted very much by these bumps.

My negative experience in the BRZ, I have discovered, is a result of the cars’ inability to cope with regularly undulating pavement–the sort where you hit lots of very small pavement seams, all in a row. The suspension doesn’t crash around over these–well, not exactly, anyway. It jiggles and jounces you up and down at high frequency, so that it almost feels like you’re vibrating. As a result, there are sections of I-70 in midwestern states which I can vividly imagine as absolute hell in a Toyobaru; however, I can also imagine that, most of the time (i.e., if you’re not on a cross-country roadtrip and experiencing this jiggling), the ride would be no problem at all.

Handling: 10/10

This car handles exactly as well as the BRZ did, so I won’t expand on the section I wrote for that car too much, except to say that I took the FR-S on a slightly different route–one where I could put it through some esses. Its performance was nothing short of breathtaking, and even at (relatively) low speeds, I was thunderstruck by the way this car felt; I honestly don’t remember the last time I had this much fun driving. I was grinning like an idiot for the entire duration of the test drive.

Brakes: 9/10

I’m actually knocking a point off of the brakes as compared with the score I gave on the BRZ. The FR-S’s brake pedal felt a little numb to me as compared with the BRZ’s. Perhaps this would change over time–the car I drove had less than a hundred miles on it, so perhaps the calipers, discs, and/or pads were not yet “broken in.” Once I got past this feeling, though, braking performance was admirably progressive and firm.

Gearbox: 9/10

Refer directly to the BRZ review for this section: my opinion is the same for this car is it was for the other Toyobaru. The gearbox is a tiny slice of heaven: snicky, slick, and very mechanical-feeling.

One thing I noticed on this test drive that I hadn’t gotten the chance to try out on the BRZ is that Reverse gear is only accessible by pulling up on the shift boot collar. Will people please stop doing this?! The right way to unlock that gate is to push down on the gearstick, people. Still, it’s easier to get at this car’s Reverse-gate-unlocker-collar than it is on the Focus ST‘s transmission.

I also felt a lot more at ease with the clutch on this car during this test drive. The engagement point is definitely a bit high, but the fact that I’ve acclimated to it over the course of a measly two test drives is proof that it is very possible to acclimate to it. For this reason I’ve bumped up the score by one point: once you get used to that clutch, the whole experience is incredibly immersive.

Acceleration: 8/10

Much as with the gearbox, my opinion of this car’s acceleration hasn’t budged. I got the opportunity to wring out the FR-S a little bit on this test drive, and even with myself and the salesman in the cockpit, it went like hell. The automotive cliche that this car makes 60mph feel like 100mph is totally true–even slight acceleration at low speeds is an exhilarating experience. You simply must drive this lightweight gem of a car–not even the brawny turbocharged 2.3L straight-4 in my old Mazdaspeed3 could compare to this engine for sheer fun, and that’s saying something. If 60mph feels like 100mph, I can only imagine that 90mph must feel like Mach 7.

Sound: 7/10

My current theory is that there was something wrong with the engine of the BRZ I drove (misfire? very small rocks in the gas line?), or that Subaru somehow tuned or symposed their engine to have more of their signature flat-4 clatter, because the sound produced by the FR-S is completely different, to my ear. Granted, the FR-S I sampled was optioned with the TRD exhaust package, but I’m pretty sure that just has to do with the shape of the exhaust pipe tips, and has no effect on the actual flow or sound of the exhaust system. [Ed.: I looked into this and the TRD catback exhaust is certainly at least partially responsible for the difference–it’s tuned for more of a bass note while still minimizing drone; this $1100 option is well worth ticking.] Whatever the reason behind the disparate sounds in these two cars may be, I was smitten with the sound of the FR-S’s engine.

It’s a flat-4, so no matter what, it’s going to be at least a little clattery sounding. But the FR-S’s engine struck me as being generally quieter than the BRZ’s engine at low RPM, and less thrashy-sounding when you push it. Either way, I found myself loving the noise this car makes. It doesn’t shriek with the joie-de-vivre of an Italian V6 or V12, and neither does it snarl like the Corvette’s pushrod V8; it even seems down on character when compared with the vulpine growl of the Focus ST’s I4. But there is something fantastically purposeful about the sound this engine makes. More than anything else, it reminds me of a Porsche flat-6 in that respect. The two don’t sound all that much alike, but the character of the aural delight you get out of a Porsche flat-6 is the same sort of thing that you get from this flat-4: it sounds mechanical. It sounds raw. And there is something inescapably alluring about that. In contrast to the BRZ, which I distinctly recall putting in 6th gear a couple of times just so that it would be quiet, I found myself hanging onto gears in the FR-S, just so that I could hear the way it sounds at higher RPM.

