What’s the point of renting a car in Europe if it’s one that’s also available in the US? So why did I request a Golf diesel, with stick shift, naturally; a car that is quite common here in Eugene? I assumed it was readily available, and I wanted some seat time with one. Well, the Munich Airport Sixt Car Rental gods (actually, their counter was rather hellish that day) knew better, and put me in a Ford Focus Tournier (wagon), with the 1.5 L EcoBoost gasoline four and even an automatic transmission (the take rate for automatics in the EU is under 25%). How un-European can you get? No Citroen Cactus?
I ended up with a car that was rather American in some respects, but is nevertheless forbidden fruit here. I was a bit disappointed when I was handed the keys, but after two and a half weeks of autobahns, Alpine passes, autostradas, country roads, narrow city streets and parking garages designed for Fiat 500s, I have zero regrets. Well, except for the fact that it’s not available here.
Let me put in a disclaimer right now: I’m not going to tell you about the Focus’ many electronic features and controls, because I didn’t use any of them, at least not on purpose. At the rental car garage at Munich, I slid behind the nicely contoured leather-wrapped steering wheel on the comfortable seat, quickly realized that there was no “key”, hit the start button, adjusted the mirrors, dropped the gear selector into D, and drove off.
When I had to stop on the way out of the rental car garage, the engine died a second or two later. Aha; Start-Stop. As soon as I let up on the brake some, the engine started up again, and pretty smoothly. The system worked quite well and was quickly gotten used to and forgotten, but one can defeat it by using the S Mode on the automatic.
The airport is served by its own extension of the autobahn, so within a couple of minutes we were rolling along at 130 km/h, and that was good enough for me, in terms of familiarization. I didn’t pay for the navigation to be activated, and had no interest in any music, etc.. So this review woefully lacks what has become a key part of any modern review. Sync? What’s that? Oh wait; the Parking Distance Alert was a nice touch in the very tight parking garages, but did get a bit unnecessarily nervous in some close traffic in Italy.
But I felt instantly comfortable and at home in the Focus, which must have been the Titanium version, as it was pretty fully loaded and has the chromed grill and that the Ford.de website shows as being exclusive to that top trim line. Oh, we did use automatic climate control knob to dial in the desired temp, and of course I used the cruise control, although not so much in Germany and Austria, where the very disciplined left lane protocol made it a bit less relevant than in Italy, where I used it extensively, thanks to light traffic and often three lanes.
The first two and a half days were spent in Innsbruck—a quick two hour drive from Munich—visiting with my large extended family and my brother, who moved back there five years ago. Needless to say, the car didn’t move those first couple of days. Driving in the city center of almost any European city is a waste of time and energy.
Especially so in Innsbruck, as one can walk from where it bumps into mountains on one side of the city to where it does the same on the other side in short order. We took several hikes up into the hills and mountains right from town. These shots are from the old city watch/clock tower, which dates to the mid-1500s. (Note: the lens on an iPhone is not ideal for landscapes, and makes the mountains seem much further away than they actually are)
The tower overlooks the plaza in front of the famous Golden Roof, which Kaiser Maximilian I had built in 1500 to observe the festivities celebrating his assumption of rule over Tyrol, and was later used to watch knightly tournaments in the plaza. Maximilian was very dynamic, and the one who really got the Hapsburg dynasty rolling, with strategic marriages, wars, and deft politics. And during his extended stay in Innsbruck, he brought in the finest armorers, craftsmen, artists and other luminaries, which made the city one of the hot spots of the (known) world at the time. On this night, folks were being treated to an outdoor movie instead of the clanging of swords and armor.
After three days we extracted the Focus from its parking spot and headed to Italy, before coming back for a longer stay.
So what specifically makes the Euro-Focus different from the American Focus? The US version comes standard with a 160 hp 2.0L naturally aspirated four, teamed to a standard five speed stick or the Powershift (dual clutch automated mechanical) automatic. On the SE sedan and hatch, the little 1.0 L EcoBoost turbo three cylinder with 123 hp teamed with a six-speed manual and Start-Stop is optional ($795). How’s that for going against the grain? Paying more for a smaller and less powerful engine? And with stick only? Wonder what the take rate is.
