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New Ford Focus: the only way is Essex

  1. Wednesday, 4.19pm
    “Where do you two plan to visit?” asks the
    Canadian border guard. She’s friendlier than the US immigration patrol we
    cleared in Detroit airport an hour ago. She only has two guns in clear view.

    “Essex,” I reply. Only 20 miles down the road.

    “Oh, it’s nice there,” she smiles. “That all?”

    “And then Essex,” deadpans photographer Daniel from the
    passenger seat. “Followed by Essex, Essex, and Essex.”

    The officer fixes us with an icy stare.

    Words: Sam Philip
    Photos: Daniel Byrne

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

  2. Essex, Essex, Essex, Essex and Essex. That’s the plan.
    Detroit to New York in a shiny new Ford Focus, clocking a quintet of towns
    called Essex on the way. There’s a vague semblance of logic somewhere here: the
    third-generation Focus is Ford’s first-ever true ‘world car’, to be built in
    identical form in eight factories around the globe and sold in 80 countries.
    So, barring engine variants, this Detroit-built Focus is the same one that’ll
    be driven in Thailand, Brazil and China and, of course, Ford’s spiritual
    British homeland of Essex. Ich bin ein Essexer, as JFK never said.

    This spurious premise for a road trip will, we hope, give us
    a chance to bond with the new Focus, a car that left us unexpectedly lukewarm
    on first impressions. Best crack on. We’ve two days to cover 1,400 miles.

  3. 4.50pm: Essex, Ontario

    “Spring has come!” flashes the LED
    board outside the Holy Name of Jesus church. Not to Essex it hasn’t. Though
    it’ll be April in a couple of days, winter clings to the lifeless, low-rise
    town, patches of grubby snow loitering apologetically in the verges. Essex’s
    biggest claim to fame is a large and devoted population of crows, a population
    that apparently refuses to venture beyond the town’s boundaries. Local crows
    for local people.

  4. Standard automotive fare here is big, American and ugly: Pontiac Azteks, Chevrolet Monte Carlos, Oldsmobile Cutlasses. What happened to American car design in the Nineties? The new Focus has attracted a bit of flak for its looks but, amidst these lumbering behemoths, it looks tautly surfaced and sharp, a reef shark among blubbery manatees. True, the first-gen Focus maintained a more elegant simplicity, and - especially without a numberplate to break up that huge mouth - the MkIII’s front end is a bit gappy, but in the gun-metal grey of our test car, it’s the handsomest thing in this crowzone. One Essex down, four to go.

  5. 6.34pm

    Ontario is flatter than week-old roadkill. A hundred
    miles, not an inch of elevation in any direction: a perfectly straight highway
    rolling across a perfectly straight landscape under a perfectly straight grey
    sky. Not the place to explore the gummy edge of the Focus’s handling envelope,
    but a fine chance to see how it deals with the interstate.

    Superbly. On the optional sports suspension, the
    Focus is stiffer-sprung than most hatches but never jarring: the damping feels
    reassuringly expensive, expertly softening the harsh edges off the killer
    potholes that dot this grey highway. The steering has a strong self-centering
    action, adding to the stable, planted feel. The cabin is whisper-quiet at
    speed. A fine motorway cruiser.

  6. 8.20pm

    “That’s the twenny-eleven model, right? How’s it go?”

    I make some positive, noncommittal noises, as one does when
    making chit-chat with a heavily armed American border guard, a man who looks
    like he wrestles grizzlies for sport.

    “I was gonna get down to my dealer and take a drive in one
    of them.”

    Really? “I thought you guys drove pick-ups?”

    He laughs. “Yeah, we did. But petrol’s over four dollars a
    gallon now. Need something more economic…”

    Four dollars a gallon is 65 pence per litre.

  7. 11.25pm

    450 miles down. Focus running beautifully, devouring
    miles like a hungry trucker devours greasy fries. Time for sleep. The motel
    owner tells us we’ll find “lots of nice scenics and Amish people” tomorrow. Can’t

    Thursday, 6.27am
    Not a lot of scenics at the moment. Or
    Amish. Just drizzle, more straight road and an awful lot of time to fiddle with
    the Focus’s new infotainment system.

    At any given moment, more than 17,000 radio stations
    are playing classic rock in New York State alone.

  8. 10.12am

    Corners! Corners! We have swung north off the
    interstate and into the Adirondack Mountains. The road is rising, the snow on
    the ground sitting thicker now. The scrubby roadside towns fade away, replaced
    by thick, white pine forests. Finally, a chance to have some fun…

    What a road. Writhing through the woods, snaking the
    verges of snow-covered, frozen lakes. Tight corners, wide sweepers, potholes
    and scrabbly surface changes to keep you honest. Miles and miles of perfection.

