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Little and large: two performance Fords hit LA

  1. Tom Ford: Darth Vader turns slowly in my direction, face obscured by the familiar blankness of that funereal mask, and I swear all I can hear is the classic laboured rasp of his breathing. The next couple of seconds ease themselves away like honey off a spoon, and then Lord Vader turns slightly to his right, ominously raises a ribbed black gauntlet and says to an Imperial Stormtrooper: “Man, is that a 2013 Shelby?”

    Words: Tom Ford and Pat Devereux
    Pictures: Anton Watts

    This feature was originally published in the March issue of Top Gear magazine

  2. The grubby Stormtrooper spins a little too quickly and clatters Vader in the shins with a three-foot long pink lightsabre awkwardly sheathed at his hip. “Oh WOW!” enthuses the minion, mincing slightly from foot to foot and looking past me at the car idling at the lights, “That’s one bad-ass Stang!” The illusion is shattered by the youthful, if slightly muffled, Californian accents. We are not on the Death Star. We are somewhere much, much weirder.

  3. It’s Tuesday morning in Hollywood, and so far, I’ve seen a clutter of Spidermen, a four-foot-tall Captain America, an overly upholstered Wonder Woman, and nearly mown down a man dressed as the devil, sporting noticeably lopsided horns. I, on the other hand, have become the invisible man. I’m slithering through traffic in the brand-new 180bhp Ford Fiesta ST - a car as yet unreleased to the public, and due to go on sale in the USA in five-door form imminently - and not a single person has noted its existence. The little blue hatch might well be wearing a tidy new face with a wide trapezium of a black grille, chunky rear spoiler, twin exhaust pipes and a cheeky set of 17-inch wheels, but it becomes blindingly obvious that a small hot supermini in the USA is the kind of automotive urban camouflage celebrities would pay millions for.

  4. There is that other, slightly more obvious reason for my enforced wallflowering, the one that so evocatively occupied the redacted Galactic Empire’s attention. It sits at the lights up ahead, driven by Top Gear’s US correspondent, Pat Devereux, happily spewing toasted hydrocarbons from a quartet of impressively bored exhausts. It is a 2013 Ford Shelby Mustang GT500, the ultimate Mustang, the one that appeared on TG TV. It is dark blue with broad white stripes, littered with Shelby Snake badges, emotionally somewhere in the region of the constipated fistpump, chanting “Yoo-Ess-Ay” and Stars-and-Stripes underpants. In America, it draws attention like a nude marching band. And that’s taking into account that out here, the Mustang is a live, workaday icon. They’re everywhere, as ingrained in the American psyche as McDonald’s and brightly insincere server greetings. Pat, the facts, if you please…

  5. Pat Devereux: Well, the facts are that the Mustang is as far away from the Fiesta ST as it’s possible to get. Talk about two countries divided by a common language… This 2013 GT500 has a vast, supercharged and intercooled 5.8-litre V8, rear drive, almost as much power as the Millennium Falcon (650+bhp) and costs under £40k, even with every option box ticked. Its top speed is a quoted 202mph, it can peel off the quarter mile in the mid-11s and it will spin its tyres in the first three gears, even with the traction control systems switched on. It’s the USA on four wheels: firepower, excellent value, an obvious sense of humour and an ability to inflict damage on anything that gets in its way.

  6. TF: Alright, alright, I get it. The Shelby is about as compromising as a nuclear warhead, as red-blooded as a working abattoir. There are more similarities with my little ST than you think, though. I mull through the list while considering Wonder Woman’s prodigious muffin top and threadbare golden whip, arriving at the following conclusion: they both have Ford badges. And they are both blue.

  7. But what we’re really looking at here is both a beginning and an end. Cars like the Mustang - with their resolutely domestic slant - are doomed. The future consists of world cars like the Fiesta, brands like ST. Ubiquitous cars built for every market with minimal change, vehicles whose nascent reputations are painstakingly constructed rather than organically grown. Where the Mustang had Steve McQueen and silver-screen cameos, the Fiesta manages its profile with subculture opinion-formers like Ken Block, on social media platforms like YouTube.

  8. The problem with the global-car compromise - part of the company’s ‘One Ford’ mission statement - is that it’s easy to bear in a shopping car, less acceptable in a car that’s supposed to stir you. After all, the one thing that a Shelby Mustang does not do, to its eternal credit, is compromise. So the question is, can you build a properly credible performance car from sub-brands like ST, created to be all things to all markets? Should we fear the future? Is everything about to go… beige?