A 100 hp version of this little tree-pot, which has gotten a lot of press praise, is standard on the Euro-Focus (except the stripper version, which comes with an 85 hp 1.6 NA four), and the more powerful version is the next gas-engine step up. There’s also several versions of both 1.5 and 2.0 L diesels available, undoubtedly the diesels are the most popular choice in most EU countries. In Innsbruck, diesel was selling for €1.04/L ($4.43/gal), and gasoline for €1.33/L ($5.54/gal), due to most EU countries taxing diesel at a lower rate. Those numbers are actually pretty reasonable, thanks to the recent drop in oil prices. Nevertheless, the take rate for gas-engined cars is quite low, except for cheap low-end thrift-mobiles and some performance cars.
And of course the new Ford Mustang, three of which were in the most prominent front position at the Ford dealer, and I saw at least a couple on the streets. The latest generation was designed to be a true global car, so maybe it’s off to a reasonably good start, especially with gas prices being relatively low. It starts at €44,400, or just a bit under $50k.
The 1.5 EcoBoost gas four comes in 150 hp and 182 hp versions, teamed with a standard six-speed manual or an optional six-speed automatic. Note that this is not the Powershift twin-clutch “automatized manual”, but a conventional one. That threw me at first, as I’ve never driven the Powershift, which has come under fire for its jerkiness in some situations; I assumed this was one too when I first got in, but I could tell almost instantly that it felt like a torque converter unit, and was admirably smooth. A bit odd that Ford uses this autobox only with the EcoBoost 1.5, and the Powershift with the diesels only, in Europe anyway.
The automatic was a sympathetic partner to the engine, with only rare moments of indecision. On pass roads and other mountain terrain, I used the S mode for its more aggressive shift matrix and engine braking, and on the steep downhill segments shifted manually with the button on the shifter knob. My thumb kept pretty busy on one or two stretches. Automatics are a good fit with turbo engines, as they tend to smooth out any abrupt transitions, although these are now mostly absent in modern turbo engines. Except for the lusty torque curve, which peaked at a low 1600 rpm, one is hardly aware of the turbo otherwise. And no; small turbo engines don’t need to rev to make power; quite the contrary, as a turbo fattens the power curve in the low and mid range. The 1.5 makes peak power at 6,000 rpm, which is lower than a normally aspirated modern engine of this size.
Although I’m happy with a stick, I can also be quite happy with an automatic. In stressful situations in a foreign country (certain Italian inner cities come to mind), an automatic can be a boon, especially if one is desperately looking for the next sign. No; I didn’t pay extras for the navigation, we had no Google maps (our phones didn’t work, and my brother lent me an old extra phone for voice and messages only), and I drove off from Innsbruck to Italy without even a map. Actually, I had printed off the route from Innsbruck to where we were going in the Piedmont back home, but that somehow was missing right when I could have used it.
Frankly, I rather like the challenge of using certain spacial faculties that humans have evolved to a high degree but are now in the process of handing off to navigation systems, and I managed to get off the autostrada in Bolzano(Bozen) and find my way into the very lovely old city center (above, but not my photo) to see the museum where Ötzi, the bronze age man found in a glacier is on view. And then back on the autostrada. And then off the autostrada to Sirmione on Lake Garda. And then…I did not find my way back to the autostrada. Oops. It took three gas stations before a map of Italy was obtained, but by that time it wasn’t really needed as we had run into it anyway.
My sister-in-law got what I was wanting: a Golf TDI wagon, with stick. Both of them are parked here in front of her Italian father-in-law’s 100 year old farm house (the yellow one) overlooking the Cerrina Valley in the Piedmont area of Italy, a bit west of Turin. Like so many houses here, it’s one of a number of adjacent houses that are owned by relatives. The older house with the crumbling stucco and shrine in the wall is long uninhabited, and there’s also a spider-web engulfed cantina in the basement that still has the three big wine barrels and all the other implements of wine-making, the primary rural activity back in the day.
The yellow house is only used in the summers by SIL and her three kids (including CC Contributor Aidan), and it has wonderful spaces inside, with very tall ceilings and of course only tall windows and French(?) doors with obligatory shutters that are used to shade the summer sun as well as protect the windows from the rains.
On clear days, the snow-covered alps make a backdrop behind the hills to the north, although their tops were hidden in the clouds this day. There’s one charming little village after another, many hugging the ridgelines. Piedmont does mean “foot of the mountains”, after all. Please note: there’s going to be a lot of digressions, as this is going to be about the places the Focus took us as well as the car itself.
