A Focus ST and a test drive gone awry (UPDATE: NOW WITH THE WHOLE STORY)

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You’re not supposed to be parked on the side of a residential street in a car you don’t own, and especially not so on a drive for which you’re supposed to be pitched reasons why you should buy exact said car. But there we were, the salesman and me, on our hands and knees looking beneath a brand-new, just-off-the-truck 2016 Focus ST. If you only get one first impression it’s a sure good thing the first few minutes of my drive went smoothly, because I really wanted to like the FoST. But there we were… on our hands and knees.
[We had a little technical snafu yesterday; click through for the whole thing – Ed]

There’s good test drives and there’s bad test drives. Over the last few years I’ve been on some that were pretty great: there was the time a Subaru salesman threw me the keys to a 2016 WRX and said “come back when you’re smiling.”  There was the time I test drove a 2013 Camaro SS on a winding Connecticut back-road, salesman riding shotgun telling me to driver harder and faster. Better yet, but to do so worry-free since the dealership uses the road as its test route and the local PD knows not to stop them from doing so given how much they contribute to local economy. But then, as I learned last Friday, not all test drives are good. In fact, they can even go pretty poorly, doing an injustice to the car you’re supposed to be judging to see if it fits your life. To call my few minutes behind the wheel of a 2016 Ford Focus ST “interesting” would be to put it nicely, but I came away liking the car and laughing at what a mess of an experience it was.
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Background before the excitement: having recently moved to a city for the first time in my life, I’ve been building a thirst for a more fuel and space efficient daily driver. The Focus ST has been on radar for years now. It’s become a recurring option that keeps popping up on the potential next-car list, deeming itself worthy of so by being a fantastic hot-hatch and do-it-all daily. Having come across a black 2016 model listed on my local Ford dealer’s website, and some unplanned free time pushing my interest over the edge, I called over to schedule a test drive.
The dealership was more than accommodating. I spoke briefly with a manager and asked questions about the turbo and flat-plane-crank Mustangs (nothing of interest to report from said conversation). After a short wait and a copy of my driver’s license being taken, the salesman came around and said he had the car pulled alongside the building for us to go look at.
A quick visual inspection of the Shadow Black ST and it was time to go for a drive. Hopping in, it’s impossible not to notice how great the Recaro seats are. They hug your body with some of the best production seats my ass has had the pleasure of sitting in, are of really nice quality materials, and look an appropriate amount of “sporty.” Long-distance driving could easily be tiresome, but otherwise they’re fantastic. The rest of the interior seems well done as well: forward visibility is great, the dash is feels like it could be a class above, and the steering wheel is spectacular. My only other interior gripes are the lack of rear leg-room and the shifter location, which felt a drop further back than I personally would have liked.
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Getting going was problem-free, and the clutch is among the easiest I’ve felt. The pedals are spaced at a good distance should you want to heel-toe and the throws of the shifter are notchy enough to be fun but not so much so that they render shifting a chore. As for the engine, this was my first time driving a turbocharged front-wheel-drive car and I was pretty impressed. There’s not much down low, but then again I had just gotten out of my own car which has four extra cylinders. Once you get into boost though… oh man is it fun.
I wish I had more time behind the wheel to just keep playing with the turbo. More time to keep banging through the gears and wringing it out. The torque steer wasn’t as bad as I had expected and though it was definitely there it wasn’t so much that the steering wheel was getting torn out of my hands. All these big-turbo FWD builds out there boggle me; I can see maybe 30-40 horsepower and torque more and then it would be at a functional breaking point. Really enjoyable from stock though. Somewhat satisfied and craving more boost noises, we drove down a long road, turned around, and headed back to the dealership.
And then the real fun started. At the end of our loop there was a cul-de-sac toeing up to where the pavement meets the water, separated by a wall and an elevation chance of a couple feet. Dropping the Focus into neutral, I wheeled the small hatch around one-hundred-eighty degrees and pointed back towards home, ever so slightly uphill. Having accelerated smoothly and somewhat slowly from the traffic lights coming the other way, and at the urging of the salesman, I got on the gas hard coming back up the street. Accelerating through first, up through second, and hard into third, soon after I had let off the clutch there was suddenly a noise—a horrible, indistinguishable, “this-isn’t-good” noise that shocked both me and my co-driver. If you can imagine the sound ten garbage bags full of bowling balls being dragged somewhere within the front right corner of the car, it sounded like that. Warranting a “definitely no bueno” status, we looked at each other in horror, agreed telepathically it was concerning, and babbled as we spat out jumbled phrases about pulling over to assess. Casual test drive, not so much.
 
