Ford's European Models: We Want Them Today -- Even Better, Yesterday!By Michelle Krebs September 10, 2008
Because Ford Motor Co. intends to eventually sell the same small Fords everywhere in the world - similar to the ones Ford of Europe has been selling for years - the automaker hosted media from North America, South America, South Africa and Australia to test-drive its current European offerings.
At Ford's proving grounds in Lommel, Belgium, journalists test drove the current C-segment Focus and Focus-based models already sold in Europe. When the next-generation Focus is introduced in 2010, it will be the same around the globe. Ford also will sell derivatives of that Focus in world markets.
On the following day, journalists test drove the all-important Fiesta on the winding, mountainous roads of Italy. Ford's even smaller B-segment car now is on sale in Europe, soon goes on sale in China and arrives in North America in early 2010.
Focus ST (2.5L I-5 Turbo, 6M)
The one that got away: Within the first 100 yards/meters of driving this car, I was utterly convinced that, had it been imported, it would've owned the hot-hatch market, small though it may be here. Too bad we only got the Mazda3 (current U.S. Hot-hatch King), and Volvo C30/S40/V50, because what the Euro Focus ST has that those don't is a lively torque-rich motor and ride/handling compliance unlike any of them.
Despite noteworthy roll in hard cornering situations, poise is the underlying theme with this car. In other words, the front-drive Focus ST is exceedingly neutral in on/off throttle cornering situations, doesn't lose an inch of steering precision even when it encounters a mid-corner bump, but it will eventually understeer when pushed beyond the tires' grip at a relatively high limit.
The turbo-charged 5-cylinder engine offers a surprisingly linear delivery of power up to redline without a hint of turbo-lag or even torque steer. One glaring omission, however, is a limited-slip differential to quell the inevitable wheel-spin on aggressive corner exits. To be truly King of the Hatches, it would need one, and that's exactly what the forthcoming Focus RS will provide-just before that car goes out of production.
Friction-free steering may feel light by enthusiasts' standards, but it tracks extremely well, is very precise, and even informs the driver of the front tires' condition while cornering. The 6-speed shifter is smooth and accurate, but is hampered just slightly by long throws from gear to gear. Pedal placement is just right, accommodating for heel-toe maneuvers. Straight stability is very good, even with the lively on-center tuning it has. Nicely sorted limit handling without being dulled by the ride-quality department.
Overall, my impression of the Focus ST is one of a more sophisticated, more powerful, and more robust Mazda3.
Focus 4dr (2.0L TDCi 6M)
The one that feels most like the Focus we still have: Having had very little exposure to state-of-the-art European diesels, that power some 70-80% of current EU vehicles, I was happily surprised at how unlike a diesel the Ford TDCi diesel actually is. Unlike the diesel trucks we drive, the Focus engine is free revving with a relatively high redline, and offers near-silent operation. Like the Focus ST, this Focus's ride was very compliant, almost roly-poly, but obviously tuned more for comfort than handling. Steering, too, was a bit deader with more rubbery feedback.
We also had a chance to drive a 5-door Focus TDCi with "PowerShift," which is Ford's double-clutch auto-manual transmission. While a diesel model was not the best way to show off a trick transmission, we were impressed with its built-in "creep" forward/backward when parking (a difficult task most similar transmissions neglect), and how smoothly the "Drive" mode accomplished normal driving demands. In manual mode, the shifts were not sports-car quick, but that's not this car's mission.
This is the common European man's Focus with realistic handling limits that don't interfere with a composed ride.
Kuga AWD (2.0L TDCi 5M)
The CR-V-sized Focus-based crossover Ford should be selling here right now: Based on the highly-regarded Iosis-X concept, the Kuga's snarky styling is refreshing in a sea of vehicles that can't decide if they're SUVs or cars.
Like the Focus with the same sophisticated TDCi diesel, the slightly heavier Kuga made good use of the engine's ample torque and free-revving character, but it would be considered rather slow compared to something like the RAV-4 with its 3.5L V6.
Largely biased to the front (90%) under normal driving conditions, the AWD system was mostly invisible until exiting a corner, hard on the throttle, where power would be cleverly, invisibly routed to the proper axles (50% maximum split) to maintain momentum.
Again, body roll in corners was obvious, but the Kuga's ability to keep all four tires in contact with the pavement gave it uncommon poise and control despite surface irregularities like off-camber banking or mid-corner bumps. Steering remained smooth, light, and precise throughout the winding road course, not too terribly unlike that of a Honda CR-V.
If you're starting to detect a theme here, that's because every European Ford we had driven that day possessed a link, a dynamic DNA marker that strung them all together. Just like every BMW product drives like a BMW, every one of these Fords drove like the one next to it. The most obvious trait being each one's ability to remain poised, precise, and confident in the corners while still offering a large measure of ride comfort on the straightaways.
Fiesta 5dr (1.6L TDCi 5M)
The catalyst for change across Europe: This is the car that's set to take Europe by storm, and there are so many reasons it will. On looks alone, the contemporarily styled Fiesta was unlike anything else we saw on the roads in Tuscany. More than a few times, we caught glimpses of other drivers, road work crews, and particularly young people as we drove through hamlet after hamlet in the all-new car. It looks new, modern, and hip without going over the top. Superb job on styling.
The Duratorq TDCi diesel offered remarkably linear acceleration up to its lofty (for a diesel) 5,000-rpm redline. While we wouldn't call it quick, it never felt dangerously underpowered. Like the other manual transmissions we drove, the long-is throws take only a little getting used to because the shift gates always feel well-oiled and precise. Suspension was supple and only a little floaty or unsure over the worst surfaces. Overall, however, the spring and damper rates were well considered and well matched.
The Fiesta interior displayed very good materials choices and quality: Soft-touch surfaces where they ought to be and hard-but-smartly-textured ones where it didn't matter as much. One slightly problematic area, however, is the center stack and display. While there are features and qualities to the system which attempts to bring near-iDrive or MMI levels of sophistication to the masses (Bluetooth, iPod, nav-capable phone interface, etc.) the actual use of the systems is a little clumsy. Modeled after a mobile phone touch pad, the logic of how the buttons are labeled and what they actually do is a little off.
Fiesta 3dr Sport (1.6L I-4 petrol 5M)
The car that should've been here YESTERDAY: Unfortunately, it's also the one we won't be getting at all, at least not initially when the Fiesta goes on sale in early 2010 as a 2011 model. This model had an even better ride/handling relationship than the 5-door we first drove. Steering is superb (thanks in small part to the comfortable and well contoured steering wheel) despite being a electronic-assist system. The way the steering loads in corners, has near zero deadness on center, and the way the car tracks straight and true on the highway speaks volumes to how much time must've been spent in tuning. It would've been far easier and cheaper to produce an EPS like that found on the nearly unbearable Toyota Corolla.
The Fiesta's neutral/confident handling mirrored that of all the Fords we'd driven up to this point, but the Fiesta Sport simply felt further tuned and developed. If this is what future Fords are going to feel like, then I'm a fan Ford. Just don't let the Motown engineers dumb it down, or there's no point in designing it this good to begin with.
The all-new 1.6L four-cylinder engine is rated at 120 ps (or 118 hp) and feels far more energetic than the engine in the Honda Fit - mostly for its more powerful mid-range and it doesn't need to be revved sky-high to have fun. The engine has a likeable snarl and sounds better than the zingy Fit's, as well.
In any iteration, and particularly in a currently non-available 5-door Sport model, the Ford Fiesta's time is now. It wants to be here, it needs to be here. Yesterday.