  9. PD: Ask me when I’ve just got out of the Mustang after a vigorous slither up some sand-strewn canyon roads, or after laying a set of elevens on some backroad, and I’ll tell you that nothing this side of another overpowered muscle car could ever replace it. Ask me again when I’ve spent the day on gridlocked city streets or had to do a long journey, and I’ll listen a little more intently if you tell me that cars such as the little ST are the way forward. Either way, I think it’s a big ask for brands like ST or even RS to become credible in specific markets like the US overnight. It’s going to take some… no, a lot, of time. Something like the Fiesta is great in town, but out on the poorly surfaced, XXL-truck-stuffed freeways it feels and looks vulnerable. I also think the smallest ST needs a bit more of the instant character that the Focus ST has in spades. The chassis is fabulously neutral, but then so is the drivetrain, which is frankly a bit boring. There’s nothing wrong with the way the power is produced - it just needs more of a sense of occasion.

  10. Which is something the Mustang never suffers from. As old skool as it is, and as unruly as it can become, you can never say it lacks presence or driver engagement. I get that it’ll need to be toned down to make it meet new regs and be saleable globally, not just in the US, but I also know that I’ll miss the challenge of driving it just the way it is now. What it lacks in refinement, it makes up for with its glowing aura of power and heritage.

  11. TF: In America, the Mustang still makes sense. The sheer charisma of the thing is infectious. The Fiesta, the neat little hatch, is more demure. It’s a good-looking car, never demanding attention out of proportion to the speed it can deliver. The wide grille and wedged profile make it look athletic rather than genuinely sporty, and it sits well on the 17-inch wheels. But it hasn’t got the drive-by impact you might expect. It’s very subtle. Perhaps too much so. The Stang, unsurprisingly, is theatre, but is also stymied in town, barely getting into third gear. The Fiesta is more fun, and comprehensively outguns the hefty GT500 in the nipping-through-town stakes, but both cars need to breathe. So we head out of LA, run through the I60 East, and out towards the I10 Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway to Palm Desert, and hook the ‘74 to a place called Idyllwild and Pine Cove. Pat, apparently, has something to show me…

    PD: Have I got a treat for you. You might have spent the past couple of hours being bounced around on the freeway, but your reward will be some of the best driving roads in the US - I know you think you are going to have all the fun when we get there, but I think you’ll think again when we’re done.

  12. TF: Ok, so here’s a thing. My day hasn’t started well. On the freeway, the Fiesta hasn’t stacked up. With firm suspension, lowered 15mm over the standard car, and a shortish wheelbase, the badum-badum rhythmic stride of the Mustang across the roadway’s expansion joints becomes a stuttering budda-budda in the ST that makes you fear you’ve got a flat tyre. And it follows grooves like a slot car. On the better-surfaced bits, it’s more confident and settles down to a cruise, but I reckon that the USA won’t warm to such nervousness. European roads are better - but it’s not a great start.

    PD: Patience, Tom. I take your point about the short gait of the Fiesta making the road feel worse, but that stretch of the I10 is famous for its horrible surfacing. No small car can handle it any better than the Fiesta. It’s not an ST issue, it’s a titchy car issue.

  13. TF: I’ll take your word for it, Pat. But I’ll think about it later; I’ve just seen the road up ahead. And I’m having trouble concentrating. Flickering up and out of the scrub, with Asbestos Mountain to the right, it swaggers up and around the hills like big black loops of intestine pulled from the desiccated corpse of a landscape, looking suspiciously like hot-hatch country to me.

    With a decent road in sight, the Mustang makes a guttural, phlegmy bellow, overlaid by a slight whine of supercharger belt, and romps off. I heel the Fiesta into second and wind up through to 6,500rpm, not exactly cantering up behind, but not left wondering which way the Mustang went. A surprise, given that officially the Fiesta will hit 62mph in a smidgen under seven seconds and top out at 136mph. The GT500, in contrast, will crack 62 in roughly 3.7. Which is proper quick. But there’s one thing in the Fiesta’s favour: this isn’t a drag race.

  14. Pat was right. The Palms to Pines road starts with some fairly rough, broken concrete that hits hard enough to make your eyes blur, certainly worse than anything Europe has to offer and a consequence of the Californian propensity for small but regular road-shuffling seismology. But it smoothes out as you start to climb, into a set of huge, sweeping bends of the sort we just don’t get in Europe. You can load a car up fully for a good 10 seconds a pop, and the camber changes - big ones - make it literally feel like a rollercoaster. Following the GT500, I can hear that Pat is basically lolloping that huge motor along, surfing it, with occasional squirts. But there aren’t many straights to use all the power and torque, and so the little Fiesta keeps harrying the big Stang, nipping at its heels. It’s like watching a terrier harassing a bull.

