Photos courtesy of Ford Motor Corp.

The Crushing Disappointment of Quality

2014 Ford Fiesta ST Review

When you review cars, the good cars are the worst. You see, bad cars allow you to get snarky. You get a chance to gleefully rip years of work by thousands of people into utter shreds. You can reach for colorful metaphors involving the incompetence, ancestry, and probable spiritual destination of everyone involved in the car’s production. You can make fun of the vehicle’s clownish face, and go on for paragraphs about turbo lag, slow shifting, bad suspension, and cheap plastic dashboards.

It’s therapeutic, too. All of the dark, hidden rage you have at not being skilled enough to drive professionally and make millions of dollars can be unleashed. You can channel your disappointment at having a conventional, middle-class life into the ridicule of others’ work. You sublimate your urges to choke the living crap out of the incompetents that surround you in daily life by writing horrifically vicious things about inoffensive bits of machinery. You can just vent at something, which, really, makes you a much nicer person to the people around you. I quite like it.

You can’t do that with good cars. You have to be nice. You end up writing complimentary things. Frankly, that doesn’t help you exorcise any personal demons at all. You just end up sounding like a silly fan-boy to the smart-alecs who accuse you of writing nice things because you’re afraid to lose your press fleet privileges with the manufacturer.

Which brings us, I suppose, to the 2014 Ford Fiesta ST. It’s basically Ford’s newest and tiniest sports car, camouflaged as a subcompact hatchback. It’s built in Britain. It costs around $24,000, reasonably well-equipped. Sadly, it’s quite nice.

How it looks

From the front, it’s very aggressive, with squinty, angry headlights and a blacked-out grill. The descending roofline is lengthened in the back by a long—though, one suspects, completely non-functional—spoiler. In the US, we will only get the 5-door hatchback version, which is more practical, but less sleek-looking than the 3-door hatchback they also get in Europe. Europeans always get the best cars.

Seriously, I can’t believe we spent billions of dollars in American treasure and blood to raze Europe’s cities to the ground, just to let them keep all the good hot hatchbacks and V-8 station wagons to themselves. Even our so-called “allies”, like France, refuse to let us have Citroën DS3s or Renault Meganes. Sure, Volvo lets us have the V60. Big whoop.

It’s nowhere near as feature-sparse as it looks

Anyway, the Fiesta ST not only looks nice on the outside, it looks pretty good on the inside, too. The dashboard is soft-touch rubber, and, while there’s hard plastic in there, it’s mainly in the less obvious places. The Fiesta is the base car in Ford’s lineup, so, unless you’re willing to pay an extra two grand for leather-trimmed Recaro seats—which is not necessary—you’re stuck with ST-badged cloth seats. But, they’re pretty good. Sure, Recaro seats are good, too, but I’m not sure they’re $2,000 good.

What’s also pretty good are the interior features. You’ve got a 6” touch screen with sat-nav, SiriusXM radio, and Radio/CD controls. There’s also electric windows and doors, keyless entry and start, and Bluetooth connectivity with hands-free phone connectivity. Voice command ability is provided by the Ford/Microsoft Sync® technology. The center console armrest hides two USB ports, an Aux audio input, and SD Card slots. The sat-nav card takes up one of those slots, and you can get updated navigation cards from the dealer. The leather-wrapped steering wheel has a delightfully chunky grip, and all the requisite thumb switches to control the techy bits.

Seating is comfortable, and there’s decent headroom front and back. Rear legroom is also surprisingly good for a subcompact. The wheels are set about as close to the corners of the car as is possible, opening up a large space for the passenger cabin. It’s not luxury-car roomy in the back, but it’s comfortable enough for running around town.

Where you do run out of room is in the rear storage area. The back seats both fold down, giving you a proper amount of storage space. With them up, however, you’ll be limited to errands and grocery store trips. It’s how you pay for the seating room. All in all, though, it’s about as nice and roomy as you can expect a subcompact car to be.

How it drives

When you press the starter button, the first thing you notice is the exhaust noise. The Fiesta ST is powered by a 1.6L I-4 turbocharged EcoBoost® engine. It sounds fantastic. It sounds angry. And well it should, since it outputs 197 HP and 202 lb-ft of torque. That doesn’t sound like a lot, until you realize the Fiesta ST weighs only 2,720 lbs with the 6-speed manual transmission. That means 197 dinky little horsies pull the Fiesta ST to 60 MPH in under 7 seconds, and past the quarter-mile mark in 15 seconds. That doesn’t seem blindingly fast on paper, but inside the Fiesta, it seems pretty darned quick.

Compare and contrast that to the performance of the Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ that everyone was creaming themselves over last year, and you see the Fiesta’s performance is the same. Maybe the FRS is a bit faster to 60 MPH, but the Fiesta will run a faster quarter mile. The Fiesta certainly seems faster than the FRS. Tromp on the accelerator and release the clutch, and Mr. Inertia pins you to the seat, while the motor joyfully growls and barks.

The Fiesta’s suspension is on the sporty side, being a bit stiff, so the ride is rather harsh, but not unreasonably so. If you want a sporty car with limited body roll as you blast it through corners, you have to give up a plushy ride. It’s on the livable, daily-driver side of harsh, though, so it’s OK.

What’s surprising with the Fiesta ST is how good it is in the corners. It’s a front-wheel drive car, so you expect it to be dull and horrible and chock full of understeer. But, apparently, British druids or wizards did some sort of incantation over the electronic slip diff it has in front. You go into the corners and…it corners. Even with the traction control system turned completely off. They also worked their magic on the steering, which is really good for an electrically-assisted unit.

Part of its cornering ability is that Ford kept the engine under 200 HP. Everyone in pre-electronic days reckoned that 200 ponies was the maximum power you could put into front-wheel drive without serious understeer problems. The electronics just improve on the moderate horsepower to keep the Fiesta tucked into a turn. It’s fairly confidence-inspiring. There’s no noticeable torque steer, either. Please note, this is precisely the opposite of what the Focus ST feels like with the traction control off.