Toys: 5/10

I’m giving the FR-S an extra point in this category over its brother because, though they both offer a paucity of doodads and gizmos, at least you can use the ones that you are given in the FR-S.

Trying to operate the BRZ’s touchscreen stereo/navigation unit at speed was like trying to perform eye surgery with a chainsaw: someone was bound to get hurt in the process. As I mentioned in the “Interior” section, the fact that Scion has owned up to the FR-S’s slightly lower price means that they’ve fitted a stereo system to this car which doesn’t force you to use stupid second-rate touchscreen controls. It’s all physical buttons, and it’s intuitive enough that I figured out the gist of how to operate it on my way out of the dealership parking lot. Bravo, Scion: you’ve fixed one of my least favorite things about the BRZ.

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru's touchscreen nightmare. (Source: boulderscion.com)

This is the head unit supplied by Scion, and for me, it was light-years better than Subaru’s touchscreen nightmare. (Source: boulderscion.com)

Like the BRZ, this car comes with AUX-in, USB-in, and Bluetooth. It doesn’t have automatic climate control, but I don’t care, and neither should you. The HVAC system on this car is one of my all-time favorites for its elegance and simplicity.

The FR-S doesn’t have a plethora of gadgets to distance you from the business of driving; on the contrary, it just gives you the essentials: HVAC and a stereo with modern connectivity. Folks, this car doesn’t even come with an armrest–you were expecting radar-guided cruise control?

Value: 8/10

I had a hard time with this score. I gave the BRZ, priced at $25,801, a 5/10. This car has a “no-haggle” price of $24,999. So, to be clear: in this FR-S, you are getting what I judge to be a superior car for just about a thousand dollars less than the cost of the equivalent BRZ. That’s a phenomenal deal. So yes, this FR-S gets three extra points, for being better than the Subaru and cheaper than the Subaru at the same time.

Let me say one more thing on the subject of this car’s value. I got out of the BRZ feeling a little let down. That car was supposed to be a back-to-basics sports coupe, and it just felt like a loud, uncomfortable car with some sporting touches. It had great characteristics, but it didn’t strike me as being a great car. But from the moment I climbed into the FR-S, I knew that it was a more honest machine, and that impression really defined the experience I had with it. Ferdinand Porsche once said that “good design is honest,” and this FR-S is a supremely good piece of automotive design because of its honesty.

Another famous designer, Apple’s Jony Ive, once said that good design should fade into the background, so that the design of a product doesn’t interfere with the experience of using that product. In the FR-S, there were moments when I lost myself in the car; the car itself seemed to disappear as I drove along. This is a profoundly strange feeling, and maybe some of you know what I’m talking about from experience, but essentially my brain stopped distinguishing the steering wheel and my hands as separate entities; in these moments, the urge to change gear felt as natural as the urge to inhale or exhale. It felt like the distinction between myself and the car was blurred.

Source: (boulderscion.com)

(Source: boulderscion.com)

If this has never happened to you, then it must sound unspeakably stupid. But to me, these moments where I get lost in the machine are blissful. Moments like these are a big part of the reason I love cars. I’ve only experienced them a handful of times before; this car put me in a position to have that experience on a test drive. The fact that this machine is available for roughly the same price as a GTI or a Mustang V6–which, while fun, are nowhere near as immersive or engaging as the FR-S–isn’t merely “value.” It’s full-on lunacy.

I stepped out of the FR-S today and immediately felt a pang of intense desire: I wanted badly to make this car mine, to drive it to work every day, to wash it by hand, to take it on road trips and to explore its limits on Flagstaff Road. I haven’t wanted a car this much in a long time, and because it’s as inexpensive as it is, I might just buy one when I return from England next July. I will absolutely drive the new GTI next year before I make a decision, but if I had to decide–right now–between my much-adored GTI and the FR-S I just drove, I would go home with the Scion.

Aggregate Score: 87/100

(C.f. the BRZ’s aggregate score, 64/100)

Self-Driving Cars and Impact Drivers

At some car show or another, Nissan as well as a few other auto companies announced their plans for Self-Driving cars. Google’s been testing them for quite a while. They’ve racked up somewhere over one million (“accident-free” miles, as they’re quick to point out) among their beige, bland, boring, depressing fleet of automobiles fleet of precision machines.

The CEO of Daimler (the guy with the mustache) went on record saying:

“Autonomous vehicles are an important step on the way to accident-free driving.” — Mustached Executive

Even I am not going to argue that this isn’t a great achievement. It is. I write software — it’s difficult not to stand in awe that someone has actually solved something that is actually a very difficult problem. There. That’s said. What I will argue with though, is that they solved it wrong.