  15. Then, just as you’ve got used to that, the corners tighten and ask more. And the Fiesta answers. This is where the little Ford suddenly burns bright. The standard Fiesta always felt like it could handle significantly more power, and 180bhp really isn’t enough to trouble it unduly. This 1.6-litre all-aluminium four-cylinder EcoBoost features direct injection and a low-inertia turbocharger to cut lag, and there’s an ‘overboost’ feature under full load that can pump peak power up to 195-ish bhp, but it also has twin independent variable-cam timing to fatten delivery while maintaining efficiency. It’s linear and strong, but never particularly characterful. In fact, it tends to change tone, but not pitch, meaning that it enters the cabin as a pleasantly encouraging drone rather than anything notable. Similarly, you can hear the faint sneeze of a dump valve in there somewhere, but it’s very much in the background. It’s not particularly… naughty. And you have to work it. There may be 214lb ft available - and the ST will pull smoothly on the motorway from remarkably low revs in high gears - but it’s not a car that you can leave to itself and hope for the best.

  16. The figures aren’t the point, though, because where the Shelby Mustang experience is dominated by that mountain of an engine, the Fiesta ST is all about the chassis. It’s brilliant. It’s incredibly keen to turn, and precise when it does, attacking a corner with surprisingly rapid - if slightly numb - steering. It feels light, and flat, and four-square. Intensely… European.

  17. The Mustang, on the other hand, looks wayward. Scary. And that’s with GT500-specific suspension settings. The Fiesta ST hasn’t had a root-and-branch overhaul; it’s got unique-to-the-ST suspension and steering, and that drop in ride-height, but other than that and an ‘enhanced’ eTVC (Torque Vectoring Control) to make a sort of electronic semi-limited-slip diff, it’s pretty much Fiesta standard. Clever arrangement rather than re-engineering… world-car stuff. Familiar, but engaging. It’s cracking: incredibly grippy, and its resistance to understeer, even when really pushed deep into the armpit of a corner, is fabulous. There are flick-flack loaded rights and lefts, connected briefly by brief straights. The Mustang can’t lose the little Fiesta in the tighter corners, but given a chance to lunge out to the extremities of third gear, it pulls out a lead. But every corner, every flat-out exit, every little lift and shimmy from the Fiesta, has me grinning. It’s easy, and satisfying, and laugh-out-loud fun. I’m sure Pat’s having a whale of a time, too, but not exactly in the same way…

  18. PD: Oh, I’m having fun alright. One of the great joys of driving the Mustang is that it’s so… how should I say this, involving. You have to set it up for each turn and then carefully power through. It’s the polar opposite of the Fiesta, which you just throw into the corner on max attack and leave it to sort things out for you. That said, I wasn’t actually trying to lose the ST, but I was still impressed with its ability to keep up.

  19. The joy of the Shelby is that you can really make a difference to how it goes down the road. If you are a crap driver, there’s no hiding like there is in the Fiesta ST, which almost anyone can drive quickly, easily. I know that this 2013 model is probably the last we are going to see with a live rear axle and high-chair driving position. And I’m equally sure the next-gen Stang, with its independent rear suspension and smaller dimensions and smaller engines will be an easier to drive, more efficient car. But it’ll also lose a large chunk of its charisma and soul.

    Or maybe not. Ford has some genius tuners in its SVT division who know how to make cars that get the US public’s blood pumping. So we shouldn’t doubt their ability to work some magic on the next car until we see and drive it. And they’ll have input on the US Fiesta, too. If they can do something about the sound of the engine, it might almost be enough to make me, and a chunk of the US, want one.

  20. TF: Funny that. It feels like the idea of a world performance car - a fast car that works in lots of markets - still needs to feel slightly edgy. That’s the common theme for any fast Ford, whether you’re talking about the Mustang or an ST. And I still envy Pat in the Mustang. Right here, right now, it’s the best car in the world. But not the best car for the world. And on the flipside of that, the Fiesta ST makes me confident that we’re not looking blankly at a future filled with tepid tweakery. It might not be the fastest, but it keys into a theme of the past couple of years: accessibility. Fast without fear. Both in terms of paying for it, and also in terms of being able to enjoy a car without having to take it to a race track. More than that, this is the smallest, plainest fast Ford, and it’s good, simple fun. At 17 grand, it offers hot-hatch thrills for warm-hatch bills, and is an object lesson in neat front-wheel-drive handling.

    Obviously encephalopathic old dinosaurs like the Mustang sweat character. But cars these days are produced for a global market, and they’re too specific to survive. Enjoy them while we have them, and take heart in the fact that cars like the Fiesta ST aren’t all that far away from greatness - they bode well. The shape of the landscape is changing, but on the strength of this, Ford still knows how to paint a pretty picture.

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