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Across America in the Ford Focus ST

  1. Three miles into our 3,300-mile trans-America mission, Webb – my photographer and sole travelling companion – sheepishly admitted he couldn’t “drive stick”. For those of you not fluent in American, this translates as, “I cannot operate a car with a clutch pedal and gearstick.”

    Our Focus ST had both a clutch pedal and a gearstick. This, I realised with a groan, meant I’d be driving the entire trip, Los Angeles to New York. In five days. Without using interstates. On my own. This Ambitious Road Trip suddenly seemed very much less amusing than it had done in the pub a few weeks ago.

    In fact, on a pitch-dark Sunday night – Webb’s satnav criss-crossing us north out of LA, chasing back roads in a city built around freeways, return flight departing JFK on Friday afternoon – I decided this might be our most stupid idea yet.

    Photography: Webb Bland

    This article originally appeared in the July 2012 edition of Top Gear magazine 

     

  2. The thinking, if indeed there was any, went something like this: in the beginning, there was the car, and the car was good. The car allowed drivers to explore new and exciting corners of the country. And then came the motorway, and the motorway was very good for getting people from one side of the country to the other, but very bad at giving them any appreciation of what actually lay in the middle.

    So, by shunning interstates and sticking to state highways and back roads, perhaps we could find the true America, the land that freeways forgot, and give the new Focus ST a thorough workout at the same time. Hell, maybe we’d even stumble on some corners. Trouble was, we’d need to cover over 700 miles a day, in a nation with painfully low speed limits and a Taser-based approach to enforcing said limits. We’d be lucky to average 40mph, I reckoned. This was gonna be a long one. Gone midnight, we stopped for sleep in the town of Victorville, somewhere in deepest backwater California.

  3. Morning light revealed Victorville, unexpectedly, to be in the middle of the desert. That’s the problem with deserts. They sneak up on you at night. It was also a first chance to look properly at the ST, and the first look was good: the ST’s pointy chin, bigger mouth and neat centre exhaust resolving the blurrily generic lines of the standard Focus. The powertrain, on paper, sounded less promising. Where the last-gen Focus ST sported an exotic five-cylinder turbo, the new version gets a more workaday 2.0-litre four-pot. As compensation for the loss of a cylinder, power has swollen by 16bhp over the last-gen ST: output now stands at 247bhp, way north of the Golf GTI’s 210bhp but still just short of the Megane RenaultSport’s 265bhp.

    Still, hot Fords have always been as much about sparkling handling as raw power. But with the stock MkIII Focus leaving us a little underwhelmed in the entertainment department, could the ST rescue it? Only one way to find out…

    We drove east for hours without seeing another soul: no cars, no houses, no life. I tried not to think what would happen if we broke down out here (“Hi, AA? We’ve blown a head gasket in the middle of the Mojave Desert. What should we do? Yes… Yes… OK. I’ve got my head between my legs and lips puckered, what now?”).

  4. ‘SPEED ENFORCED BY AIRCRAFT’ read the roadside warning signs. On empty, straight roads amid massive scenery, even 65mph – the top speed permitted on American highways, though many have lower limits – feels absurdly slow. We tried to stick to the limit. We broadly failed. The ST is a mighty, mighty quick car. Zero to 60mph takes 6.2secs; it feels faster. In-gear punch is spectacular, the Focus delivering a mighty slug of mid-range torque before straining to its 6,800rpm limit, blasting past the odd lumbering truck. This car is an overtaking monster.

    We crossed into Arizona and picked up old Route 66, America’s most famous road and the nation’s first paved highway. In the Great Depression, Sixty-Six was the very spine of the USA, as hundreds of thousands journeyed west to escape the Dust Bowl and seek their fortunes. Now it’s near-empty: bypassed by the interstate to the south, its motels and diners abandoned, only travelled by idiots who figured it’d be fun to cross America without using proper roads.

  5. The railroad runs alongside Route 66. We executed the longest overtaking manoeuvre in history: 20 minutes to pass a mile-long train travelling a fraction slower than us. Then we swung north, up through woodland and to the edge of the Earth’s greatest natural wonder. No matter how much you read about its sheer scale, nothing prepares you for the moment you stop at the edge of the Grand Canyon and gaze into the near-infinite abyss below, a mile straight down.

    It makes you feel very small, you and your little orange car in a big, big country. Webb gazed out, awestruck, into the void, for 20 minutes or so, speechless. Finally, he turned to me. “I think,” he said thoughtfully, “the problem is the name. ‘Grand Canyon’ doesn’t sound very American. They should rebrand it the Mega Canyon.”

  6. We stopped for the night in Tuba City – named not after the locals’ love of that complicated brass instrument, but after a Native American chief. McDonald’s was the only food joint open. Chewing on a limp burger, I glanced at a map of the USA. A day of flat-out driving, and we’d barely grazed the left edge of the States. New York in four days. Still over 2,700 miles to go. No motorways. Really?