Next, I’d like to tell you about the Fiesta’s six-speed manual transmission, and how well it worked. But I can’t. I don’t really remember a thing about it. It is the most unobtrusive manual transmission I’ve ever used. You don’t think about it at all. You just press the clutch and move the lever and stop pressing the clutch. You could read a novel while shifting and never miss a word on the page. No effort at all.

Having said that, though, the first two gears are pretty short. The Fiesta only has a 6,500 RPM redline, and in first and second, you reach it in a snap. So, jumping off the starting line is a bit frenetic at first, until you get into third.

Maybe I could complain about the clutch a bit, I suppose. The friction point isn’t close to the floor, or close to full release. It’s somewhere in the middle. It will take you almost halfway through your first trip to the grocery store before you get used to this.

Finally, there’s the braking. It’s pretty good, too, but the Fiesta squirms under hard braking. That comes from only having a 98” wheelbase. Surprisingly, the short wheelbase doesn’t make the Fiesta ST wander about the road like a drunken hobo.

What’s good about it

The engine has a great sound and torquey feel. It’s comfortable and roomy. It looks great. It drives great. The traction control isn’t intrusive. It drives well, and asks to be driven hard. The suspension isn’t so stiff that it ruins the ride. The steering and handling are very sporty, very sharp, and very fun. Basically, it’s a hoot. Also, the sound-proofing in the cabin is pretty good, eliminating the wind and road noises—though not, it must be said, the sound of the Fiesta’s exhaust. I think Ford really wants you to hear that.

What’s bad about it

The trunk is a bit small with the back seats up. There’s some squirminess when you brake hard. There’s a complete lack of leather.

Conclusion

Frankly, the whole experience of driving the Fiesta ST was hugely disappointing. There was nothing about this car I disliked enough to complain about. There’s no horrible design flaw to laugh at. It’s a good car, built by people who like cars, for people who like cars. So now I have to say it’s a great car, and can’t work out my frustrations and aggression on paper.

I’ll be kicking puppies by the end of the week, most likely.

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Sibling Rivalry

2015 Kia K900 Sedan


Kia is generally referred to as the sister company of Hyundai. That’s not an entirely accurate depiction, as Hyundai actually owns about a third of Kia Motors. But if we go with the “sisters” analogy, Hyundai would be the studious, sober sister, while Kia is the prettier, sluttier one. That’s not to say that that Hyundai is above flashing a little cleavage, in the form of the Genesis Coupe, which in its 6-cylinder Track or Touring spec, is pretty sexy in Korean car terms. But, in general, Kia’s cars are more fun to drive Hyundai’s.

But now Kia has come up with its own version of the 420 HP Hyundai Genesis sedan, which Kia calls the K900, for the 2015 model year. One would expect that Kia would take the Genesis and kick it up a notch over the Hyundai offering. And so they have. But not, maybe, in the way you’d think.

How it looks

There’s no denying that, at first glance, the K900 is an attractive car. While the Hyundai Genesis is ugly—in an entirely inoffensive and boring way—the K900 is not. In terms of looks and styling, both inside and out—the K900 is better in every possible way.

And yet there is a niggling little thing about the exterior styling that I find enraging in a car that costs $65,000 when nicely optioned. I’m referring specifically to the “vents” at the rear of each front fender. Apparently, because the BMW M-series cars have such a vent, everybody now has to have one on their flagship 5-series competitors. Jaguar, for instance, has them on the XF. And the K900 has them, too. Except that, in the K900’s case, they aren’t vents. They are silver and black vent imitators. Kia has cut a hole in the sheet metal for the specific purpose of covering the hole with a hideous piece of plastic. The Jag’s vent is made of chrome, at least. Not so the K900’s.

At first, I didn’t mind it too much. But then I started thinking about it. And I started to think about the K900’s sticker price. And it began to grate on me. Now, I’ve gotten to the point where I want to firebomb every K900 I see, simply because of the vent. Admittedly, I am perhaps, somewhat less than perfectly objective on this whole vent thing.

Not just Korean-car nice, but actually nice

And I really should be more objective about it, because everything else about the K900 is quite nice. The exterior lighting consists entirely of LEDs, including the headlights. There are cameras fore and aft to give you a top-down 360-degree view of what’s around the car, too. There’s also a suite of parking sensors, lane deviation sensors, and blind spot sensors all ‘round. In back, there’s what I like to call a “two hooker” trunk.

The headlights are cunningly designed to rotate left, right, up, and down, depending on the terrain, your speed, and where you’re turning the wheel. They project wider beams when you’re driving slowly, and narrower, more road-focused beams when you’re driving quickly. Apparently, the headlight projectors are spinning around at all times like the ball turret of a B-17 fighting off a squadron of Focke-Wulf 190s. You don’t notice this from the inside, of course. All you see is the perfect light in the perfect place for whatever it is you’re doing.

Actually, you don’t notice the headlights at all from the inside, because your attention is taken up by the vast swathes of wood and stitched leather that coat nearly every surface. This car is the nemesis of cows—the righteous infliction of retribution for their horrific bovine sins, manifested by a Korean car company. All of the bits that may regularly touch your delicate skin are Napa leather, while more pedestrian leather coats the dashboard, doors, and steering wheel. The seat leather is perforated, so that appropriately warm or cool air can be wafted onto you through the perforations by the climate control system. The seats are almost infinitely adjustable as well, as is the steering wheel, all of which is done through the magic of electricity.

In the front seats, the only analog instrument is the small, mechanical clock in the center of the dash. The driver’s instruments and center screen are all bright, color TFT screens. The driver’s cluster displays various styles of instruments depending what on what drive mode you select. Normal mode brings up analog-style speedometer and tachometer needles, for instance, while Sport Mode displays digital large digital numbers for speed and RPM, surrounded by thin, circular gauges. The center of the driver’s screen displays various types of information on demand, including the menus to configure the heads up display that is projected onto the windshield, in case you’re too lazy to look down.