Here, I want to talk about a horrible tool called an Impact Driver. The idea is quite simple, you have a high-torque phillips head screw. For those of you unfamiliar with this, it’s impossible to actually apply any force to said type of screw to loosen it, because there’s no way you can get a ‘grip’ on it. Often, you’ll therefore fine these types of screws in totally inappropriate places where the screw is torqued down so far that you can’t get it off without drilling it out. Enter: IMPACT DRIVER. It’s simple. You put it on the screw head like any ordinary screw driver, and then hit it with a hammer. The driver compresses driving itself into the screw and turning slightly. You can take the screw out.

 

Awesome. Except, it shouldn’t exist. Every application where there is a heavily-torqued bolt, there should be a bolt, not a screw with a phillips head that is rusted stuck.

 

 

This, I think, is like autonomous cars. It’s an amazing, amazing tool that solves a problem that shouldn’t exist. I continue to advocate for cheaper, more effective solutions to distracted (and hence, accident-free) driving, like Driver Education and Public Transit and Not Driving if you don’t feel personally qualified to do so. Education and competency solve other problems too, like high text messaging bills that arise from when you should be driving (Ok, I know everyone has an unlimited plan, but bear with me). Someone put a screw in the wrong place and auto companies are trying to invent the impact driver for it, when really, we should have just put a 10mm bolt there, easily accessible with a breaker bar.

Love Life: Find Your Joy

Last week I had been piecing together a blog post about how I initially became interested in the world of cars. More specifically the introduction of the DSM into my life, and how that brought about a fascination with tweaking motors. But with all the craziness that has transpired over the last week I didn’t seem right.

For those of you who have been living under a rock my home state of Colorado experienced massive floods. My town of Boulder getting a large brunt of it. This freak event has left many without homes for the foreseeable future, as well as many without in a temporary state such as myself. My basement flooded with 2-3ft of raw sewage during the second night of the mighty storm.

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As the basement (where a roommate and myself live) filled up with our and our neighbors excrement we loaded up the cars with overnight bags and drove off to find dry shelter for the night. Now I had been working on a few cars during the week preceding the floods, my own 96 Eclipse GSX included. My purple beast was up on all four corners on stands as I painted the wheels and was overhauling the brake system. That meant Thursday night all I had to drive was a borrowed WRX. Now this particular WRX has an aftermarket intake that sits at the lowest point of the engine bay for the coldest air intake. Practically this means it is as high as the middle of the 16” alloy rims. Literally a giant vacuum at the front of the car.

I drove myself and a roommate who has no family in the state around the town looking for roads out. But most were blocked off by anywhere from 1-3ft of rushing flood water. Not ideal for a moving, low riding vacuum. We eventually found our way to safety for the night after over an hour of terrified driving (what should have been a 10 minute commute). I was clutching the wheel, leaning forward in my seat just waiting to hear the sound of water combusting in the engine.

The next day (Friday) we all reconvened at our sewage filled home to gather more expensive belongings, not knowing how long we would be displaced. I found a small window in between the rain falls to complete the fastest brake job I’ve ever done on any car. Tossed on my freshly painted wheels, loaded up the GSX and escaped the town again for more shelter.

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Now in the midst of the chaos one finds themselves in a fight or flight pure survival mode. I was in flight mode. My home, my business and my life seemed to have been up-heaved. Friends scattered at different houses unreachable due to the storm. Unsure about future living. Where was the peace? Where was the joy?

I found it in two places. The next day after (Saturday) I found myself back in Boulder to assist a friend with car troubles on his Toyota Pickup. But that drive into town. There just aren’t words. For the 20 minute trek I found escape for once from the tumult of the storm. Poised in my leather seat, three toes at my feet and a 5-speed shift knob at my right hand it all came back why I love cars so much. 220hp roaring through all four tires, with 14lbs of boost spooling up and down through the combustion process. There was my joy. There was my grounding.

I found myself going in and out of town many more times for flood assistance of others and the GSX was perfect. The intake well hidden and free from water. Fresh Continental DWS’s on the 16” rims gripped to the road. It was my joy that took me to the ones I loved, and the ones who loved me. Friends offered shelter, food, and company to combat the depression and anxiety the weather blew in.

I have never felt closer to the people who really matter to me than in this time of extreme trouble. Phone calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages flying to make sure everyone was taken care of and safe. If there is one thing I love on this Earth more than cars, it’s the people that my cars bring me to.