    North-east Arizona is a stadium rock concert of tectonics. Giant orange stacks, crooked mountains jagging up through grey dust like shark teeth, great canyons and cliffs: we spent the morning gawping from one flabbergasting vista to the next. We passed through Four Corners, where Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah meet, and did a lap of the monument in the ST, boosting our state-count from two to five. This definitely wasn’t cheating.

    As we passed Cortez, in an instant the scenery shifted from outback to Switzerland, all lush meadows and snow-capped peaks. The Rockies.

  7. The mountains

    Whoever cooked up Highway 550, the road running north from Durango, up through the Rockies to Ouray, loved driving. If a perfect road exists anywhere in the world, this is it: freshly surfaced, grand sweeping corners, all set against a backdrop of snowy crags and thick pines.

    I’d been beginning to suspect that the ST might be very, very good, and Highway 550 confirmed it. The ST is astonishing. A front-drive hot hatch, with no mechanical differential, should – by the laws of physics – understeer: no matter how long it hangs on, no matter how sticky the tyres, eventually the nose will give up. Not the ST. I chucked it into corners ever harder, until Webb was plastered against the passenger window, mewling helplessly, but it kept hanging on. OK, good rubber and good tarmac help, but there’s far more to the Focus than that. Every control – steering, throttle, brakes – is perfectly matched, the ST exuding an aura of sheer rightness. It’s a lovely thing to drive fast.

  8. So, inevitably, just past Montrose, it happened: whanging too fast down a lovely, open, curving road, and the telltale red-and-blue lights suddenly appeared in the rearview mirror.

    The cop strode over to the car, tapping the bumper and fingering his gun. This is it, I thought, the moment we’re slapped in handcuffs and ordered to squeal like piggies. I lower the window reluctantly. “I’m not going to give you a ticket,” smiled the officer. A sneaky opening gambit. Maybe he’s playing good cop/bad cop. “Just wanted to let you know that speed is dangerous, but you already knew that, right?” Not delivered with menace, just earnest concern.

    I assured him I already knew that. “Well, good,” he nodded. “Have a nice day.”

  9. Gone midnight, somewhere near Pikes Peak, Webb searched his satnav for the nearest accommodation. It pointed us to a motel a few miles away, swiftly directing us off the road and onto a dirt lane. The track got worse. And worse. For 20 minutes we bounced up steep slopes, ominous paths leading off left and right, zigzagging ever deeper into the woods, satnav jumping helplessly from one track to another, unable to lock onto our location.

    Somehow we stumbled upon the motel, a great, Gothic-fronted mansion undoubtedly containing murderers and ghosts. It was closed, apparently uninhabited for years. A rusting ute sat in front, its doors open, abandoned. “Want to go in and check if they’ve got any vacancies?” I asked, hesitantly. Webb shook his head. Death lay in that motel.

    A rustle. Out of a clump of trees leered a ghoulish, lank-haired man, bellowing incomprehensibly and shaking his fists. We both leapt in our bucket seats. “What do I do?” I squeaked at Webb.

    “I dunno, kill the lights?”

    “Turn the lights off? Really?”

  10. I buried the ST into reverse, and we went charging back down that road, ghoul bearing down on us, groaning, milky eyes illuminated in our headlights. We blundered from one dead-end path to another, satnav helpless, terrified the ghoul would leap from the shadows and pickaxe his way into the car. I’ve never been more scared. An hour later, we were still trapped in the woods.

    Finally, we escaped the forest of death and found an open, non-murdery motel in the little town of Woodland Park. Breathlessly, we related our tale of near-death to the pretty girl on reception. She listened, nodded deeply and said: “He probably just wanted to shoot you. I live in the woods, and if a couple of out-of-towners turned up on my driveway in their posh car, I’d probably shoot ’em, too.”

    Pikes Peak has changed a bit since I last visited, watching Monster Tajima thrashing his 1,000bhp Suzuki to the top. Where the top half of the road was dirt, now it’s paved to the very apex. Bad news for fans of rally cars oversteering on the edge of 1,000-foot drops, but very good news if you’re in a very orange Focus ST. Our Ford absolutely champed up the mountain, flicking neatly through the tight Pikes bends, engine drinking in the cool, thin air as fat American SUVs sat wheezing by the roadside.

  11. Somewhere near the top, I suspect a little delirious through lack of oxygen, Webb hollered, “Let’s summit this mother!” which made me unnecessarily happy. We summitted it: 14,115 feet, one of the highest paved roads in America. It was bloody freezing at the top. The Focus’s temperature gauge read 3°C. Yesterday, in the desert, below sea level, it had hit 41°C.