I assume that my rental wagon had the 150 hp version (182hp is also available) , but it certainly never lacked adequate power (magazine reviews average about 9.0 second 0-100 kmh (0-61 mph). What surprised me was its throaty roar when it’s given the spurs, since it’s an admirably smooth engine otherwise. Perhaps this is done on purpose, to make the car seem sportier, as I can’t imagine why a little turbo four would sound so lusty. Not really a problem, as it goes away as soon as the throttle is backed off again, but since the Focus was rather exceptionally quiet (a number of changes were made to the 2015 model to make it so), it was a bit of a surprise.
Obviously I was wanting a diesel both to have more experience with one as well as its better efficiency with cheaper diesel fuel. I kept track of actual fuel used, but I’ll save the results for the end of the trip/article. Italy’s autostradas (toll freeways) are splendid, with very little traffic and often with three lanes. The standard speed limit on them is 130 km/h (81 mph), but after being passed regularly by faster traffic, I soon joined in and was typically rolling along with the cruise control set at either 150 or 160 km/h (93 – 100 mph).
The Focus was serenely quiet at that speed, a combination of the extra effort Ford made in the revised 2015 version as well as the pavement quality in Germany, Austria and Italy, which was excellent. They often seem to use a light-colored asphalt that looks more like a hybrid of concrete and asphalt. My worse-for-wear ears really appreciated it.
Of course my point of contrast is Oregon’s perpetually rough pavement, which is chewed up within a year or two by studded winter tires and eventually creates very rough ruts (above) that makes for a terrible drone. What utter idiocy, to still allow them, despite the state’s declining fuel tax revenue crisis. I bitched about that here on the other site. Sure enough, after we arrived back (in Portland) the drive home on I-5 in the Acura sounded like sitting in a coffee grinder. Argh!! I have taken to driving on the extreme left or right side of the lane in an effort to get out of the worst of the rough area.
We obviously wanted to take some day trips from our base in Valle Cerrina. Given that there were two of us, and SIL has three kids (twins almost 14 and a 12 year old), I assumed we’d take two cars. By she rather hates driving in Italy, and fortunately, her kids are all skinny, so the four of them hopped in the back of the Focus. And endured daily trips, with up to four hours or more total drive time, without even the slightest complaint. You guys rock!
It was hot, so the first outing was to Lago Orta, the smallest and least (over)developed of the Italy’s great lakes on the south edge of the Alps. This is the Sacre Monte (not my photo), on an islet, as seen from the very cute little town of Orta San Giulio, where we found a parking garage and spent a happy day, including two swims in the very clear water.
The next trip was more ambitious, with a two hour drive south, a bit past Genoa on the Mediterranean; more specifically, the sea-side town of Santa Margherita.
Traffic on the main streets was…intense, with a sea of motor scooters and bikes that engulfed one’s car an both sides as soon as car traffic was backed up. But we managed to find a public parking garage again, and walked down to the waterfront. I missed catching a shot of an open Citroen Mehari, but just caught this Mini Moke, both perfectly suited to the locale and climate.
I need to confess now that I did not make much of an effort to shoot every older or interesting car that I saw, partly because I needed a vacation from car-shooting as well. And then there was the fact that I did all the driving, and one does not just whip around and go back and park when a Lancia Fulvia coupe or one of so many other fine old cars were spotted parked in various Italian towns. It just doesn’t work that way, especially with four in the back seat. People before cars…
The side streets we had to take to the garage were one-and-a-half-car wide, which made for some interesting moments, like this truck trying to make its way through.
We hopped on a ferry to our real destinations, Portofino and Bazzia di san Fruttuoso, on the rugged shoreline of a peninsula, a bit north of the famed Cinque Terre. Portofino is a picture-book little port, although that expression is quickly worn out in Italy.
The entrance to Portofino is well guarded by this giant battleship with helipad and openings in its hull for small attack boats. Someone tried to convince me that it’s actually a private yacht…right.
The next ferry stop was San Fruttuoso, a former remote monastery on the rugged coast turned into a place to have a great cappuccino after a swim in the refreshing water (much of central Europe was in the grips of a heat wave). Cars? Did someone ask what’s all this doing on a car site? I warned you.
But I’ll spare you how we spent the other days in Italy. But each one was wonderful, and at the end of every long day, we were treated to a multi-course home cooked meal by Rosema, a relative who lives next door and is the caretaker and dinner cook. And since she drives a CC, so you’ll meet her and her car in another post.