Many are still apart from their loved ones, displaced from the normal life. While the rest of the town slowly picks up the pieces. Businesses are opening again, the University is buzzing about. But I challenge you to bring love this week. If only this week. Show some compassion in line at the grocery store. While on the bus. Hell, even walking down the street. Be joyous that you’re alive, and there is a community around you whether you like it or not. Find the nearest person to you and just hug them. SHOW them love.

On a final note (yes I know this is long) bring extra love to our men (and women) in blue. Many police officers, firefighters, and general first responders left vacations, their own flooding homes and even their families for days to make sure that you and I would be safe in a town torn apart. Give them a break, they’re people as well. And they need the same love that the rest of us do.

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Alignment is Everything

I’ve found myself in (business) organizations with entire meetings around some magical thing called “Alignment”. That is — everything is pointing in the direction that it’s supposed to be pointing. I’ve often written those meetings off, and depending on their greater context, I may continue to do so.

But suddenly, I can’t write them off. Earlier this month I stumbled upon a tire Deal-Of-The-Century. An hour spent with my impact gun and a pair of (very crappy) jacks, the S2000 was rolling on the best rubber the Department of Transportation slaps their accolades on. Even from that, the difference was amazing. The steering response, the road feel. My bushings are 75,000 miles old, but man, I felt connected to the tarmac some 13 inches below my feet.

There was still more to be done on the performance front though. I felt that I wasn’t extracting every ounce of grip from my suspension. So I needed an Alignment. An aggressive one. So there came the fun part. I hit the forums (namely, S2ki) researching suspension setups suitable for autocross and occasional track driving. I picked some numbers based on Race Car Vehicle Dynamics, comments from The Internet, and other various amounts of research. Maximum Front Caster, Zero Front Toe, .33 degrees total rear toe, and -1 and -2 degrees caster respectively.

What I wasn’t expecting was the difference. According to my alignment printouts, I only got half a degree more of caster (which is  basically steering response), about +.3 degrees of front toe (back to zero — which again helps with turning response) and half a degree and a whole degree more camber (respectively). Relatively minor changes.

WOW. It’s like a new car. Even just going through some turns or making slalom-like movements in a parking lot felt like the difference between night and day. The funny part? It’s still subjective — except Camber, which is almost a direct correlation to grip. Toe is what steering response feels like — and it depends on what you want. It’s a tradeoff between straight-line performance and steering response. Same with Camber and Caster too. But I think I picked good numbers. I can’t wait to race now.

Consider this as a closing thought though — everything else is like aligning a car. I briefly present to you a math problem. On a typical car, you have something like +- degrees of camber to adjust (-2 to 2, maybe), maybe 4 degrees of caster, +.30 inches to -.30 inches of caster, and the same camber and toe on the rear (no caster on the rear, unless you have some horrific rear steering system).

So, with a reasonable granularity of adjustment, on a per-axle basis, we get: 40*40*60*40*60 or 230 million choices. (disclaimer, I’m not getting a math degree anymore).

Maybe spending time for a proper alignment of any sort is worthwhile.

Egads — Look at what we can do!

Egads, it’s been a little bit since I’ve posted here. I’m quite sorry about that (or maybe you should be thanking me?).

Anyway, not too thrilled about that. As I’m sure you all know, life gets in the way. But oh, what a life it is. See, much like how I spent my June I’ve been biding my time doing interesting activities (OK, with the exception of moving). But I’ve started a wonderful lineup of classes, finished some good classes, worked more on cars, and generally have been having a great time.

At my last Solo event (autocross, as you’ll recall) I was very pleased with my performance. Not as pleased as I have been, but I made nearly 10 seconds of improvement from my first run to my last of four. I’m proud of that. But there’s still work to be done.

And then, as Rob can attest to, you have a moment where you realize that you can do that work. See, I spent the other day in the CU Math/Physics/Engineering Library reading Society of Automotive Engineer’s books. And other assorted books on cars handling. My S2000 was understeering a bit in corners when I felt that it shouldn’t have been. I know that I need a more aggressive suspension setup. No matter — Honda UK came up with an insanely well-recommended one. It’s roughly -1/-2 camber, front and rear respectively, with 0/.2in toe (also, respectively front and rear) and maximum caster on the front.

Great.  But suddenly I wanted to know why. I wanted to know everything about how to make a car handle. I’d just picked up some new tires in an amazing feat that can only be described as “Insanely meaningful”. I want to make the most use of them.

 

So I made a strategic acquision. See above. Race Car Vehicle Dynamics. I’d thought about it for a while. But suddenly it was time. One of Those Moments. If you know what I mean. If I had bought it earlier it wouldn’t be useful. But now I understand what it says. It’s over 700 pages of amazing. Suspension setups. Aerodynamics. Drivetrain setups. This is what winning is made of. And as much as no one likes to admit it, everyone wants to be the best at something. Maybe that isn’t winning themselves. But that could be the best damn suspension setup on the face of the earth. 

