As we fly through youth toward middle age, and our children grow older and our bodies grow slower and the ceaseless march of time places year after year behind the receding horizon, we may feel the need to take a good hard look at our lives. Something was missing in mine. Turning inward, I perceived an emptiness and unfulfilled purpose. I began to ask questions.
How might I become a more complete human being? Could I be doing more to prepare my children for meaningful entry into the adult world? Has my agnosticism cut short a spirituality that could bring a frightening and chaotic world into focus? Might the negative energy of unbalanced synchronicity be interfering in the mystic journey to cosmic wakefulness? Would sunrise yoga and Yogi Tea bring me more #meaning and #clarity? I searched of myself and I pondered the questions. From the Absolute and the Infinite came an answer as clear and deep as Divinity itself:
“You need a manual transmission back in your driveway.”
I sank to the floor, transfixed by this clairvoyant answer, palms raised to the stars whilst searching for suitably poignant words. They came.
“Sonofab****” I said, “That voice is right”, and I punched up Autotrader.
Here I thought I was facing a tiresome personal introspection for which I had no appetite, but the universe is telling me to impulsively go car shopping for a weekend driver instead. That’s an existential therapy I can get behind.
I was a liberated man, free to seek automotive transcendence without consideration of most practical matters beyond a strict budget. Thus empowered and enthroned, I tossed out the permissive mysticism for a strict dogma centered upon new Petrichorian Commandments:
I. Thine car shall possess a transmission of manual operation. This is the first and greatest commandment, and the second is like unto it.
II. Thine car shall be a joy to thee and make thee smile.
How a vehicle went about following the 2nd Commandment was up to its own discretion; there are multiple paths to obedience here. The third and fourth provided a gentle guiding hand:
III. Blessed be fruitful acceleration, for 3500 cubits an hour attained in six seconds or less bringeth deliverance from thine enemies.
IV. Blessed are the rear-driven wheels, for they shall inherit traction and upon launch and neutrality upon cornering.
The shortlist was indeed short, with the 2003-2006 Infiniti G35 at the top. The burly high-revving V6, sharp handling, crisp styling, and Japanese reliability were all appealing. I liked its G37 successor. A few exceptionally nice ones could be found nationwide for a good price, but these are not common and I’d have to wait quite a while for one to show up regionally.
The E46 and E90 BMW 3 Series are considered benchmarks. I’d like to find out why, since the newer ones have lost the plot. These might push the dependability envelope, but prices for the lower output variants were low enough to leave headspace for maintenance.
The third is a real odd duck in comparison: the fifth generation 2005-2010 Ford Mustang. It has truck engines and a truck axle and an unsurprising reputation for crude handling. Seems like an orgy of violated commandments. My personality doesn’t quite mesh with pony cars either, but I’m strangely drawn to this retro redux with the caricatured 1960s dash made of awful FoMoCo plastics.
The GT is the obvious choice, but I was shamefully curious about the 4.0L low-revving V6 as well. I’ve often wondered what the grunty V6 in my 4Runner would be like in a far lighter vehicle with a more direct transmission and this would be the answer. The secretary’s 6 puts up OK numbers and they’re more affordable. Eight or six, I’d try both.
Multiple cars were summarily rejected:
I don’t like the vibe Camaros give off.
I can’t fit my kids in a Miata. They don’t have to be comfy, but they do need to fit.
Not a single stock FR-S within 500 miles, and the engine’s a wet blanket.
WRX? Pricey, even when run hard into high miles by the flat-brim crowd.
Porsches within my budget may require exorcism of demons into a herd of pigs. I’ve no such ecclesiastical authority, so I’d be summoning the expensive priest for every such incident.
I wanted more than three possibilities and kept digging. At a popular branded title dealership I saw a trio I hadn’t considered: Fiesta ST, Focus ST, and the turbo Civic Si. Amped-up economy cars with wrong wheel drive, all of them, and a clear violation of the 4th with cascading implications for the 2nd. The devout do not tarry with the heathen, but there was nothing else nearby to test drive on a fine fair weekend so I decided to satiate curiosity and rule out three variations on a theme. Just to be certain.
