This my first car review video. Hopefully, it will not be the last. Thanks for watching, and read on below for further elaboration (cough, drivel). I expect Top Gear to come calling any day now.
New cars, by and large, have become sterilized demonstrations of technology. Even lowly models bristle with features and innovations and gadgets and advancements. There are touchscreens, sensors, cameras; driver aids, driving modes, and soon enough, driver removal systems. Not eject buttons, mind you, but autopilot. It's coming. New cars are safer, faster, more comfortable, and more efficient than ever, and they achieve all that while requiring less driver effort.
In the face of all that progress, I like old cars.
Old cars aren't convenient and comfortable, like new cars. They typically burn more gasoline and break down more often. You have to actually swivel your head around, using a device known as a neck, to back out of a parking space. You won't find any electronic nannies or styling cues that look hot off a 3D printer. Horror of horrors, you might even have to shift your own gears and turn on your own headlights. Bluetooth? Ha. Hope you enjoy loud engines and crappy A/C.
Basically, older cars demand more effort from the driver and, on the surface, deliver less in the ways of performance, comfort, and safety. If it sounds like a recipe for a bad time, congratulations! You are correct. You have also successfully escaped the fate of being a car enthusiast.
Conversely, I have not. I am a car enthusiast. I enjoy a car that requires effort to drive, because it leads to deeper involvement. I relish cars that lack electronic wizardry, because they feel more mechanical and organic. Subjectively, they also tend to look better. I will, approximately 9.7/10 times, sacrifice modern comfort and convenience for the simple, pure pleasures of an older car. For some, that's a bad time, but for enthusiasts, it's just the opposite. "Different strokes" definitely applies.
Let's be real here—I'm not saying that in order to have an authentic driving experience, you have to shack up in some friggin' Model T rust bucket from 1918 that requires you to manually adjust the engine's spark advance while driving (you actually do). I'm also not saying that wouldn't be super rad. I'm just saying this: I don't play well with new cars.
But nowadays, when you rent a car, you have no choice. The cars are all new, low-effort, automatic turd-mobiles.
Recently tasked with selecting a rental car, I spent several minutes deciding which of them would require the smallest dose of Zoloft. I waffled between a Chevy Cruze (sculpted turd) and a Hyundai Accent (shiny turd), but in the throes of indecision, a bright red Ford Focus hatchback arrived on the aisle. It was a fresh, ripe tomato in a salad of dry iceberg lettuce. My bags made a prompt exit from the Cruze's boot and took up residence in the Focus' hatch.
Why choose the Focus? For one, it's a hatchback. I love hatchbacks. In fact, I also love wagons, shooting brakes, and anything else with a smooth roof. I sort of see them as the anti-crossover—they do the exact same things without being inefficient, shit-to-drive road cloggers for people whose fragile egos demand being bigger than/above everyone else. Can you tell I don't like crossovers?
The Focus hatchback is not a crossover, and is, in fact, a hatchback. It's quite attractive, considering it's an entry level compact car. The nearly identical Focus sedan isn't ugly, but it's so normal that it could have a gigantic bazooka mounted on the hood and no one would look twice at the car. How the hatchback manages to look so much more appealing, I can't explain. It just does. It's like Selena Gomez—somewhat ordinary, yet still exceedingly cute.
Like all modern rentals, my Focus was cursed with an automatic transmission, which had questionable behavior in low gears. At slow speeds and on ascents, the transmission sometimes felt as though it wasn't quite sure when to shift or which gear to select. It reminded me of taking a multiple-choice test. You encounter a question with answers that all look vaguely familiar and somewhat probable. You speciously select the one that feels just a little more right than the others (which could also be right), but you're also nagged by the sense that you have no idea what you're doing. Mentally, it's almost comical. Mechanically, it's a bit vexing.
Once up to speed, however, the Focus makes for an agreeable travel companion. It feels enjoyably small from the driver's seat, not in such a way that makes it feel cramped, but that makes it feel nimble and sprightly. Backing up that impression is a highly competent suspension and chassis, although the steering is predictably numb. Around town, the Focus absorbed all bumps in stride, while on the freeway, it offered smooth, relaxed cruising. When hustled through fast bends or off-ramps, it rewards the driver with a taut chassis and controlled body movements. And to think I'd say that about a garden variety hatchback that you can order in maroon. Color me surprised.
Unfortunately, as is the case with most entry-level cars, the manual seat offers a mediocre driving position at best. If my feet are happy with the pedals, the wheel is like Alaska—technically part of the whole, but impossibly far away. If I bring the wheel into my immediate vicinity, my legs are basically forced into a position of prayer, and I must operate the pedals with my kneecaps. Really, it's not that bad, but it's easier to complain about the ergonomics than it is to admit I'm weirdly proportioned and tiresomely particular.
While the Focus hatchback wears nicely pressed creases and handsome edges, it's a very well-rounded machine. It sips fuel without being dull/minuscule/an in-your-face eco-warrior. It's supple without being harsh or floppy. You can transport some pals without forcing them to merge into a single, large amoeba squished together in the back seat. It won't bore you to death, and with a manual, I imagine it would be pleasingly involving. If one had the necessary absence of common sense, you might even be able to stuff a racing kart in the back with the rear seats flat. It is the black bean of cars—never spectacular, but wholesome on all fronts.
Somehow, this base model Focus changed my mind about new cars. Maybe they're not all bad and ugly. This one certainly is not. The divide between masochism and enthusiasm is, thankfully, greater than I once thought. I guess that's progress.