So we’ll see. I’m ever-amazed at what someone can do with a wrench, and if you haven’t found out what you can do with a wrench and some persistence, I invite you to find out.

 

 

Quick Spin: 2013 Ford Focus ST

This weekend saw me driving a very special automobile for our Quick Spin series: the Focus ST, the only car ever to de-throne the GTI in one of Car and Driver‘s comparison tests–and as we all know, I am over the moon for the VW GTI.  So, the question on my mind is, is the Focus ST really better than the GTI, or have C&D‘s venerable staff collectively lost their minds?  I went to a Ford dealership in Broomfield to find out.

This is the car I test-drove.  I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black--it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

This is the car I test-drove. I think the ST actually looks marvelous in black–it really hides that giant, blacked-out radiator.

Exterior: 7/10

The Focus ST is, in essence, a regular Focus with some added testosterone.  The grille is blacked-out, there’s a tasteful rear diffuser, a gorgeous center-exit exhaust, and some rakish, exciting alloy wheels.  There’s a very nice continuity in the shapes presented by the wheels and the exhaust–which is good, considering that they are probably the features that are most obviously unique to the ST.  However, they don’t really blend with any of the other shapes on the ST, which is a bit of an aesthetic problem for this car.  It looks busy inside and out, and this is especially noticeable in any of the brash, bright colors in which this car is offered (“Tangerine Scream,” anyone?).

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The center-exit exhaust is a really gorgeous, slick dual-hexagon.  It’s one of my favorite design touches on this car. (Photo credit: Autoviva.com)

Love these alloy wheels--interesting without being immature.  The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Love these alloy wheels–interesting without being immature. The fluid, geometrical shapes in these wheels are echoed ever so slightly in the design of the exhaust.

Ford Focus ST at NAIAS 2012

The bright colors offered for this car really accentuate that gopping “mouth”. (Photo credit: Autoviva.com)

In short, you’ve simply got to have it in black.  Black hides the wide-open “mouth” on this car, and black allows the shapes of the alloy wheels and the aluminum center-exit exhaust to really stand out and draw the eye.  If you have it in any other color, then the noise of the car’s other creases really starts to become an eyesore if you look at it for too long.

See?  It's MUCH better in black.

See? It’s MUCH better in black.

One particularly cool feature of the exterior design is the gas-cap (wow, I never thought I would type those words).  It’s integrated extraordinarily well into the body, and you probably wouldn’t notice it unless you were looking for it.  It’s shaped like just another panel on the car, and in this way it really “hides” in the car’s lines.  This is indicative of a level of detailed thought given to this car’s design which was surprising and very pleasing–and which is also to be found in the interior.

The gas cap is hidden just under this taillight--a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail.  You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

The gas-cap is hidden just under this taillight–a masterfully conceived and brilliantly executed detail. You would notice and appreciate this every time you needed a fill-up.

Overall, if you get this car in black, it can be a rather pleasing, and–dare I say it?–special thing to look at.  That said, I don’t think that the current-gen Focus is much of a looker in the first place, and the ST’s designers could only tweak it within the bounds of reason.  Bearing that in mind, I think most of the ST-specific design elements are for the better (with the exception of the grille; I really don’t know what they were thinking with that).  The exterior wouldn’t sell me on this car, but in black, it wouldn’t scare me off, either–on the contrary, actually.  In the right color, it’s a properly solid piece of automotive design.

Interior: 7/10

The ST’s interior is very upscale–and very sporty–for this class of car.  There are a variety of interesting shapes available to the driver’s eyes and fingers, and that makes the cockpit a very stimulating place to sit.  The IP’s gauge pods are crazy pentagons with exaggerated corners; the knob for adjusting how much air comes out of the vents is a chunky, conical (rather than cylindrical!) piece; the vents themselves jut out at the driver at something like a 127-degree angle.  Even the handbrake looks like an alien artifact (and comes out of the dash differently than you might expect–it doesn’t hinge up like a lever; rather, the entire, peculiarly-curved apparatus rises up out of the transmission tunnel).

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

Notice how the handbrake lever comes out of the transmission tunnel; this is disorienting at first, but I suspect you would get used to the way it rises almost straight up.

I was expecting to hate a lot of this car’s interior, based simply on the press photographs I had seen of it; let me say, definitively, that I was wrong to doubt Ford here.  First, and most prominently, the Recaro seats are fantastic.  I understand that, because these seats are tailored towards the slender, they may not be everyone’s cup of tea; for my 150-lb., 6′ self, however, they were absolutely marvelous.  The Recaros are absolutely worth the nominal fee you’ll pay to upgrade to them.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

Notice how the air vent is perched atop this odd, angular protrusion.