The center console screen displays all of the entertainment, video, and satellite navigation functions. It is not a touch screen, but, instead, is controlled by a joystick/twist-knob arrangement, much like the controls in a Mercedes or BMW. Kia also seems to be the only automaker that understands how to make the center screen intuitive and easy to learn. This is the center screen control and menu system that should be in every car made today.

Enough room for a pony.

The K900 is also roomy in back. You could stable a horse back there. There’s simply loads of room for rear passengers. Kia has also come up with the idea that right rear seat is the VIP seat, the reasoning being that, if you’re being chauffeured, that’s where you’ll sit. So, in addition to the stereo and climate controls mounted on the rear center armrest, with the VIP options package, the passenger in the VIP seat can touch a control to move the front passenger seat forward, and fold the seat back forward.

After crushing his extra security man into the dashboard, then, the chauffeured VIP can take a little jog. The rear VIP seat also reclines for a little nap afterwards. The side and rear windows come with privacy screens that are mounted in the doors and rear deck, thus preventing the dirty, poor people from seeing the VIP, though not, sadly, the hideously mangled security man in the front passenger seat.

It’s rather hard to believe that this level of niceness is found in a Korean car. It’s just not the sort of thing they’re known for. In any event, the K900’s cabin is nicer by far than the Hyundai Genesis. Though, to be honest, there are little things here and there that don’t scream luxury. The switchgear is a little down-market, as are the plasticky bits that show up here and there in the cabin. These are minor things, maybe, but I noticed them.

It’s nicer than a Cadillac CTS inside the K900. It’s not as nice as a Mercedes E-Class, or Jaguar XF.

How it drives

Now that you’ve gotten used to the rather luxurious appointments in the K900, it’s time to press the start button and see what that 5.0L V8 does with its 420 HP and 376 lb.-ft. of torque. And when that baby fires up, the first thing you notice is…nothing much.

Kia has fitted the K900 with double-paned glass all ‘round. They’ve stuffed the frame full of foam. They’ve done everything possible, in fact, to ensure you are as isolated as possible from those plebian road, wind, and mechanical noises. They claim that the interior of the K900 is merely 2% louder than a Rolls Royce Ghost. There’s none of that piping the engine noise into the passenger cabin, like those working class yahoos at BMW. Apparently, Kia has decided that when you spend 65 large on a car, the last you want is engine noise. So, there really isn’t any. You can barely tell that the vehicle is running.

Once you get moving, though, you can tell the K900 is fast car. Or, rather, you infer it from the fact that you feel inertial forces, and things outside the car seem to be moving very quickly. But Kia has done everything that they can to spare you from what they consider the burdensome minutia of acceleration, or, what I consider “fun”.

Is it just me, or do those headlights look like laser turrets?

Still, the K900 gets from 0 to 60 MPH in 5.5 seconds, and does the quarter-mile in the high 13-second range. If this was 2002, those would be fantastic numbers. In 2014, however, the Mercedes E550 gets to 60 MPH and hits the quarter-mile marker more than a second faster than the K900. Of course, the E550, while having only 402 horsepower, has 443 torques, which is 68 more than the K900. Torque rules.

Kia has continued their philosophy of isolating the cabin from unpleasantness by ensuring that in addition to noise, the road is also completely isolated from the driver. What are the road conditions like? How much grip do the tires have? What is the front end doing? You do not want or need to know these things, so Kia has provided numb electric steering and a suspension that prevents this information from ever reaching you.

Kia apparently believes that if you are driving the K900, you should be scanning the road for IEDs of other disturbances that may frighten or confuse the passenger in the VIP seat. This especially important when the security man has been squeezed into pulp beside you.

What Kia hasn’t done, however, is ensure you are isolated from bumps and potholes very well on bad pavement. In essence, they’ve numbed the things you don’t want numbed, while failing to numb the things you do. In good conditions, the ride is nice, but the ride quality in a $65,000 car should be a bit better.

Frankly, one gets the idea that Kia wishes you weren’t driving at all, but rather sitting in the VIP seat, reading the Financial Times while sipping XO Cognac. Driving is for the little people, much like being squeezed into three cubic inches of space in the front passenger seat is.

You can, however, tell quite clearly when the K900 is turning. Not even the engineering geniuses at Kia can figure out how to keep 4,624 lbs. of metal and glass from rolling like an 18th century frigate when the steering wheel is turned. Perhaps they should make a phone call to Castle Bromwich and ask the guys at Jaguar how they do it. Jaguar’s first answer would probably be to lose 600 lbs.

The power gets from the engine to the rear wheels through an 8-speed, shiftable automatic transmission. But, even though it’s shiftable, you won’t want to, even in sports mode, because it doesn’t want to listen to you. When you press the shifter lever in the center console, the transmission considers your input for a moment, thinking, “You’re not the boss of me!” then grudgingly assents to your request. You get the sense that the transmission would really rather be left alone to get on with its job without you trying to micromanage everything.

The K900’s brakes, on the other hand, are pretty hard to beat. They haul the portly sedan to a stop from 60 MPH in 113 ft. That’s four feet less than a Subaru WRX STi. That’s outstanding. They’re pretty fade-resistant, too.

If only I could ignore those fender vents…

What’s good about it

As I just mentioned, the braking is outstanding. It’s very roomy and comfortable inside. It’s mainly a good-looking car on the outside, if you can ignore the fake vents. Despite some plastic bits, the interior is quite nice, with loads of wood and leather—though the wood is so heavily covered with sparkly lacquer, you might think it was plastic at first glance. It has every technological gimmick you can think of, including adaptive cruise control, full Bluetooth and USB hookups, navigation, and electronic instrument gauges. You get an amazing amount of luxury for the price. The menu system is very intuitive and simple to me, though other reviewers I’ve read didn’t like it.