  9. 11.02am

    Hmmm. On a - how to put this? - scientific analysis,
    the Focus is brilliant: no body roll, quick steering, plentiful grip,
    everything going where it should. But it is, palpably, missing those few
    degrees of dynamic fizz so present in previous generations. Part of the problem
    is the ‘box on this car, Ford’s double-clutch PowerShift transmission. In full
    auto guise, it’s slick enough, but lethargic in manual mode. To compound the
    problem, there are no paddle-shifters, just a daft little rocker switch by your
    thumb on the gearlever. The engine - a US-spec, 160bhp, 2.0-litre petrol which,
    thankfully, we won’t see in the UK - always feels hesitant, unwilling to deliver
    its full slug of power.

  10. But even ignoring the drivetrain deficiencies, there’s still something missing here: a soupçon of inertia, disconnectedness, where even the most basic of old Focuses dialled you into the mainframe. Not much, but it’s there. Maybe more commitment is required… 

    Flashing lights, blue and red. Police. Pulling us
    over. This is definitely bad.

    The trooper strides over to the car. He looks
    p****d. American p****d. Many guns. I grab passport, papers, licence, anything,
    and hand them to him. He leafs slowly through.

  11. “When are yew heading back to the Yew-Nighted Kingdom?” he

    “Tomorrow night.”

    “Not if I haul you before the judge.” Fair enough. “This is
    a clearly demarked 55 miles per hour road. Know how fast yew were going?”

    I shake my head. Definitely faster than 55mph.

    “I clocked yew at 88.”

  12. Two thoughts. One: if this was Doc Brown’s De Lorean, we’d
    be in 1955 right now. Two: 30mph over means up to 30 days in jail.

    “Don’t move. Hands on the wheel.” He marches back to his
    truck. I am going to spend a month in a cell with a violent homosexual called

    No jail for me. Not even a fine. That upstanding,
    fragrant officer lets me off with a lengthy lecture, less a verbal clip round
    the ear than a verbal uppercut to the jaw. I depart chastened, vowing never to
    exceed the limit again.

  13. 2.48pm

    At 55mph, America is very large.

    3.14pm: Essex, New York
    This place isn’t so much sleepy as
    clinically narcoleptic. There’s an abandoned gas station on Essex’s main road,
    preserved in Seventies stasis. It’s the most modern-looking place in town.
    Still, we’ve ticked off our second Essex, and the third will follow soon:
    Essex, Vermont, is just 10 miles away, straight across Lake Champlain. An easy
    ferry ride.

    We idle down to the jetty. The ferry is not running. Bad
    weather, says the sign on the closed kiosk. The weather, for the first time on
    our trip, is clement, high clouds and still and peaceful. Those giant, pointy
    icebergs drifting down the lake are the more likely culprits. A notice advises
    us to head to Plattsburg and catch the ferry from there. Plattsburg is 40 miles
    north. Frustrating.

  14. “Gosh, is that not going yet?” A stout, stumpy woman appears
    from nowhere. Seems an odd remark: there’s not much else going on in Essex.
    “Don’t worry yourselves,” she continues. “Hang around a bit, they’re getting
    running real soon.”

    “How soon? Half four?”

    “Hell, no!” She hoots, literally hoots, as if I’ve cracked a
    killer one-liner. “Two weeks. Maybe four. Depends on the ice.”

  15. I ask how long it’ll take to reach Plattsburgh.

    “Plattsburgh? Why’d y’wanna go there?” she snorts. “That’ll
    take you two hours. And the ferry ain’t even running. You wanna turn your butt
    around and go south 26 miles, over the bridge.”

    Before we escape, I ask her opinion of our car.

    “Well, I’m more of a Vee-Dubya fan,” she says. “But I can
    get down with the Blue Oval. Matt Hesketh drives Ford.”

    “Matt who?”

    serious?” she looks as me incredulously. “Number 17. Matt Hesketh! Baby, that’s
    NASCAR!” She says it with all the capitals.

  16. 4.34pm

    The Good Lord of Over-Ambitious Road Trips is not
    smiling on us. The Crown Point bridge is closed.

    The Good Lord cracks a half-smile. There is a
    replacement ferry service running. The ferry’s cargo mainly consists of large
    trucks, large truckers and their large Alsatians. The Focus looks a bit fey in
    this company.

    6.41pm: Essex, Vermont
    Essex doesn’t rank high on Vermont’s
    list of tourist attractions. After three laps of the centre, I would posit that
    the only reason to visit is if you’re attempting to tick off all the places
    called ‘Essex’ in the US. That’s a limited tourist market. Onwards, to the mountains.

  17. 9.38pm

    A weather warning crackles through the radio.
    Eighteen inches of snow are forecast for the White Mountains. That’s where
    we’re heading.