As expected there was nothing to see. Nothing of interest, at least. Brakes, suspension undercarriage, skid plates, nothing. The smell though…there was definitely a smell that there shouldn’t have been. It’s worth noting that the salesman himself had to take the plastic protective wrap off the driver’s and passenger’s seats as well as other in-shipment damage-inhibiting items, leading us to theorize whoever unloaded the car may have missed something upon arrival inspection. So with nothing to see, a potentially broken car, and myself not wanting to be liable for damages, I handed the salesman the keys and told him I’d be his passenger the rest of the way back.
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In a feeble yet valiant attempt to show off either his mad driving skillz yo, or the car’s mad sportiness yo, the salesman decided to dump the clutch and rip through first and second gears. As he was going through neutral into third, wheelspin to go along with the facial expression that one makes to accompany wheelspin, my mind wandered to the car’s last blast through the gears. That noise that only came in third? Oh yeah, that noise…about to get a whole lot more of it. Accordingly, the FoST obliged and gave us the sound again—loud as before, surprising as before, horrible as before. The salesman made the same disgusted face I had, looked at me, and pulled the car over hard on the right. Same song and dance, same lying on the hot pavement on the side of a residential street, same exact nothing to see.
We crawled the rest of the way back to parking lot, never going past 3k RPM and never going past second gear. Every gear-change was a moment spent waiting for the sound to come, preparing for mechanical disaster. Pulling back into the lot we both sighed a big breath of relief. Car turned off, we exited the black Ford and walked back into the showroom to his desk. The rest of the story is pretty insignificant but can be summarized by me walking out and laughing about the price quote. As is tradition.
 
Looking back, it was a big learning experience. I came to understand that even though I had done so many over the past three years, test drives are still a part of the real world and still function within reality. But I also learned about the Focus ST, a car I’d been interested in for years, and came away with impressions both good and bad. Let’s start with the bad, shall we?

  • The as-driven price was within spitting distance of $30k. That’s not a ton of money compared to what else is out there, but for the Focus ST – which starts in the low-$20k’s and can be had new for around or under $20k if you find the right one – it’s a good bunch of money. But if it’s your only car, a daily driver functioning as a track toy and winter hustler as well, I guess I can see spending that much on a loaded FoST. Probably not where I’d spend my money, but you could do far worse.
  • The engine noise that gets piped straight into the cabin is still questionable. It sounds decent, but it’s easy to tell it’s been designed to be that way. But the Focus does such a good job isolating its passengers from road, tire, and wind noise that the piped-in engine and exhaust noises fails to come off as genuine.
  • The shifter definitely feels a bit further back than is ideal, but this is a wholly personal gripe.
  • The torque steer is still there. I’ve never driven a turbo FWD car before, and while it didn’t feel like it was going to tear the wheel from my hands, it definitely felt like it wanted to pull in one direction when you were hard on the gas in the lower gears.
  • The package would be more compelling with AWD. Two more driven wheels would help negate the torque steer and would also make it more winter-friendly. It would hurt gas mileage and price but would make it a true WRX competitor and a middle finger to the WRX hatch that is no more.
  • The horrid grinding/scraping/roaring noise coming from the right front. Yeah, hard to ignore that. Hearing ten bowling balls in shopping bags dragging underneath the car isn’t usually good. Somewhat gets a pass given the potential for in-transit stuff that may have not been taken off, but…it was pretty bad.

All that said, many of those gripes were seriously minor or inherent to the Focus. There was a lot I liked too:

  • The size of the car is great. It’s big enough to hold people and stuff, but has a footprint that keeps it in the small class. As such, it’s is nimble and easy to park without feeling insubstantial.
  • The power is there and it’s enough to keep you occupied without sacrificing livability. It doesn’t have that spontaneous turbo feel that Subar’s FA20 does, but the turbo still has a bit of surge to it and it’s fun every time you feel it come alive. It’ll keep you entertained while not regularly getting you into trouble, a good balance.
  • The way it looks: it’s subtle but defined. You know from the details that it’s not a normal Focus, but it’s not ostentatious enough to make you embarrassed to drive it.
  • The Recaros are amazing seats, especially for a factory option. They could definitely prove tiresome on longer drives, but I’d have a hard time not optioning them in.
  • The ride quality is surprisingly good given its class and sporting intentions. Potholes were handled well, and uneven sections of road were soaked up and controlled in a good manner. In my brief drive, I was shocked to feel the FoST ride as well as it does.
  • The visibility. In today’s age of wildly unnecessarily high belt-lines, tiny window openings, and massive pillars (for safety!) with the also massive blind spots—visibility is a highly, highly underrated quality in a car. With a wide, tall windscreen, decently sized windows, and no major pillars to get in the way, the Focus is inherently easy to see out of. Especially coming out of my Challenger which has a ton of blind spots (though not as bad as the #Camero), being able to see most everywhere is greatly appreciated.

So, my time in the Focus ST was definitely interesting. It’s an interesting car, is interesting to drive, and provided an interesting experience for me. Do I like it? Sure, I definitely like it. So does our own Jason Connor, and there’s a huge community out there of super-fans for Ford’s hot hatch. But am I about to plunk my own money down on one? I don’t think so. It was nice and all, but didn’t really tickle my fancy so to speak. Driving the FoST sure was fun though, and if they ever end up on the serious cheap I may have to snag one. New though…not for me.
Before we go…I can’t be the only one who has had a messed up test-drive experience. Anyone else have a story of “test-drive gone wrong?”
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Images courtesy of Ford.