What’s bad about it

Basically, the K900 has the exact straight-line performance specs as the BMW 535i. But, if I wanted 6-cyliner levels of performance, I’d buy a 6-cylinder BMW. It’s not a driver’s car. It’s not fun to drive, and everything about it feels numb. Kia markets it like it’s a sports sedan. It’s not.

Conclusion

If you don’t care about driving—and, frankly, most people don’t—and you value your creature comforts, then this might be a good choice for you. It’s competitively priced compared to the Germans. It’s even $6,000 cheaper than a Cadillac CTS-V. Compared to its sister car, the Hyundai Genesis, the K900 is noticeably more luxurious and attractive. In those terms, the K900 beats the Genesis soundly. But the Genesis is noticeably more fun to drive than the K900.

If you’re looking for the sort of performance you get from the Mercedes E550, though, you’ll need to look somewhere else.


Originally posted at DaleFranks.Com.

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Hanging In There

2013 Honda Fit


“Why,” you may be asking, “are you writing reviews of 2013 models when we’re already a couple of months into 2014?” Well, the thing about the Honda Fit is that there isn’t a 2014 model. The tsunami in Japan last year messed up things at the factory in Sayama where the Fit is made, forcing them to skip the 2014 model year. A new 2015 model has been announced as the next refresh of the model, and it will be an all-round update to the car, inside and out. For now, though, the 2013 model is the only Fit you can buy.

A few years ago, if you wanted a small, spacious, economical—and fun-to-drive—hatchback of any sort, the Fit was the only thing you could buy, too. Now, of course, the similarly-sized Kias, Fords, and Mazdas are available. They all have nicer interiors, and fun driving dynamics, too. But while new competition has appeared, the 2013 Fit is essentially the exact same car as the 2009 Fit. So, the question, then, is whether or not the unchanged Fit of 2009 can stand up to the new competition in 2014.

How it looks

The Honda Fit has an unusual shape. The nose is oddly short and stubby, while the tail seems, to eyes accustomed to modern designs, oddly square. There’s a reason for this, as we shall discuss in due course, but the Fit looks more like a weirdly small minivan than it does a traditional hatchback. It’s not ugly, exactly, but there’s an indefinable weirdness to its shape. Seen from the front, the Fit’s face has a very scowly expression. It says, “Grrr. Angry hatchback is angry.”


Grrr. Angry hatchback is angry.


Inside, the Fit is…well…pretty basic. It’s plastic as far as the eye can see. There are no natural materials visible anywhere. And it’s all in grayscale. The only hints of color are from the blue LCD instruments and dashboard instrument lights. There are odd recesses and cubbyholes in the dashboard, too, like the shelf under the glove box, or the bin mounted to the left of the steering wheel, which is too big to be a coin tray and too small to be anything else. Like everything else about the Fit’s design, it’s a bit odd and funky.

Then there are the seats. They are covered by a thin layer of velour-like material, and are flat and unbolstered. We’ve gotten used to car seats being curved to fit our buttocks and backs, but Honda didn’t have any truck with that foolishness in designing the Fit’s seats. Still, they are quite firm and supportive.

So far, it all seems fairly “meh”. And it is really. The competitors from Ford, Kia, and Mazda all have nicer interiors, and seem more upscale. On the positive side, the Fit comes with a starting MSRP $15,425, which is about $1,500 less than the Ford Focus. You can get a cheaper hatchback that the Fit. It’ll probably be nicer inside, too. It’ll also be a lot smaller and cramped inside.


The interior is fairly Spartan and dated.


Because that’s the real strength of the Honda Fit. It’s massively roomy inside, as well as being cleverly designed. Sitting in the back seats gives you a huge amount and head and leg room. Adults can comfortably stretch out.

The rear seats fold down with the tug of a lanyard that flips the bottom of the rear seat forward, so that when the seat backs fold down, there’s a long, perfectly flat deck in the back. Thanks to the high roof line, the Fit gives up 57.3 cubic feet of cargo space, more than any other car in its class. Fold the front passenger seat down as well, and the Fit will carry items up to 7’9” long. It’s not quite a replacement for a pickup, but for a compact hatchback, the amount of storage is simply amazing.

But it gets better! If you keep the rear seat backs up, you can fold up the seat bottoms up too, and you get a tall cargo space in front of the rear seats, in case you need to transport a dresser or carry some small trees. Also, the undersides of the rear seats have secret storage places for stowing and concealing small valuables like jewelry, wallets, or bags of China White heroin.

Basically, the Honda Fit has enough storage space to comfortably carry around a couple of Great Danes. Or a pony. It’s really quite impressive, and no other car in its class has this combination of storage space and versatility.


The amount of cargo space is simply amazing, as is the versatility.


From the driver’s seat, the controls seem a bit Spartan in the base model, though you do get a fully-adjustable, telescoping steering wheel, electric door locks and windows, and cruise control. You also get USB connectors and an auxiliary plug for the stereo. Cough up another $1,500 for some extra options, and you also get sat-nav and a large color screen for the center console.

Another thing you notice from the driver’s seat is the visibility. Sitting in the driver’s seat of the Fit is very much like what being in a fishbowl must be like. You can see everything around you. Thanks to the tall window height, you have essentially unrestricted visibility in all directions. Of course, that means you are just as visible from the outside, so exercise extreme care in nose-picking. Everyone will see it.

How it drives

The Honda Fit is powered by a 1.5-liter, 16-valve i-VTEC® engine that outputs 117 HP and 106 lb.-ft. of torque. That doesn’t sound very impressive, but the Fit’s light 2,496 lb. curb weight (in manual transmission spec) means that it scoots to 60 MPH in 8.2 seconds from a dead stop, and will hit the quarter-mile marker in a bit more than 16 seconds. The Fit is a bit slower and about 80 pounds heavier when fitted with an automatic transmission.