We headed back towards Austria, but this time via a different route, including the legendary Stelvio Pass, the highest pass road in the Eastern Alps (2759 meters; 9,051 feet). I didn’t stop to take many photos, but there’s lots of videos on You Tube, unfortunately many with either obnoxious music or commentary.
Perhaps the best one to get a quick but comprehensive impression of it (although only of the southern side), is this one, which apparently is a high-speed Google Street View video. My little encounter with a Land Rover in the only section of one of the tunnels that narrows down has already been documented here.
Yes, I love driving in the mountains, and Stelvio lived up to its storied rep. It was one of the high points of the trip, despite the bad weather. The upside was that the combination of some rain and as well as hitting it a bit late in the day, traffic was very light, considering it was a Sunday in August. Which means I was able to drive it mostly unconstrained. Yeah! (Stephanie never complains, no matter the terrain or speed).
The Focus was in its elements here. Foci of all generations have consistently been top-notch handlers, and that has not changed with the latest iteration. Although the Focus can’t quite beat the Golf in auto, motor und sport’s comparisons overall, it does best it in terms of handling and agility. Just the E-ticket for alpine passes, along with the willing, snarling little engine that could. And did.
Turbocharging is clearly an asset on high mountain roads, because there’s no loss of performance from the altitude, and the torque curve is fat. Up hill, that is. Maybe it’s my imagination, but the little four seemed to generate less engine braking on steep downhills than I might have expected. Is engine braking proportional to displacement? Seems like it might well be.
Did I have any gripes? Well, there’s this very odd large black plastic thing taking up quite a bit of real estate on the front windshield. I assume it’s for the GPS and the rain sensor for the windshield wipers, which worked very well, adjusting the speed to the amount of rain.
In typical straight-ahead driving it’s not really a big deal, but there were times on the Stelvio and other mountain roads where one wants—and has—to look at the road and scenery from all different angles, even odd ones. And then it makes itself a rather unwelcome. Does it have to be this BIG?
The green house could be a bit airier all the way around, but then “bunkeritis” seems to be a disease that has infected most new cars, except for the tall-roof wagons-MPVs that are so popular in Europe, especially in more practical Austria. Oh; one more thing: the color. In case you didn’t know it, black is, and has been for some time, the hot color in Germany, especially so on the type of cars that tend to inhabit the left lane. It seems to be a prestige thing, but it’s way too common now, and not to my liking. Black can look nice on certain cars, but it doesn’t really work on a family-friendly Focus wagon. White is only seen on commercial vans and such, and has poor resale value on a car. In America, it’s the number one color.
After the Stelvio we crossed the much milder Reschenpass back into Austria in the upper Inn valley. We pulled of at the exit for Ladis, a little mountain hamlet that we used to spend our summer vacations in during our last years in Austria. The castle ruin sits perched on a dramatic rock outcropping, with stellar views over the valley below. That castle once served as a judicial center for that region, and an ancestor on my mother’s side of the family was a jurist there, and earned the title “von” for his services there. This was quite a few hundred years ago.
That reminds me, we (and my brother and his wife) visited the old family apartment building in Innsbruck where my mother’s family (Payr) have been renters of this apartment for…100 years! We lived in the same building, one flight up from them. The outside in front was finally renovated after being untouched since being repaired from bomb damage right after the war (left half, without the architectural details). But once inside the old front door, everything was the same.
My brother and I just had to replicate the shot that was taken of us by the garden fence in 1958.
Valerian von Payr, my grandfather, moved to apt. #4 in 1915 when he took a job as a judge in Innsbruck, keeping in the family tradition of jurists hundreds of years and countless generations later. M. Atzwanger was one of my aunts, who always lived there too since birth, with a very brief exception, and took over the apartment. She just died earlier this year, and now her grandson lives there; his name hasn’t yet been added to the door. As a landlord, I have a very hard time wrapping myself around the idea of having the same tenants for over a century.
Back to Ladis, which like so many Alpine hamlets, has been built up dramatically with countless guest homes and small hotels, catering most of all to the winter tourist trade, but summer business is quite decent too. When we went to Ladis in the late ’50s, we rented this ancient old pile of a farm house, 500-600 years old, with tiny windows set into the very thick stone walls, and of course with the “barn” at the rear. And an outhouse, of course, perched up high just outside the door, which is around the back. The lush raspberry bushes that grew at the base of the outhouse had the juiciest berries.