The shift knob is something else I was concerned about.  Given that this car is only offered with a six-speed manual, I was especially worried that the shift knob looked like it came out of an early ’00s Honda Civic Si.  Thankfully, once I actually touched this shifter, I was quite relieved.  It’s made of aluminum (rather than shiny plastic, as I’d feared), and the back of it (which no photographer would ever bother to show you) is made of a spectacularly grippy leather (or leather-like substance).  It actually felt like a very premium thing to hold, even if it didn’t look the part (to my eyes).

(Photo Credit: stblogs.automotive.com)

(Photo credit: stblogs.automotive.com)

The steering wheel is a gem; it’s noticeably small in diameter, and wrapped in a fine, slightly cushy, perforated leather.  While the GTI and the Toyobaru each have a solid-feeling, sculpted, grippy wheel, the ST’s feels more like it’s got a millimeter or two of tempur-pedic material just beneath the leather.  I was initially concerned that this would soften up the feel of the whole experience, but mere seconds into the drive, I noticed that it actually felt more sporty than the GTI’s steering wheel(!).  Overall, though, I’m not sure I prefer it over the GTI’s tiller, particularly given that there are far too many buttons on the ST’s wheel for my taste.  I don’t even know what most of them do.  And there are paddles behind the wheel, where shift paddles might go in an automatic: one paddle operates the cruise control, while the other activates voice-command mode.  This made no sense to me.  Perhaps the best illustration of this problem comes from the fact that there are two separate four-way switches on either side of the wheel.  That’s fairly annoying to me on general principle, as I like a steering wheel to have as few buttons as possible.  I like a car to have as few buttons as possible, actually, and this is the opposite of that.  In total, the ST’s steering wheel has nineteen buttons on it.  Ford: knock it off with this, already.  Just because I’m part of the “smartphone generation” or whatever doesn’t mean I want my car to be a smartphone.  I want my car to be a car.

2013-08-11T15-46-40_0

Speaking of electronics, Ford’s voice-control technology (SYNC) is universally detested by consumers and journalists alike, and it is, sadly, a mandatory “feature” on every trim level of the Focus ST.  Blissfully, though, there are physical buttons for stereo and HVAC controls, and these were quite straightforward to operate.  This is a nice change of pace from some other Ford-family vehicles (Lincoln, I’m looking at you), which make you control HVAC and audio from the touchscreen.  This is the most dangerous thing you can possibly do to a car, especially if your touchscreen interface is as slow and un-intuitive as SYNC.  So even though the ST’s implementation of SYNC is relatively harmless, I don’t understand why Ford bothered with putting SYNC in there in the first place.  This would have been a better car without it.

There are some other gripes, to be sure: I think the driver sits too low and too far back in this car, and as a result it can be hard to use all of the visibility which the windows afford.  This also makes the driving position (initially, at least) fairly awkward; it feels like you’re looking up and out at all of the controls, like they’re farther away from you than they should be–which is very weird.  I can’t say whether this is something one would get used to, but it was a noticeable (though not insurmountable) issue I noticed for the duration of my test drive.  I’m also not impressed by the amount of space in the rear.  With the Recaros taking up all of the rear knee-space, your rear-seat passengers won’t be getting too comfortable.  It would probably be fine for kids, or adults on a (very) short trip, but there’s no one I hate enough to make them spend a road trip back there.  The lovely Recaros in front are absolutely worth the tradeoff for the driver and front-seat passenger, but if your backseat is going to be rendered useless anyway, then why not just get a V6 Mustang instead for the same price?  And while we’re on the subject of compromised utility, allow me to report that the trunk space is noticeably less than what you’d get in a GTI, and the rear seats don’t fold all the way down–they just sort of lie at an angle.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really.  Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though--anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

Kind of an appalling amount of rear seat space for a hatchback, really. Those front Recaros totally make up for it, though–anyone big enough to be uncomfortable in the backseat of this car should stop complaining and buy their own car instead of bumming rides off of you.

The SYNC Console.  Redundant stereo controls also pictured.

The SYNC Console. Some of the redundant stereo controls are also pictured here.