    Good car for a bad road, the Focus. It breathes
    effortlessly over the ice-worn tarmac, quick to changing direction when a badly
    lit truck looms out of the darkness, a little beacon of security in an ominous,
    icy night…

    Friday, 6.10am
    Morning. Snow. A lot of snow. Maybe a foot of
    the stuff, still falling fast. We hastily abandon plans for a scenic detour
    through the mountain backroads, and head straight for the interstate because,
    well, at least they’ll have cleared that. Won’t they?


  18. 8.29am

    This is the most scared I’ve ever been in a car.
    These are no conditions for a piste-basher, let alone a front-wheel-drive
    hatch. The road is frozen solid, capped by a three-inch layer of snow. The
    Focus slews from side to side, traction control light blinking incessantly. I
    can’t slow down on the uphill sections because I’ll start sliding backwards,
    and I can’t slow down on the downhill sections because… well, I physically
    can’t. Friction is at a level commonly experienced by deep-space astronauts.

  19. I’m counting down the seconds until the Focus flips ends and sends us spinning towards the barrier and our grizzly death. Wish we had winter tyres on this thing. Our fault for not telling Ford we’d be taking it to the mountains. The sensible decision, of course, would be to stop driving, to sit it out in a diner until the snow ceases and the gritters get to work. But we must make New York by evening, and still have two Essexes and 500 miles to cover. 

    What’s the plural of Essex? Essii? Essices? Essum?

  20. 9.21am

    And we are sliding and sliding, quicker and quicker.
    The ABS graunches and judders, but this one is beyond rescue. No grip. No
    chance. 30mph. The hill is sheet ice, and we can do nothing. 40mph. I can see
    the coroner’s report now: “Cause of death: inexplicable obsession with Essex.”
    50mph. Bye bye, cruel world…

    Not dead. Ploughed the Focus into the roadside
    snowbank which, miraculously, slowed us to a safe stop without the occurrence
    of death. My heart is pounding like a gratuitous Rush solo. Unpleasant warmth
    is spreading through my upper trouser region.

    Turns out Daniel had surreptitiously turned on my
    seat heater.

  21. 2.12pm: Essex, Massachusetts

    Our penultimate Essex has the
    windlashed mien of a town that’s spent 300 years braving Atlantic storms. The
    town is built around a shipyard established in the 17th century. They still
    build ships in the traditional fashion from salvaged wood. Reminds me a bit of
    the Morgan factory. Our Focus has developed a tumour in its front-right tyre
    after a run-in with a craterous pothole. No time to fix it. It’s the last push.
    The final Essex beckons.

  22. 3.18pm

    The Focus’s white-on-black contrast leather interior
    is starting to grate. Looks like someone’s skinned a killer whale. Or a very
    leathery panda. The stitching is beautiful, though, neater than certain Italian
    luxury cars of five times the price. In fact, the overall quality of finish and
    refinement is absolutely stellar on this car. Can’t wait to get it face-to-face
    with a Golf: it’ll run the VW very, very close on interior quality. It’ll beat
    it in a few other departments.

  23. 4.14pm: Essex, Connecticut

    Made it. 1,402 miles, two
    countries, seven states, six tanks of petrol, one angry police officer and five
    towns called Essex. We’ve saved the poshest until last: Essex reeks of
    long-established money: clapboard mansions, manicured lawns, more law firms
    than coffee shops. It’s one of few US towns ever to be invaded by a foreign
    power: in 1814, English troops stormed Essex’s harbour, burning 28 ships and
    laying waste to the high street’s spray tan emporiums. Sure the modern
    Essexians bear no ill will towards the looting limeys, but best keep our voices
    down, just in case.

  24. We park up the Focus on the slipway, seagulls scudding
    across the fat, slow Connecticut river. It begins to drizzle. This oddly British
    vista seems a fitting place to reflect on what we’ve learned about the Focus.
    First and foremost, it’s a brilliant car for covering big miles: quiet,
    comfortable, long-legged. The cabin, both in design and technology, is a huge
    leap forward for Ford, and - with a manual gearbox and the boosty 1.6-litre
    turbo engine at least - the Focus is still at the very top of the handling
    class. But, in pursuit of global appeal, it seems Ford has sanded off the
    sharpest edges of the Focus’s character, compromised its traditional dynamic
    sparkle a little. For most, that’ll be an acceptable trade-off for all that
    extra gadgetry and refinement. We’d love a little more fizz, but hey, there’s
    always next year’s ST. Right now, how can we speak ill of the car that has set
    a new world record for Most Essexes Visted in a 48 Hour Period?

  25. 5.15pm

    A text from the office. Apparently there’s an Essex
    in Iowa, 950 miles west. Bring it on, little Focus.

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