    Past Pikes Peak, the mountains stop abruptly, replaced to the east by an endless, dusty plain stretching to the Atlantic. As we barrelled east down an arrow-straight road, I watched the Rockies shrinking over the horizon, an ominous expanse of nothingness ahead. The Great Plains.

  12. The flat bit
    The prairies started badly. Another bout of too-fastness, another law enforcement agent, and this one meant business: knackered old Crown Vic, bushy handlebar moustache, much weaponry. I greeted him with my finest Baffled Englishman Abroad voice.

    “You not f’m round here?” he raised an enquiring eyebrow.

    I confirmed that, no, I wasn’t from mid-Colorado, just passing through, perhaps a
    little too quickly.

    “If I give you a court citation,” drawled the sheriff, glancing at my licence, “will you turn up?”

    “Do I have to?”

    “If you’re in London, England,” just in case I didn’t know which country I came from, presumably, “it’ll be kinda tough.”

    “In that case, I shall not turn up.”

    “Then you have a good day, sir!” He handed me his business card – seriously, American sheriffs have business cards – and strode back to his car. The police-based highlights of this trip would make the worst episode of COPS ever.

    The prairie cops might have been easy-going, but the weather wasn’t. As we scooted over the border into Kansas, we hit the most terrifying storm I have ever seen. In seconds, the cotton-white clouds overhead were replaced by ominous blackness and vicious rain, hailstones the size of marbles laying siege to the Focus, attacking its bodywork in a barrage of panel-piercing clangs. Great forks of lightning smashed to earth, some no more than – what? – 200 metres from the car. The road became a river, and it felt like the end of days.

    “Man, we gotta find shelter!” yelled Webb – who I think occasionally believes he is starring
    in a Michael Mann film – over the cacophony, the tarmac sinking ever deeper underwater. Past flapping wipers, I surveyed our surroundings: a great plain with no discernible trees or signs
    of habitation in any direction. More chance of finding an Olympic-standard beach volleyball facility than shelter.

  13. As quick as the storm came, it passed. A couple of hours later, I wanted it back. At least  the storm was interesting. Man, Kansas was big and boring: flat, featureless farmland and slow roads. With Webb asleep in the passenger seat, I spent a while quite seriously contemplating whether it’d be feasible to wedge a water bottle onto the Focus’s accelerator and climb into the back for a quick snooze myself. I decided this would probably be a bad idea.

    The prairies grated. The Focus didn’t. In top-spec trim with all the infotainment goodies, the ST is a very nice place to be. I don’t think I’ve driven a car with better seats: bespoke, colour-coded Recaro buckets, deep and supportive, never pinching. We stopped on a dusty country lane at sunset, Webb taking photos as the pink light illuminated great fields of corn. A dilapidated white pickup screeched to a halt beside the Focus, a baleful, gap-toothed youth behind the wheel. He stared at us for a while, contemplating the scene, presumably deciding if and when to kill us and wear our skins.

  14. “How you doing?” he grinned at last. “I’m Austin Peters.”

    Honestly, that’s how he introduced himself. I asked Austin Peters what he did in Middle-of-Nowhere, Kansas.

    “We farm. And we wait for it to rain,” he squinted at the horizon. “Dunno if it’s rained enough this year.”

    We’d seen no towns for 40 miles. I asked what people here did if they wanted to, say, get a drink.

    “We got a canal. We go down there, we drink, we swim. We got a barn. We drink there, too.”

    In that second, I wanted to be Austin Peters, farming and swimming and drinking by the canal. Mainly because if I were Austin Peters, I wouldn’t have to drive another 1,700 miles to New York.

    That night, crossing Kansas on single-lane, 55-limit roads, was the worst. Great trucks strained up the gentle inclines at barely 30mph, but every time I leaned out to overtake, a dirty old pickup would come blaring out of the shadows, lights off, horn honking. Good thing the ST dispatches dead-of-night dubious overtakes like a beast. We crossed into Missouri before stopping for the night. Six states down, six to go. And barely 36 hours to reach New York.

  15. Next morning, after four hours of sleep, and Missouri was better. It had some landscape – not great landscape, but landscape nonetheless – and proper dual carriageway with a 65mph limit.

    Our first bit of proper two-lane tarmac of the States highlighted what a brilliant all-rounder the ST is: mellow and easy-going as cocktail-lounge jazz when you’re cruising, but full-banzai when you wind it up. The steering, particularly, is immaculately judged, strong to self-centre on highways, but sharp and feelsome in the corners, barely two turns from lock to lock.

  16. In the tiny city of Shelbina, we stopped for breakfast at Martha’s Diner, all leather banquettes and lurid mustard squeezers: a slice of pure Fifties nostalgia. I eavesdropped on the ancient couple in the booth behind us cheerily discussing one of their farm workers who kept accidentally running over other employees in his tractor. “What a dolt,” chuckled the husband.