Overall, the interior is very well put-together, and it uses some marvelous materials.  Panel gap, build quality, and general fit and finish are absolutely up there with the Mk 6 GTI.  Everything you touch is either premium or close to it.  My only gripe is with how busy all of the lines are.  It’s exciting, to be sure–it’s a downright visual feast–but there are lines coming out of nowhere and ending nowhere; hard angles and swooping, gradual angles; pentagons and parallelograms and hexagons and squares and circles and squircles.  It’s almost exhausting to look at it all.  In short, then, while the ST’s interior may feel quite premium, it does so with too much drama for my taste.  Because all of the shapes and lines in the cockpit are all screaming at you, it can be hard to relax.  if that sort of thing doesn’t bother you, though, then you’ll be more than satisfied with this cockpit–and it does feel like a cockpit; more like the inside of a stealth bomber than a car, really.  Ford has made a worthy competitor to the GTI in terms of build quality here (if not in terms of design harmony; the ST’s feng shui is WAY off).  Now, if only they would ditch SYNC…

Ride: 7/10

The previous-generation Focus chassis underpinned my old Mazdaspeed3.  As such, I was anticipating punishment from this car, what with its lowered ride height, sporty suspension, and minimal tire sidewalls.  I was actually taken aback by how comfortable the ST was over bumps.  Rough tarmac will definitely upset the car’s zen mojo–you wouldn’t call it “comfortable.”  But neither is it painful, or even uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not nearly as bad as the Mazdaspeed3’s suspension (the ‘speed3 rode on specially designed pain-coils).

The ST doesn’t shield the driver from unwanted noise as well as the GTI’s suspension does, but the ST is a lot more comfortable than I was expecting it to be.  I cannot say for sure how the ride would hold up over time (considering tire wear in particular), but the suspension was obviously given considerable tuning so that human beings, with spines, would be able to comfortably sit in the vehicle as it goes along the road.  I think it’s a smashing compromise, though a part of me would probably still yearn for the GTI’s Teutonic chassis tuning if I ran into a particularly bad pothole.

Handling: 8/10

This thing can absolutely handle.  We took it on a twisty road, with a few esses, and the salesman told me I could put my foot in it, “because cops don’t usually hang out on this road.”  What a guy.  Wanting only to oblige, I downshifted and gave it a bootful through the esses.  I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to explore the limits of grip, but I could sense through the steering wheel that the car was capable of a lot more than the backroad curves could throw at it.  It was magnificent, and the steering response was informative without being punishing–it really was tuned very, very well.  I don’t think anyone will be disappointed by this car’s handling.  One more notable feature–the absence of torque steer.  A couple of times, I put myself in second and floored it, thinking, “THIS will generate some torque steer!” and, as I sat there, waiting for the car to jump leftward into oncoming traffic without provocation….it did nothing.  It just kept going straight.  Whatever wonders Ford has worked with eliminating the torque steer from this 252hp, 270 lb.-ft., FWD monster, it is simply brilliant to drive.

When we turned around to head back to the dealership, I did notice that the turning circle on this car is absolutely hilarious.  It needed a K-turn to handle a curve that would have been a simple U-turn for most cars.  This is not a deal-breaker for me by any stretch of the imagination, but it is worth mentioning.

Brakes: 9/10

The brakes are almost flawless.  There’s quite a lot of initial bite, but in this car, that bite just inspires confidence in the stoppers from the second you touch the pedal.  They are progressive and natural-feeling, while also being very effective at scrubbing speed.  This is especially gratifying given that Ford’s brakes are usually about 75% too spongy for me; I’m glad to see that they’ve taken a different tack here.

Gearbox: 10/10

This is one of the all-time great modern manual transmissions.  The shifter moves very fluidly from gate to gate, but it also has a very short throw, and when you put it into a gear, it locks into the gate with a lovely, mechanical-feeling snick.  It is a work of art, and even despite the fact that the shift knob looks a bit bargain-bin, it fits the hand very well and is an utter joy to row.  My only complaint is that, in order to unlock the Reverse gate, you have to lift the collar on the shift boot, which seems very counter-intuitive to me; it seems to me that the best method for separating Reverse from the other gears is to push down on the shift knob in order to access it.  I’m also fine with shifters that require you to add extra elbow-grease to get to the Reverse gate.  But lifting the little metal ring that connects the shift boot to the knob?  That’s just a weird, awkward motion for your hand to perform.

Thankfully, the clutch is every inch as beautifully engineered as the gearbox itself.  It’s light–not so light as to feel numb, but just light enough that operating it isn’t a chore.  Clutch-flywheel engagement is very progressive, and you can feel it through the pedal just enough so that you know what’s going on.  The friction point is wide enough that it doesn’t feel like a switch, but not so wide that you might accidentally drop out of a gear before it’s all the way engaged.