Having driven both of them, I’d recommend the manual transmission version, because it’s more fun and engaging to drive. The automatic transmission works just fine, but the manual transmission is about as good as you’d expect from a Honda, and it snicks nicely from gear to gear. The shifter throw is a bit longer than I’d like, but you can go from gear to gear with two fingers, while the friction point on the clutch kicks in at just about full depression of the pedal, and is easy to find.

Honda has long mastered the intricacies of variable valve timing in its engines, so the Fit’s motor gets as much power to the wheels as it can, almost anywhere in the first three gears. That’s helped by the short gearing in the manual transmission. The Fit seems peppy off the line, and more satisfying to drive than you’d expect. But, the tradeoff for the power is that you have to do a lot of manual shifting in traffic to keep the power coming on. That makes the Fit engaging to drive when you want to have fun, but might get a bit irritating when you want a relaxed daily commute. If the latter is your highest priority, maybe the automatic transmission would be a better fit for you. Fit. Get it? Ah, I kill me.

Another high point of the Fit is the handling, which is quite good. The Fit is flickable and maneuverable, but the tall body induces noticeable body roll, even in the Fit Sport model. The steering is very responsive though, and the Fit is eager to follow your steering inputs. In spirited driving, understeer raises its ugly head fairly early on, but this is a front-wheel drive economy hatchback, not a sports car. It’s a pretty fun economy hatchback, but it is what it is. And, for what it is, it’s a hoot.

The fun falls apart a bit when you get the Fit on the freeway, however. This is not a highway cruiser. At 70 MPH, the Fit struggles a bit to keep up with traffic. The revvy little engine may be fun to drive around town, but on the highway, it’s a bit buzzy, a bit loud, and has to work really hard to keep up with traffic. That’s about what you’d expect from a little 1.5L motor, so it shouldn’t be a deal-breaker.

The Fit’s ride is…acceptable. It’s not particularly harsh, but it seems unrefined. When it hits road imperfections, it transmits a touch of them to your butt, rather than gliding over them. Honestly, the competing cars ride noticeably better. This is an artifact of maintaining the current generation’s design essentially unchanged for over five years. Since the Fit was introduced, Honda’s competition has produced newer models, making the Fit look more dated. Presumably, the 2015 model will catch up, but for now, the Fit lags in ride quality.

It lags in braking as well. Braking is smooth and predictable, but it takes 134 feet to come to a stop from 60 MPH. That’s worse than every competitor, and is 10 feet longer than the average braking distance for its class. So, since the Fit won’t stop very fast, you will probably hit something in an emergency situation. In which case, you’ll be happy to hear that the Fit gets the highest IIHS safety rating in crash testing. So, you’ll probably walk away from the crash.

Fuel mileage is pretty good, with the manual transmission providing a combined 29 MPG, and the automatic transmission an even better 31 MPG.


The squarish shape helps out with the cargo space.


What’s good about it

The Honda Fit is surprisingly fun to drive for a little hatchback. It has willing chassis, and is powered by The Little Engine that Could. It has the best visibility of any car I’ve driven in a long time. There’s loads of room for passengers. It has a crazy amount of cargo space, and a versatile cargo setup that no other competitor can match. A nice manual transmission is available.

What’s bad about it

The interior is a bit Spartan and the controls are dated. The automatic transmission version feels a bit sluggish in comparison to the manual, though it gets better gas mileage. The braking distance is the worst in its class. The technology is dated. The ride quality is merely OK. It’s a bit noisy on the highway, and struggles a bit to keep up at higher speeds.

Conclusion

The manual transmission version of the Honda Fit is, I think, the best car Honda makes. It harkens back to the fun Honda’s of the 1980s, before Honda decided to just make beige cars. It’s engaging, requires active driver inputs, and is eager and willing to please. The low price also makes it good value for money. The automatic version is less engaging, and, being a bit more expensive, a bit less of a value, though still surprisingly fun to drive.

The technology and ride quality is, admittedly a bit dated, as you’d expect from a car that’s been unchanged for half a decade. But the counter to that is the visibility and cargo versatility. It’s just about perfect—and I rarely say that—and I honestly don’t see how it could be improved.

The cargo versatility alone should keep the Honda Fit at the very top of the list of practical, economic hatchbacks.


Originally posted at DaleFranks.Com.

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Enraging

2013 Ford Focus SE Sedan


Car enthusiasts know all about the Ford Focus ST. It is the quintessential hot hatch, dropping 264 horses of fun through the front tires. It has a stiff suspension, hard ride, aggressively bolstered seats, and a pleasing manual transmission. The Ford Focus SE Sedan is almost exactly unlike this in every possible way.

Instead, the SE sedan is a compact car for fighting the daily commute. It costs a lot less, and it doesn’t have the power of the ST hatchback. Which means it’s a lot saner. You can still get nice leather seats, and tons of ways to hook up and listen to your mobile devices, without worrying about inadvertently sending yourself backwards into a telephone pole from an excess of power.

On the face of it, it sounds like it should be a very logical choice for a nice, yet economical commuter car.

How it looks

The Focus SE sedan is fairly attractive, incorporating Ford’s new, more angular design language. The wheels look quite sporty, and the body shape gives the impression that the Focus is hunched forward, and eager to lunge into traffic. The headlights are a bit squinty, and the grill looks like the car is in an angry, pouting mood.

Inside, while there is noticeable hard plastic here and there on the center console and doors, the dash is mainly covered in soft-touch materials. It doesn’t come standard with sat-nav, but you still get a 3” color screen in the center console. The driver also gets a similarly sized screen between the easily readable analog tach and speed gauges.

Like both the Fiesta and Fusion, the European-designed interior of the Focus is eye-catching and pleasing. Despite the small size, the center screen is easy to read, and is recessed deeply enough into the dash that it doesn’t get washed out in bright daylight. All of the entertainment and technology functions are accessed through the center screen via a toggle located on the dash or on the right side of the leather-covered and fully adjustable steering wheel. It’s a pretty good interior for a car with a starting MSRP of $18,950. When you toss in the $3,000 customer cash incentive Ford is currently offering, the value proposition for the Focus SE starts to look pretty good, indeed.