2018 Honda Civic Si–More than I need, less than I want
This one was out of my price range, but I wanted to know if it would be worth waiting longer for depreciation. It wasn’t. It’s too well-rounded, too well-executed for an irrational secondary vehicle. Much of it is good fun. The punchy little 1.5L turbo engine delivers a wave of torque on the 1-2 upshift, torque steer is well managed, the shift lever is exceptionally precise, and the light weight and sharp steering pair with the responsive and flat suspension tune to provide admirable cornering poise. It feels very stable and locked down at freeway speeds.
There are violations of the 2nd Commandment. The biggie is the numb clutch with an invisible engagement point high in the travel, which is not my preference at all. I found it difficult and unpleasant to modulate. The engine sounds terrible, grinding out a flat 4-cylinder buzz. I’d like a bit more thrust from it, or at least more linearity. The Civic is now a rather big car and a big car feels better with a big engine that doesn’t have lots of lag even at 3,000 rpm.
Daily driving issues include incredible noise levels on the freeway, a gloomy every-shade-of-grey interior, and the notorious metal shift knob that becomes a branding iron in the sun. As an amusing daily rather than a cheap joyful Sunday driver, this Honda is rather good…but I’m looking for the latter.
2017 Ford Focus ST–An old GTI in teenager’s clothing
Ford’s MkIII Focus was a sophisticated piece, a global platform seemingly intended to be a European’s respectable family car instead of an American cheapskate’s commuter, and this flavor made it into the ST. It’s quiet on the freeway and the substantial structure absorbs hits well. Soft-touch materials cover the dash and doors when this wasn’t common in the C-segment. The 2.0L turbo has a meatier torque curve with far less lag. The intuitive clutch is just right, making every shift and every start smooth and predictable. The Si feels a bit more playful, but the ST will stick right with it while providing more refinement. This car clearly encroached into the 2010-2014 GTI’s personal bubble.
I didn’t bond with it this day, however. The feel is simultaneously old and juvenile. The youthful ST dressing contrasts poorly with the age of the underlying car. The tacked-on gauge pod atop the center stack. The ST trim accents. The banana yellow paint. The body kit. The Fiesta ST has the same Ford cues, but somehow manages to be authentically lighthearted while the Focus comes off as a widening 30-something trying to be a teenager again.
Objective objections include a confining wall of a dashboard, a tall beltline, and a shifter placed too high and far for my preferences with wide horizontal spacing between the gear planes. This is a good hot hatch, perhaps a truly excellent one for its time, but it is upstaged by its own hyperactive little brother.
2017 Ford Fiesta ST–Ode to Joy/Jesu, joy of man’s desiring
This little firecracker surprised me. Nothing I’ve driven comes close. It’s all wrong and unimpressive on paper. An old econobox with a twist-beam rear axle, open differential, Ford Fusion engine, and an extroverted boy racer vibe unbefitting a man approaching 40. And it’s bright orange. Sacrilege, all of it. Sacrilege!
So off I go with the skeptical malice of Torquemada. We’ll put this heretic upon the rack if needs be, until confession extracted and example set and orthodoxy restored…but I’m suddenly laughing thirty seconds into my test drive through stripmall suburbia. This thing changes direction like nothing I’ve experienced, every facet of the manual transmission feels good to me, and the engine delivers a wallop of torque in second and third gears that playfully slings us through traffic and out of corners.
This. This is what I wanted, though I didn’t know it before that moment. A frenetic little canyon blaster and close-range fighter jet that makes even routine errands around town a delight. This was my road to Damascus, and a rather fun one at that. Might the heretic actually be the reformist, even the savior? It just might. It’s happened before.