About Ross Ballot

Host of the Off the Road Again Podcast. 4WD and four-wheeling enthusiast and expert. Formula 1 fanatic. Contributor to Hooniverse, ATVRider.com, UTVDriver.com, and Everyday Driver. Usually found getting a vehicle stuck in the mud or on the rocks and loving every second of it.

0 Comments

      1. The car is too small to consider is just another way of saying “I can’t figure out how to load your luggage dear.”
        Small cars, in addition to being generally more efficient, tend to make us use our reasoning skills when it comes to packing/hauling. After all, we all love Tetris, right?

        1. Oh I love real-life Tetris as much as anybody, but sometimes I have to use my car for work and to go on vacations so I need the room. Plus, I’m not exactly world’s most efficient packer.

  1. a teaser!
    i have a FiST, and i certainly do have a few QC concerns. however….put your foot down on the way out of a corner, and it’s probably worth it.

  2. I test drove a Dodge Conquest and it had a low fuel light on. “Shouldn’t we get some gas” I asked. Not to worry said the salesman. We ran out of gas within minutes and had a nice walk back. I was still interested in the car, but the salesman wasn’t. Coincidently I bought a Ford Mustang instead.

    1. The first time I test-drove a VehiCROSS (2013 maybe?) the owner of the used car dealership handed me a $10 bill along with the keys and said “fill it up if it looks low.”

  3. Sounds like the third gear synchro is already toast. Just let the RPMs drop a bit more before completing the shift, or try double-clutching through neutral on the 2-3 upshift. Either way, this is nonsense that you shouldn’t have to deal with in a new car.
    One thing I need from a manual car is for it to be able to put up with occasional no-lift-shifting without complaint. My Ram 50 could do it for days. The Saturn SL would do it, but the cable-actuated shifter would get really hard to move for a while, like I was dragging it through sand. The Mazda Protege would do it without complaint, allowing a third-gear bark even from the little stock 2.0L mill (stiff aftermarket mounts, a short-shifter, and solid shifter rod bushings all helped). I didn’t try it in the WRX because the 1st and 2nd synchros were already on their way out when I got the car at 97k. I never tried it in the old Rabbit, because it was broken enough as it was. The CBR250R loved it (being a bike, all it required was upward pressure on the shift lever with a quick twitch of the right wrist).
    No, I’m not easy on cars. There’s a reason our family minivan goes through engine mounts like candy.

    1. The last attribute of a manual that still grips my desires is its durability…hopefully this was just a production error and the typical FoST manual transmission is a bit more trustworthy than whatever multi-clutch automatic thingy the other ones come with.

      1. That was one of my reasons for buying my 2010 Challenger with the manual… I traded it 54,000 miles later for a 2015 automatic, due to a clutch that had added occasional incomplete release to its already-annoying portfolio of unpredictability.

      1. Calm down, chief — I only drive my own cars with a heavy hand. Even when I’ve driven others’ cars with them riding shotgun, and they tell me to “beat on it”, I don’t get into the really nasty stuff I’d do with my own.
        And even then, only occasionally.

  4. The ‘e’ in Camero is silent. Because it’s an ‘a’.
    Sincerely, Lt. I.M. Stigshift, Grammar Police, English Division

  5. I’ve told some of these test drive stories before, but there was the beat up 928 drive that was sans-dealer, during which I parked the car, unknowingly set the alarm, triggered the alarm, and thought that cranking the engine with the key would disable the alarm, but instead drained the battery, which was well-sealed in the rear hatch that we couldn’t open (the hatch lock was broken, except, it ends up, for turning on the alarm). I learned all these years later that there’s a jump post under the hood!
    Or the time the dealer and I were hooning an M Roadster around a small-town airport, got spotted by the county sheriff, and were very closely followed back to the dealership.
    Or my favorite, the time the Carmax guy tried to jump an XJR sitting on the lot. Another trunk-battery car, but neither of us knew that so we popped the hood. I did know, however, that the hood hinged at the grille on a Jag. The guy didn’t, and instead used the Leaper to try to raise the bonnet and pulled it clean off. “We’ll fix that if you buy the car, of course” Of course, I didn’t.

    1. Went to look at a 2006 GTO a few years back that actually had no transmission in it. Didn’t say anything about that in the ad, and also (surprise surprise) meant to test-drive. Got the same “we’ll fix that if you buy it” line you did…

  6. I probably would have tried skipping 3rd and going straight from 2nd to 4th at least once. What could possibly go wrong that hadn’t already?

    1. Good point. Under pressure I didn’t think of that. But admittedly this happened on a residential street so pulling hard in 4th would have been a wee bit much.

  7. “Hopping in, it’s impossible to notice how great the Recaro seats are.
    They hug your body with some of the best production seats my ass has had
    the pleasure of sitting in”
    So should that read “it’s impossible NOT to notice how great the Recaro seats are” ?.

    1. Right you are! Some things get overlooked when you look at the same sentences over and over again. This was one of those cases.
      And thanks!

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