Leather seating is available, and, though they don’t heat or cool you, the front seats have electrical adjustment. It’s a small car, but the Focus sedan doesn’t feel excessively cramped, at least up front. Seating in back is only just acceptable in terms of head and legroom, being about the tightest in its class. Put four adults in the Focus and things are quite…snug.

One of the Focus’ main…er…focuses is the use of technology. Sadly, this is where it all begins to go terribly, terribly wrong. Ford has partnered with Microsoft to implement something called “Sync” to handle all the cool technology bits. Now, I am not a Microsoft basher. I happen to think that Microsoft has dome some amazing things to advance the spread of computer technology. Sync is not one of these things. Sync is so not one of these things that the people responsible for it should be pulled naked and screaming from their offices for a good tar and feathering.

Ford’s new design language is attractive.

For instance, here’s something I like to do: I like to listen to on-demand SiriusXM shows through my phone. Initially, I was giddy with delight at how I could listen to them through Sync via Bluetooth. Then I turned the engine off when I stopped for gas. Sync promptly forgot that I wanted to use the Bluetooth input for audio. So, I reset it. Every time I turned the car off, I had to set up Bluetooth again. And again, and again.

To do this, by the way, you have to delve through a stupidly confusing set of menus and submenus via a four-way toggle switch placed far too high in the dash to be comfortable to use. Since Sync cannot remember anything you have ever asked it to do in the past, or indeed, even remember the very last thing you asked it to do, this soon became enraging.

Equally enraging were the five-way thumb toggles on each side of the steering wheel. They aren’t marked with anything but direction arrows and an “OK” in the center. Touch the one on the left, and it ruins whatever you were displaying in the driver’s color instrument screen. Touch the one on the right, which controls the Sync system, and it ruins whatever settings you had Sync set to do. This means you will have to stop the car and completely reprogram the Sync system again, because it will, naturally, have forgotten whatever it was supposed to be doing before you accidentally touched the steering wheel toggle switch.

The cruise control switches also poke out from the underside of the steering wheel on the left side. They are marked rather arcanely. I can’t tell you how they work. I just stabbed at them with a forefinger until the Focus stopped slowing down when I took my foot off the accelerator.

It seems odd to introduce sophisticated technology into a car for the sole purpose of making you despise and fear technology. But, as nearly as I can tell, that’s precisely what Ford has done.

Oh, also, the electric window switches are housed in these odd detents that make them more difficult to use. They’re stupid, too.

Having said all that, though, the design of the interior is stylish and attractive. It looks quite nice inside, and the failures are in the implementation of details, not in any sense a failure of design.

Also, the trunk is, surprisingly, big enough to hold the bodies of two hookers. Or, so I’m told. Folding down the seats also gives you a full pass-through into the passenger cabin, making the Focus SE almost as much practicality as a hatchback.

How it drives

The first thing you notice about the SE-spec Focus sedan is that it is nowhere nearly as powerful as the Focus ST.

Wait. That’s not true. The first thing you notice is that the way the gearshift level works is stupid. It has a little trigger-style locking level in front. So far so good. Most automatic shifters have similar controls. Nothing wrong so far.

Then you move the lever, and sometimes the trigger lock lets you slip it into “D” and sometimes into “S” for sport mode. And sometimes it allows you to shift into reverse. Or not. This begins your wonderful journey into trying to shift the transmission into the proper drive mode. You will while away the hours moving the lever back and forth, trying to find the gear you want. Good luck.

When do you press the trigger thingy to unlock the gearshift? I dunno. What drive mode will it go into when you move the lever? I dunno. Eventually, you’ll get it into drive or reverse, or sport, and really, you’re not so busy that you can’t spend a few minutes every day finding the right gear.

The transmission is also manually shiftable, but after finally getting it in gear, the last thing you’ll want to do is touch the gear lever again. If you do, though, shifting manually is accomplished by pressing one of the two buttons on the side of the knob. It works OK, but since the automatic transmission works perfectly fine, I didn’t really see any need to manually shift it.


An attractive sedan, ruined by details that make it hard to live with as a daily driver.


Once you’ve got it going forward, the Focus is reasonably nice to drive. Powered by Ford’s Ti-VCT GDI I4 motor, with 160 HP and 146 torques, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the ST-spec version, but it’s relatively powerful for its class, though a bit behind the 178 HP available in the Dodge Dart. With the lower torque, it seems sluggish starting off the line, but once you get the RPMs up, it gets noticeably quicker. The Focus will hit 60 MPH in 7.6 seconds, and a quarter mile passes in the 16-second range at 89 MPH.

Ride quality is good for a compact car. Ford has done a deft job at tuning the suspension to soak up road imperfections, and the stiff chassis keeps the Focus feeling firm and planted. Toss it into a corner, and body roll is barely noticeable.

And you will want to toss it into corners. The handling is sharp and responsive, and the Focus seems to turn on a dime. The electric steering is utterly lacking in any feel, of course, and even at speed, you don’t really get much resistance from the wheel. But it responds very quickly to steering inputs, and it does have a noticeable fun factor when you start tossing it around. Shifting the Focus into “S” mode, and the transmission will let the engine rev up a bit more between shifts, eking out a little more performance and fun.

The SE will pull 0.89g on the skidpad, which is about average for a compact car. Of course, it’s amazing that compact cars can pull a lateral 0.89g at all.

Overall, the Focus SE’s suspension and handling have a very European feel, being both taut and responsive, with a reasonable dollop of performance thrown in. Ford’s strategy of building cars that they can sell anywhere, rather than building market-specific models, really pays off here for American drivers. That means we get cars with European-style handling, at an American car’s price.

Braking is good, if not particularly impressive. The brakes haul the Focus to a stop from 70 MPH in 178 feet, which is just average for its class. But the ABS works well, and hard braking is smooth and undramatic.

