Having moved from Central Illinois to Southeast Michigan and finding myself a condo with a two car garage, I was determined to retire the 2009 Mazda Miata from daily driver duty and buy myself something sensible and reliable. I had just accepted a new job at Ford, and one of the things I got when onboarding onto my new role was a $1,000 voucher for a new Ford vehicle.
Originally, I wasn’t planning on using the voucher. I thought that I would do the financially smart thing and get a lightly used late model car that was just a few years old.
The problem with that idea became apparent as soon as I started looking for a 3-4 year old car. The first problem was that the selection was simply terrible. Not many cars were built during the Great Recession, and the few that were available for sale as used cars carried correspondingly high price tags.
I was also trying to buy a Ford of some sort so I wouldn’t feel like the odd man out at the work parking lot. (It turned out to be an entirely unfounded fear, as it turns out no one at Ford gives a whit as to what the IT guys are driving to their offices located far away from the engineering campus and the plants.) Looking at pre-2009 Fords reminded me of just how I simply wasn’t a fan of the turn-of-the-millennium cars — blocky styling, hard interiors, and power plants that didn’t exactly raise my pulse.
Eventually, I came back around to the idea of buying a brand new car. Ford was on a roll at the time introducing heavily European-influenced cars that I was quite fond of. My fellow MBA colleague, who had started working at Ford six months before I did, had bought himself a 2011 Ford Focus Titanium with the PowerShift automatic transmission. I thought it drove excellently, and decided to get a Focus of my own.
But mine would have a stick.
I found a metallic yellow Ford Focus SE with a manual transmission and the heated “sport” seats, which I found extremely comfortable. My car didn’t have MyFordTouch and just had regular Sync, but that was okay with me, as the 10-key number pad in the dash meant that I had ten radio presets.
Going rallycrossing in the Focus
I only had 600 miles on the odometer on the Focus when I decided that I would give rallycrossing a go. Rallycross is like autocross in that you run through a course marked with cones, but unlike autocross, the surface is dirt and gravel (and sometimes snow!). Also, instead of just the fastest time of your runs determining your finishing position in class, the winner in rallycross was the one who had the lowest accumulated time across all runs, making consistency important in rallycross.
The Detroit Region of the Sports Car Club of America put on their rallycrosses in open fields at or surrounding dirt tracks and horse tracks in the state. That’s how I found myself driving over two hours to the middle of the state, ostensibly for a “local” rallycross.
As a complete and utter novice at driving fast in the loose stuff, I quickly learned that what works on dry pavement doesn’t necessarily work on dirt. Someone there offered to ride along with me and give me pointers; little did I know it at the time, but that first interaction led to one of my strongest and longest-running friendships in the Detroit area.
I was hooked. The joy of driving sideways in the dirt eventually overruled any concern I had about cosmetic damage to the car or the oodles of abuse I was laying down on the engine mounts. With the same snow tires that I’d use during the winter time, I would go to a rallycross and chew out the tires, coat the entire body in a thick layer of dirt and dust, and torture test the clips and fasteners that kept the undertray and the side sills on the car.
Taking the Focus to the race track
I still had my 2009 Mazda Miata around, but as it was a dedicated autocross car, I didn’t have a roll bar installed. As a result, opportunities to drive on track would pop up and I couldn’t take the Miata due to a lack of rollover protection.
But you know what car in the fleet did have a roof? The Focus!
Equipped with a 1″ aftermarket sway bar on the back and 17″ summer tires on all four corners, I took the car to the Waterford Hills for the Corvette Club of Michigan’s yearly Fourth of July track autocross event. For a car whose mission in life definitely did not include “pretend you’re a hot hatch,” the car did remarkably well.
I took the car to the track again when some friends back in Illinois decided to do the Hoerr Racing Products private track day at Blackhawk Farms. Once again, the car acquitted itself very well, surprising me with just how well poised the car was in a performance situation that 99/9% of owners would never ask of the car.
Daily driving duties
It didn’t take long for me to get over the fact that I paid a little bit extra to buy a new car than to get an older, higher mileage car.
The Focus was the first car that I had ever experienced with heated seats. At the time, I marveled that such a thing existed on a car that cost under the $20k mark. I was also happy that my car came with a Bluetooth capable stereo, something that wasn’t nearly as ubiquitous on cars built before 2010 than those built after.
But most importantly for me, the car was quiet and comfortable. With the Miata was developed from a Stock class autocross car to a Street Touring Roadster class car, which included nearly sextupling the spring rates from roughly 110 lbs/in to 650 lbs/in in the front and quadrupling the spring rates in the rear, the Focus rode like a limousine in comparison. Also, with a stock exhaust, I could hear myself think.
I was very glad to have chosen a manual transmission. My MBA colleague, Ford coworker, and friend moved into my condo once the lease on his apartment was up, so we had two Ford Focuses and a Miata hanging around. And as time passed, it became increasingly apparent that his PowerShift transmission was living on borrowed time. Much has been written about the PowerShift if you’re interested in the details. I have always described the sensation of driving his PowerShift automatic-equipped car as if the transmission was a new driver was learning how to drive stick for the first time; every now and then, you’d have a heavy stutter when moving from a stop, or a weighty THUNK for a gear change.
That experience led me to stop recommending the Focus (or the Fiesta) to any friends or family unless they could drive stick. Which was a shame, because the rest of the car was so, so good.
Shouldn’t have sold the car…
After taking the Focus out to rallycrosses, the occasional autocross, and a couple of track events, I couldn’t help but think that I could be having a lot more fun if my car had more power and sportier suspension. So I bought another car and then sold the Focus.
It wouldn’t be until about a year or two later, when I was feeling rather apathetic about my new car, that I realized what I had done. I had taken a car that was good at 95% of the things I needed it to do — be a comfy daily driver — and not so good at the 5% of everything else — be a race car — and swapped it for a car that was the diametric opposite.
My new car was powerful, but it burned through gallons of expensive premium fuel whereas the Focus burned cheap regular. The new car had firm suspension and large wheels, which was great for grip, but not so much for comfort (or cheap tires). The new car had no heated seats, and insurance costs for the new car were double of that of the Focus.
Most disappointingly, I gave up a car that I had nearly finished paying off for another car with a new car note. Had I not done that, I’d have a paid off little hatchback that I’d probably still be driving around to this day. Chalk that up as a lesson that my younger self had to learn the hard way.
I sold the car to another enthusiast, and haven’t really seen the car or any similarly equipped car like it since. As it turns out, yellow manual transmission Ford Focus SE hatchbacks with the Sport package are extremely uncommon. I had a relative unicorn of a car, and I foolishly let it go…