Simply put: it’s a fantastic gearbox.  It might be one of the best transmissions I’ve ever used; it’s certainly in the top five.  As a manual junkie, I was floored by how much fun it was to row this thing.  It strikes the perfect balance between notchiness and smoothness, a feat that few other gearboxes I’ve encountered have been able to match: for instance, the GTI’s ‘box is a marvel of smoothness with not enough notchiness, while the Mazdaspeed3’s is so notchy that it’s hard to shift it without a major application of violence and force.  On the test drive, I even found myself changing gears even when I didn’t have to, just because it was such great fun to operate this transmission.

Acceleration: 9/10

This car has 270 lb.-ft. of torque, and you can absolutely tell that from the driver’s seat.  A generous helping of that torque is available from about 2000 RPM, and so it’s quite easy to have fun in almost any gear at almost any time.  It’s really shocking how favorably this compares to the Mazdaspeed3, which has more bhp (263) and more torque (280); it just feels like the ST makes that power a lot earlier and a lot more consistently.  (Don’t tell Mazda, but I also feel like more of The ST’s 252bhp are making it to the wheels).

The moral of the story is that, with an ocean of torque consistently available throughout the rev-band, the ST flies.  It just absolutely flies.  The ST gets 9/10 points in this category–not because it could objectively out-accelerate 90% of the cars on the road (although that may be true), but rather because the sensation of acceleration you get in this car is more exhilarating than the experience of accelerating in a great many other cars, including ones that cost much more.

Sound: 9/10

You can definitely tell that the ST’s sound is being piped through an active sound symposer (or “snorkus”).  In this car, that isn’t even close to a bad thing.  You can feel the deep basso profundo thrum of the engine’s exhaust note in your kidneys, and this would be true even without the symposer’s help; it’s there to add the treble notes of induction noise to this composition, and it does so with the precision of a 1st-chair violinist from the London Symphony Orchestra.  When you get on the throttle, the symposer snarls at you.  It chucks out this positively lupine growl that sends shivers down your spine.  It’s marvelous technology.

The thing is, apart from the engine noise (and the sound coming from the excellent stereo), there isn’t much to hear with this car.  Sound-deadening has been applied here to great effect, and road noise is effectively a non-issue.  I can’t speak to the presence or absence of engine drone at cruising speeds, but I can tell you that the cabin is a very sonically comfortable place, and that the engine note is positively demonic.  For me, this is just about a perfect combination.

Toys: 4/10

This is really the ST’s weak spot.  The thing is, it does have the toys you’d expect a hot hatch with options to possess: heated seats, nav, touchscreen…things, bluetooth for your phone, hookups for your MP3 player, and so on.  My only issue with these toys is that many of them are connected with Ford’s truly horrible SYNC interface, which is unendingly frustrating to use.  It’s such a distracting piece of technology to operate that I honestly believe it’s unsafe to use SYNC while you’re driving.  If that condemnation isn’t enough to frighten you, then consider the following anecdote, which should give you chills: when I was talking to the salesman about SYNC, he said that Ford’s plan was to phase out physical buttons and eventually have the entire car be operated with voice commands.  This is a bad idea.

Value: 8/10

This car’s base price is $24,115.  For what you’re getting, that is incredible INSANE value.  Admittedly, given that you will want some of the options for this car (do yourself a favor and get the Recaros, rear legroom be damned), the price of the model you actually buy would probably be closer to the model I tested, which was fully-loaded at about $29,000 (MSRP).  Now, if you were to go with an ST specced somewhere in between those two prices?  At about $27,000, this car would be a very, very sweet deal.  I would even say that it’s a serious rival for the current-generation GTI.  The busy design of the ST, inside and out, might keep me from buying one, especially considering the wonderfully simple, clean design of a GTI, but if a salesman made me a particularly good offer on a day when I was feeling particularly rakish?  …..I might just end up in this fast Ford.

At least, until the Mk. 7 GTI comes to America next summer.

Aggregate Score: 78/100

A brief introduction.

Recently I was invited to be an author here, so I figured I would give a brief, to-the-point introduction of myself.  My name is Eric, and, like the others writing here, cars are my thing.  Currently I drive a 1989 BMW 325is with an extremely loud exhaust.  I am hoping to bring a new viewpoint to the reviews on this blog, and that is the viewpoint from the race track.  I am well versed in high-performance driving, and am an instructor for the BMW Car Club of America.  I am also an avid autocrosser, I used to do quite a bit of drag racing, and am getting my wheel-to-wheel racing license this October.  I’m hoping that I can bring an analysis less of practicality and real-life uses, and more of how they perform on the edge.  I will, however, still be dabbling in a few normal reviews as well.  At this point I am also building a Lotus 7 kit car from scratch, and will be posting that as well.  Good reading!