What’s good about it

The Focus SE is fun to drive, with a great suspension, and fun handling. The engine is relatively powerful for its class, with most competitors being down 20-30 HP. It’s relatively nice inside, with an attractive design and materials. The trunk is huge, making it very practical for a compact sedan. Ford’s cash incentives bring the price down below $16,000, making it an extremely competitive value for the money.

What’s bad about it

The Microsoft Sync system is very bad, being both extremely confusing and frustrating. The passenger cabin is about the most cramped in its class. The gear shifter has the most annoying tendency not to stop in the drive mode you’re searching for.

Conclusion

It’s really a shame that what is an otherwise fine and fun drive car is ruined by a horrible technology package and a balky gear shifter. After two days or so of dealing with the Microsoft Sync system, you’ll find yourself in a deep moral quandary: Do you stab everyone in Redmond, Washington first, or everyone in Flat Rock, Michigan?

The Focus SE checks all the right boxes in the “fun to drive” category. This is a car that you really want to love, and then you deal with the Sync system, or the gear shifter when you’re trying to do a quick K turn, and you just can’t love it at all. I’m naturally predisposed to love Ford’s “world car” models, and I find the Focus SE a huge disappointment. It’s a great car to drive, but is horrible to live with.

Honestly, I’d rather be followed by a crowd of little people constantly tapping on my kneecaps with tiny, golden hammers than own a Ford Focus SE.


Originally posted at DaleFranks.Com.

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2014 Jaguar XF Supercharged


Jaguar is a brand with a long and storied history. It was Jaguar, for instance, that gave us what Enzo Ferrari called “the most beautiful car ever made”, the original E-Type. When it was introduced at the Geneva Auto Show in 1961, it became an instant icon of 1960s motoring. Jaguar also gave us the best getaway car ever made, the Mk. II, which was used by every robber in Britain who could get their hands on one, mainly because the police had nothing that could catch it.

Which reminds me to tell my American friends that Jaguar is not pronounced “JAG-wahr”. It is pronounced “JAG-u-er”. A brand like this deserves to be called by its proper name.

During the nationalization of the British car industry, Jaguar fell into the clutches of British Leyland. They came within an ace of renaming it “Large Car Division”. Happily sanity prevailed, and Jags kept their name, but, like everything else the British communists at Leyland made in the 1970s, it was extremely unreliable. Somehow it managed to remain alive and struggling after British Leyland was scrapped, until Ford bought the company in 1989. Jaguar lived through the cost-cutting influence of Ford—despite unfortunate models like the X-Type, which was essentially a Ford Mondeo with an XJ’s nose—until 2008 when India’s Tata Motors bought both Jag and Land Rover, to form Jaguar Land Rover.

Jag immediately scrapped their entire model line and started over from scratch. One of the new models to come out of that rejuvenation was the Jaguar XF sedan. There is a borderline insane XF-R specification if you’re really into hard-core performance, but that’s a bit too aggressive for what is really a Grand Tourer. For a car to drive every day, you really want the XF Supercharged.

How it looks

Jaguar cut their ties with the pre-2008 design language for Jaguar—and it’s a good thing, too, as the main elements of it had been around since the 1980s. The new Jaguar has a very fresh, modern, and classy design. There are no aggressively acute angles; no hyper-testosterone stance. There is an implementation of the unified grille concept at the nose, but Jaguar’s done it absolutely correctly, and it’s beautiful, in precisely the way a Lexus isn’t.

The bodylines curve cleanly and gracefully down the hood and side panels, while the front fenders are set off with attractive vents, accented with chrome badges. There’s nothing gaudy or flashy about it. The XF’s simple and elegant design is a study in contrast to, say, the Cadillac CTS-V, which is all about getting in your face, and screaming, “Look at me!” In short, the XF is a gentleman, while the CTS-V is what the Brits call a “chav”. Not really our sort of chap at all.

The contrast between the two continues in the interior. Where the CTS-V has too much plastic pretending to be something else, the interior designers at Jaguar decided that nothing would pretend to be anything. If it looks like metal, wood, or leather, that’s exactly what it is. It’s all really quite refreshing to see a car manufacturer decide to accept no substitutes. The dashboard is padded leather, as are the seats and steering wheel cover. The metal trim in the dashboard fascia is brushed aluminum, and is nicely set off by the burled, dark ebony trim.

Everything in here is what it appears to be. That’s unusual. And entirely proper.

A color touch-screen dominates the center dash, and it gives you full control over the various stereo, satellite radio and navigation functions, as well as Bluetooth pairing. For most things, if you don’t want to dirty the screen with your fingerprints, voice control—using natural language—is available at any time.

The fully adjustable steering wheel also contains just the right number of buttons to answer your phone and activate the built in hands-free telephone functionality, set the adaptive cruise control, or change stations on the stereo. It also contains the brushed aluminum paddles for manual shifting, should you desire to advance the gearing yourself.

If it’s unseasonably warm or cool, a flick of a button sends air of the desired temperature through the perforated leather seats. It’s hard to describe how good that feels. But it feels right knowing that you’ll never have the working-class physical sensation of a sweaty back, like some coal miner from Liverpool.

Not only are the seats air-conditioned, they’re also firm and comfortable, though not aggressively bolstered, which means that if you get carried away with spirited driving, you’ll get tossed about a bit in the corners. If that happens, you’ll be expected to keep a stiff upper lip and carry on, of course.

Naturally, the XF has loads of technology. Quite apart from the multiple USB connections, Bluetooth, SiriusXM, and sat-nav, you also have adaptive cruise control, so the XF will automatically slow down or speed up with the traffic around you. The XF will also park itself, because a gentleman of quality doesn’t spin the wheel and reverse into a parallel parking spot himself, like some Labour johnny from the Midlands.