    “We’re off on a trip,” his wife addressed me, catching my eye. “To Mexico.”

    Mexico? That’s 1,000 miles south, surely?

    “Mexico, Missouri,” she clarified. “I need a new plug for my old Ford tractor.”

    I loved that. Not their tractor, but her tractor. In Britain, pensioners get mobility scooters. In Missouri, they have their own tractor.

  17. We lingered in Martha’s for a couple of happy hours, ploughing our way through piles of syrup-slathered waffles and appalling coffee. I liked Martha’s: partly because it seemed a happy, simple corner of the world less consumed by the tendrils of ironic advertising, 24-hour news and viral campaigns, and partly because the owner refused to let us pay for our breakfast, but mainly because it wasn’t full of traffic cops and 35mph speed-limit signs.

    Unlike Illinois. Illinois was dreadful: an endless stream of ugly industrial towns interspersed by truck-filled single roads. And traffic lights. Many traffic lights. It rained incessantly. We ate a lot of jerky. I discovered an exclusively jerky-based diet does dreadful things to your insides.

  18. Indiana? Ohio? I know we crossed ’em, but they’re a grey blur, just hundreds of miles of slow roads and dull landscapes and low-rise suburbia. I know we stopped for fuel a lot. Premium unleaded cost $3.29 a gallon: about 56p a litre. I remember passing a sign reading ‘TATOO PARLOR AND PEIRCINGS’. Were I to entrust a man to scrawl on my skin in indelible ink, I’d want to be sure his spelling was top-notch first.

    I drove for 21 hours that day. Deep into the night, somewhere in Pennsylvania, we stopped at a decrepit roadside motel offering ‘Why-Fi’ and ‘Brekfast’. Learn to spell, America.

  19. The end

    Our final day, and we awoke in driving paradise: a steroidal version of middle England, knotty country roads winding up through great wooded hills. We set off haphazardly towards New York, Focus merrily jinking through the tight curves, delicately absorbing Pennsylvania’s cracked tarmac. A word that’d been threatening to form for the entire trip finally crystallised in my head: pliancy.

  20. That’s what the ST is about. Some hot hatches are set so hard that you’d need a bootful of replacement spines to tackle a cross-America road trip, but the ST feels far more… elastic. Not wobbly – in fact, the whole car is brilliantly taut – but muscular, organic even, rather than brittle. We feared Ford might have lost its chassis magic with the MkIII Focus, but I’m delighted to report it’s still there. This is a car touched by genius.

  21. We found a perfect hairpin on a dusty gravel road, deep in the forest. I spent an hour sliding round it like a loon, traction control turned off, exploring the ST’s beautiful balance, cackling  like a fatigue-drunk fool. And then Webb pointed out we had five hours to make our flight and New York was still 300 miles away. And then we discovered that it is very difficult to reach New York without using interstates. Honestly, it’s as if the city planners expected cars to arrive the obvious way.

  22. After a continent of fields and deserts and mountains and emptiness, it was shocking, NY’s sheer volume of cars and people and… stuff. Cabs blared horns and policemen blew whistles, and it took us an hour to move a mile and a half. There was a lot of swearing and the traffic cleared and then, somehow, we were there, the end: after 3,333 miles, on the roof of the Terminal Seven short-stay car park at JFK, a suitably glamorous place to end our journey. Ten minutes to spare.

  23. I got a bit teary. The Focus made it without missing a beat. What a car: the greatest compliment I can pay it is that, even after way too little sleep and the prospect of a long day of driving on tepid prairie roads, I always wanted to get back behind the wheel. It’s fast, it’s comfy, it corners like a fiend. What more do you want?

  24. Criticisms? Maybe it’s the Guantanamo Bay-grade sleep deprivation, but I’m honestly struggling. The lack of a three-door variant – Ford hasn’t even shown a standard three-door Focus yet, so an ST version is a way off – will deter some, but for a cross-America mission, you want all the doors and space you can get.

  25. Sure, there’s a wriggle of torque steer when you’re hard on the ST’s throttle, and its new four-cylinder isn’t quite so burbly as the old five, but it’s no worse than the rest of the modern hot-hatch gang in either regard. And the ST is even a bit of a bargain: base-spec prices start at £21,995, against £25,650 for the Golf GTI and £26,995 for the Astra VXR.

  26. For my money, it’s the best hot hatch on sale today. In fact, it might be the best do-everything fast car in the world. And, as for crossing America without using interstates, I can’t recommend it enough. Honestly. You feel, see, even smell the landscape changing around you, sense the subtle shifts from state to state far more acutely than if you blasted through on the interstate. Locals accost you and buy you breakfast.

  27. If you want to give it a shot, I would advise this: give yourself more than five days, watch out for cops, avoid the jerky and do anything – anything – you can to avoid Kansas.

    Oh, and check your co-pilot can drive stick.

    Now watch the video…

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