I bought it a few days later. Never tried the Mustang. Never found a G35. The E46 remains a mystery. I’m still curious about all of them, but I don’t regret this decision. This Fiesta is elemental driving enjoyment at minimal cost. And it’s bright orange.
A bit more about the car. The suspension and steering modifications over base Fiestas are legitimate. The steering ratio was quickened to 13.6:1 and that front end just darts into turns. The steering is razor-precise and weighted just right, even if feel is a bit lacking. The beam axle is no sin and the car will carry a lot of speed into turns and grip tenaciously. Excess throttle through the turn will provoke understeer, but dial it back and the planted front end and lively rear are tuned toward mild oversteer. Lift off mid-turn and you can easily rotate the back end to tighten the line. The pivot point is seemingly at your right elbow. That’s a smile, every time.
The 1.6 liter direct-injected turbo 4 cylinder was shared with the Fusion and Escape, but cranked up to 197 hp and 200+ lb-ft in the ST. The upper-six second run to 60 is so-so on paper but includes the shift to third, so in-gear acceleration feels quicker than the stopwatch suggests. The 15% power loss of naturally aspirated engines at our elevation brings this Fiesta roughly equal with that G35 or E46 330i up here. That’s not bad company for a cheap little runt. The Fiesta charges up our mountain roads with minimal apparent effort.
Power delivery and acceleration are in dead heat with the Si, which makes sense given the similar displacement and power output. The FiST sounds much better, however, hiding the 4-cylinder thrash with a symposer pipe that directs a richer induction noise to the firewall.
There are FWD issues. Torque steer is definitely there, power is limited in first gear to prevent blitzing the tires, and the brake-based imitation limited slip differential does not prevent the car from running wide and scrabbling clumsily for traction in tight turns under throttle. It’s excellent for FWD…but it’s still FWD.
As a daily, how is it? Well, not great if that’s what one is after. The ride is pretty bad on poorly maintained roads and impact noise is transmitted through the suspension and structure. It’s tiresome on the freeway, nearly as loud as the Si and somewhat fidgety due to the quick steering and short wheelbase. Interior packaging aft of the B-pillar is comically bad. The rear seat is very tight, the structure encroaches from all directions, and the seatbacks cannot fold remotely flat when expanding the tiny cargo area. All of this means zip for how I use it.
Two types of front seats came in the ST. The optional $2000 Recaros look like Barcaloungers shoehorned into a Manhattan hotel room. Everyone loves the Recaros for autocrossing but mine has the standard RealCheapos. The RealCheapos are slim and allow my kids to fit in the car. The coarse budget fabric will grind through an epidermal layer or two, but is grippy in the turns. They are flat and uncomfortable after 2 hours.
Cost allocation in the interior was peculiar. The seating, switchgear, and most touch points are entry level garbage, but expensive superfluous kit abounds. There’s adjustable color mood lighting, navigation, swiveling LED rear reading lights (why?), pushbutton ignition, and the World’s Most Useless Sunroof. I’d give up all of that for better seats, although the kids wouldn’t forgive me because they love that mood lighting.
The Fiesta ST, like the G37, is a breed of car I don’t expect to see again in the States. It’s a car with personality, cohesion, and an effective focus on key performance attributes for a low cost of entry. It rounds out our driveway in a way I’ve been craving for a long time. Comfort, distance, and efficiency are covered by the Camry. Off-pavement, camping, towing, hauling, and winter are covered by the 4Runner. The two big holes not covered by the Toyotas are real luxury and real driving engagement. I don’t care much for the former, and the Fiesta is all over the latter like the cheap suit that it is. And it removes any temptation to trade out of the Toyotas for a long time.
#Balance achieved, and no yoga pants or healing crystals required. Namaste my fellow seekers of harmonious interconnectedness, I raise my kombucha to you. Peace be with you. May the Great Green Arkleseizure bless you before the coming of the Great White Handkerchief. And get bent, 2020. I’m doing what I can to end you on a high note, and this is one small part. I’m going for a drive.