There’s a UV protected sunroof, with a retractable shade, just in case you want to enjoy a bit of sun, just like our lads in the colonies used to do. Everyone in the XF will enjoy plenty of leg and headroom, and, of course, everyone has their own climate control, as well. Lots of space in the boot, too. Oh, I’m sorry, you chaps call it a “trunk” over here, don’t you? Anyway, you can get quite a lot of stuff in in it, and the rear seats fold down for a full pass-through, as well.

All of this does come at a cost, however. This is a luxury car, and if you doubted that for any reason after looking at, and sitting in, the XF, you will not doubt it when you see the sticker price, which, with the usual options, will be $72,300. This is essentially the same price as the Cadillac CTS-V, by the way, but, unlike the CTS-V, just sitting in the Jaguar XF makes you happy. It also makes you wonder why the GM product has a noticeably cheaper interior at the same price. Just like you notice about every GM product.

How it drives

When you press the start button—no proper gentleman would use a plebian device like a key—the hidden air conditioning vents swivel open, while the transmission dial rises majestically from the dashboard. This presents you with the first choice of the day, which is choosing whether to turn the dial to “D”, and let the XF control the transmission and suspension, or turn it one more click to the “S” position, giving you manual control over the 8-speed transmission, while the suspension tightens up for a more sporty ride.

I suggest the “S”.

Either way, though, this car is blindingly fast for a full-sized sedan. The 5.0L supercharged V8 under the bonnet—oh, sorry, “hood”—will hit 60 MPH in under 5 seconds, and won’t stop until it hits the electronically governed 155 MPH top speed. Despite the 8-speed gearbox, fuel economy is about what you’d expect from a motor with 470 HP and 424 lb.-ft. of torque pushing a 4,134 lbs. sedan, which is 15 MPG in the city and 23 MPG on the freeway. Happily, though, this is just good enough to avoid the Gas Guzzler tax.

Strangely, the engine isn’t the first thing you notice in the XF Supercharged. There are no plebian, shouty engine noises, nor has Jag piped in some artificial engine noises through the stereo, like the Jerries have done with BMW and Mercedes. It’s quiet as a church in there. (A real COE church, of course, not one of those newfangled evangelical churches with their demonstrative displays of emotion.) This means that you may not notice that you’re blazing through a school zone at 80 MPH, as there’s nothing from the engine compartment to interfere with the sweet strains of Elgar coming from the excellent audio system.

No, the first thing you notice is the ride. The XF supercharged rides exactly the way a car should ride. The frame is as stiff as can be, giving the XF a noticeable sense of solidity and firmness. At the same time, the suspension is working overtime to prevent imperfections in the road from jarring you, and perhaps causing you to spill your cup of Earl Grey.

The ride is sublime. Every car should feel like this on the road.

This is where Jerry has got it all wrong. Powerful German cars tend to have far stiffer suspensions, which completely spoils the ride, and transmits bumps and cracks directly to your spine. I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: If you’ve got the chassis sorted, you don’t need a suspension made of basalt and pig iron. Germans also do their testing on the Nürburgring, shooting for a sub-eight-minute lap time. But that’s not how you drive every day. Jaguar has set up their cars to navigate Britain’s network of desultorily maintained and bumpy B roads, where people do drive every day, and the difference in ride quality shows clearly.

If you’ve taken my advice, and used the sporty “S” setting on the transmission, you’ll be shifting with the flappy paddles on the steering wheel. The XF Supercharged will not coddle you when you do this. You’ve told the XF that you’ll be taking on the shifting duties, so the XF will let you get on with it. If you bump up against the rev limiter because you forgot to shift, or you stall out because you didn’t downshift from 8th gear at a stoplight, that’s your lookout. Manual shifting is also pretty quick. The XF has a marvelously responsive transmission in manual mode. You press the paddle and the transmission shifts immediately. It’s one of the best systems I’ve ever used. Having said that, the XF is faster if you let it take care of the shifting duties. The automatic system is really good.

Jag has the braking sorted, too. Stopping distance from 60 MPH is 113 ft., which is pretty impressive for a two-ton sedan. That’s about the same distance that is clocked by a Subaru WRX STi, which is pretty much a street-legal rally car. It’s also drama-free, with no ABS juddering or fishtailing under hard braking. Nor is there any noticeable brake fade under hard use.

There are a few things you can’t do in the XF Supercharged. While the XF does have a track mode, the electronic stability control is never truly turned off, so you won’t be doing any drifting or power slides. In regular drive mode the traction control is pretty aggressive, too, which puts the kibosh on any enthusiastic driving you may want to do.

Honestly, though, I don’t see this as a problem. Two-ton sedans aren’t really track cars in any real sense. The purpose of the XF is Grand Touring, not Formula 1 driving. For real-world performance on public roads, it’s hard to get much better than the XF Supercharged’s mix of performance, comfort, and ride quality. If you want a track car, buy a Mitsubishi Evolution. Good luck living with that on a daily basis, though.

What’s good about it

Well, almost everything, really. The interior is absolutely first class. I can’t think of a single thing I’d change about it. The performance is impressive, and the ride quality is top notch. It’s beautiful outside as well, being understated and elegant.

What’s bad about it

It costs quite a lot of money. Even a five year-old XF Supercharged will cost you north of $30,000. At $72,300, a new one is well out of most people’s reach. Reliability is just average, and it should be better for a car this expensive. Repairs will be costly, too. Basically, anything that goes wrong will cost at least $1,000.

Conclusion

The Jaguar XF Supercharged is everything a car should be. Luxurious, fun, and powerful. Just being inside it makes you happy. You would make up excuses for driving it, if you had one. “Honey, I used the last of the turmeric making dinner.” “I’ll go to the store and buy some, right now! I’ll be back in four hours.”

Still, it’s hard to get around the cost of the thing. I mean, we’re talking about a $1,000 per month car payment. It’s worth every penny of it, but it’s just not doable for most people. So, I’d suggest you sell your house and buy the Jag. You won’t regret it.


Originally posted at DaleFranks.Com.

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