The kitchen was in the center of the house, with gothic arches and the chimney rising from the top of its arched ceiling. A 19th century wood stove had replaced the original open hearth, but the walls were pitch black from 500 years of smoke rising up in the open into the chimney opening overhead. The owner was an old woman in a head scarf and old-fashioned long dress and apron, and she came over every morning with freshly baked rolls, and made a fire in the stove for our coffee and hot chocolate. I can still smell all the sausages and speck that were cured over the centuries in that smokey kitchen.
The windows on the right is the wood-paneled “stube” where we ate our breakfast and heard the cow bells in the fields. On the left is the room I slept in along with my siblings, in ancient old short and tall beds. It was like staying at a 16th century living history museum. And someone is still living there now; I half expected it to be gone, like the old house right across the way, where a brand new apartment-hotel now stands.
The next nine days or so were based in Innsbruck, taken up by family get-togethers, an unexpected funeral, hikes, almost every museum in town (it was rainy a few days), and outings, the most memorable being the one into the Zillertal (Zill valley), which has a little high-alpine toll road that we took, of course.
And a hike later that afternoon up into the further reaches of the valley resulted in an unexpected encounter with a trove of vintage bikes that were given permission to use the normally closed road up there. They’ll get a post of their own, as some are real gems going back to the 1930s, but were all driven in and up to this alm. This elderly farmer, who was heading off to mow some hay with his scythe, was at least as impressed as I was.
And I fulfilled one long-held wish regarding a certain cog-wheel steam train. It’s coming here soon, with video and sound, if not the soot and smuts that covered us from standing in the open compartment right behind the engine.
Every day was highly memorable. Reconnecting with cousins, some that I haven’t seen since 1969. And with their kids, some of whom came over one summer to Oregon, where I showed them the Northwest, and then some. And invariably over traditional food of course, and almost always in scenic setting that one had hiked to. That’s the default past time for Tyroleans: hike up to an alm hutte, and sit, eat, drink and talk. As Stephanie said: “Americans would hike a lot more if there was always a restaurant with beer and hot food at the top of each mountain”.
Of course it’s easy to cheat too, like hopping the cable car up to the top of the Nordkette, with its splendid views of Innsbruck directly below, and the Brenner Pass heading to Italy right above that wind-blown head. Perhaps out of guilt we didn’t eat on that outing, although hot food was certainly available up there too.
The Focus spent more days in its narrow parking garage in Innsbruck than I expected, but that’s ok too. Whenever it was eased out of its narrow confines, it made for an excellent travel companion. And a reasonably efficient one too. When I stopped a few km short of the Munich airport to fill it up for the last time, the trip odometer was showing exactly 2500 km (1555 miles). I wrote down the amount consumed at all of its fuel stops, and calculated it: A total of 197 liters flowed through its injectors, which comes to 7.88L/100 km. Or almost exactly 30 mpg.
That’s a bit better than I expected, although I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. It’s not like they were all easy kilometers; actually, quite few were. Looking through some German tests of similar 150 hp Foci (manual transmission), test averages seem to fall in the 8 to 8.5L/100km range. Gentle driving yields around 6 – 6.5L (35-39 mpg).
Back when Ford offered a wagon version of the Focus in the US, it was a car for those in the know, as there were ever fewer compact wagons available and none with its dynamic qualities. With the rise of CUVs and the availability of the Focus-based C-max, the odds of it reappearing here are essentially nil. I do wonder if Ford will swap the 2.0L NA four for the 1.5 EcoBoost, as that seems to be the trend across the board. Maybe Ford can’t be bothered, as Focus sales are drooping thanks to dirt-cheap gas. Seems like everyone wants a truck or SUV, once again.
Frankly, the US Focus rather fell off my radar a few years back, given the complaints about the Powershift transmission and the Sync system. But this wagon re-ignited the warm feelings I once had for its American predecessor, the last wagon in its class except for the Jetta/Golf. This might well have been a serious contender when we were looking at wagons last year; the VW Golf wagon is the last man standing in its field.
This Focus wagon ought to be sold in the US; there’s no reason to have to go all the way to Europe to drive it. I felt a bit too…American in it. But next time I’ll make sure to ask for one again so that I’ll end up in something truly 100% European, right down to the name, like a Dacia Duster Stepway or Peugeot Bipper Tepee.