All entries for Saturday 21 October 2006

October 21, 2006

Tales from the wheel

So, two weeks and 1,600 miles (and far too much petrol) into new car ownership and I feel it’s time to report back on how I’m getting along with my new love interest – the Focus ST (or ASBO if you’re a Top Gear viewer).

Overall, it’s an awesome car. I’m very happy with my decision to go for it, and picking up a shiny new car from a dealer with 16 miles on the clock is a great feeling. I can see why so many people will never buy anything other than new, although personally I’d be happy to go back to second hand buying. For this car though, since the model is so new and since I could get decent discount, I went for it new anyway. It’s not perfect, but I’m so delighted with it that I’m willing to forgive it’s imperfections. Rather than continue in this style though, the easiest way for me to get across what I think about it is just to list the things that stand out that I do and don’t like (I’m an engineer, not a motoring journalist!)

I don’t think I can start anywhere else but the engine. Those in the know will be aware of the ST’s 2522cc 5 cylinder turbo unit, which is every bit as great as you think it is. At low revs, it has a deep rumble and enough torque to tow a battleship. A serious prod at the throttle has the effect of dragging any object on the horizon towards the car at a fair old lick in no time. I happen to think it sounds a little like a Viper, since the firing frequencies associated with the 5 cylinder are much the same as the V10, and it’s much more that sort of deep noted engine than a wailing sports engine like you might imagine. Furthermore, it has an appreciable amount of turbo whistle, which is a good thing, and a short burst of throttle and then a sudden lift-off will produce a satisfying de-spooling noise from the turbo department. It also overfuels very nicely on the overrun, with anything from a distant snuffle and boom to some very audible pops and bangs, which (if you’re about 9 years old mentally like me) makes imagining that you’re in a full on Focus WRC charging down a rally circuit very entertaining. Another nice touch with the ST is that they’ve reduced the amount of sound deadening to the engine department, which means you can really hear it in the cabin (with the windows up). Only three things bug me about the engine – and for me, that’s very good going. One of them (which is only very minor) is the rather poor fuel consumption – I’ve been averaging less than 24 MPG so far. I know that it’s new and I know that I’m not exactly gentle on the loud pedal, but even for a performance hatch that’s not great. Also, I don’t think the induction system is actually loud enough. The lack of sound deadening compensates well for this to make you think you’re in a loud car, but with the windows down the resulting buffeting and Helmholtz resonance actually shows it up for being quite a muted unit from the outside. More noise please Ford. Lastly, the engineers have made a decided push for low down torque, which is great. However, this means that they’ve fitted a 12 blade turbine to the exhaust (for comparison, the VXR Astra has a 9 blade turbine) to improve spooling. This works well for low down boost (it produces serious boost at little above idle if you open the taps) and results in little lag, but seriously limits the top-end power. Therefore, the engine feels restricted in the upper rev reaches as the torque falls away, leaving much more of a constant, brutal, crushing acceleration than something that feels very zippy and sport-like. I’m aiming to rectify this with a bluefin re-map of the ECU, and possibly some other goodies like a beefier intercooler, revised induction system and free-flow catalyst, but nevertheless it’s slightly irritating.

The ESP is a handy system that I usually leave on, just in case one day I get a little over-zealous and then have to slam on the anchors out of a corner whilst enjoying myself down a country B road. However, for really enjoying a drive, especially in wet conditions, it’s too intrusive. I’m sure this could have been worked on a little more; when the system cuts in (and it does, and quite early too) you really know about it. It is, however, very easy to turn off, and turn completely off at that – none of this VAG “remain in the background” rubbish. It even displays a constant scary “ESP OFF” and a yellow light instead of the trip computer just in case you forgot. Fortunately, the traction is excellent, meaning the system isn’t really needed most of the time. Even completely off, you can floor it at 45/50 in second round a quick corner and barely a chirrup comes from the inside wheel as it grips and goes. I think with the aforementioned mods this may change slightly, but even so the chassis feels like it can handle a lot more than the current power output.

The handling again I can’t fault – it’s perfectly balanced. Depending upon how much you provoke it, when you do eventually run out of grip (and I’ve barely managed to do so yet) the front will gently start to push wide, or the tail will step out slightly if you lift off too harshly. The steering at first I thought to be too light, and was irritated to find it was already in “sport” – the hardest of the three settings on the electro-hydraulic system. However, at speed it weights up well, and although it’s still too light for my tastes (I found the weighting on the Murcielago about right, to give some idea of where my tastes lie) it is very communicative and you know exactly what everything is up to.

The brakes are truly terrifyingly effective – I was toying with it after I’d bedded them in, and decided to see if I could brake quite late for the turning into our road (after checking nothing was around yadda yadda). After all, you need to know what the car’s capable of. I was quite surprised to find my car lose 30 mph in 10 feet, whilst physics and my body had other ideas, and disagreed somewhat with the seatbelt. I’ve learnt from that to treat 320mm front discs with a little respect, and recognise that unlike on the Escort I probably won’t be using anything like their full potential in road driving very often.

The ride I was expecting to be pretty firm, and it is. Although the engine gives the car almost a laid back feel in some ways, the suspension points very strongly to it’s true calling as a performance tool. It crashes into bumps in the road very firmly and noisily at times – I actually thought I had hit some debris down one back road the thump was so severe. But hey, I know you can’t have it all ways – if I wanted a motorway cruiser I’d have bought a second hand XJ. The suspension is firm for a reason (see the handling paragraph above), and whilst a more comfortable ride would be nice I’m happy with the trade-off.

The cabin is a very nice place to sit. The stereo looks cool, has an iPod connector and is seriously punchy if you want to crank up the volume (although I haven’t really had it on much…). I also love the three dials in the centre of the dash for turbo boost, oil pressure and oil temperature. These are pretty handy, the oil temp and water temp gauges especially giving me a good indication of when I am safe to start using more than a smidge of throttle once the engine is warm. Sadly this takes about 4 miles of country roads from my house, as low throttle openings mean the engine takes longer to warm… Dammit! Worthy of singling out for special praise are the seats, which are exceedingly comfortable even on long motorway trips, yet at the same time are very supportive through the bends. They also look the part, finished with highlights to match the bodywork. Despite being a three door, access to the back is pretty good – I’ve given a lift to two elderly relatives in the past couple of weeks, neither of whom had a great deal of trouble getting into the back. The doors though are massive, and swing out a long way before you can get out comfortably – methinks I’m going to have to be careful with near walls and whatnot to avoid damaging the excellent paintwork. The boot is also a decent size – I took some relatives to the airport and all their stuff fitted in the back easily.

So there we go – the new Focus ST. In my opinion, the best realistic car on sale today. It’s no wonder the watiing list is currently about 6 months long!

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