Interesting how much you can learn about a car even in a very short drive. Of course, it helps if that short drive involves a very tight autocross circuit that allows you to push the car toward the edges of its limit. Well, OK, at least to the edges of your limits as a driver.
Ford brought its annual EcoBoost Challenge tour to WestWorld of Scottsdale this weekend. Designed to showcase engines that are diminutive in size but certainly not in power to potentially skeptical drivers, The EcoBoost Challenge offers drives in everything from a subcompact Fiesta ST to a big, honking F-150 pickup truck on coned-off courses designed to showcase the vehicle and powertrain strengths.
On some of the courses, the top models in the same category from other automakers are available for back-to-back comparison drives.
There also is a street-driving circuit that’s more of an around-the-block exercise than any opportunity to take any of the vehicles up to highway speeds.
The challenge is open to the public on Saturday, but on Friday morning, local news media got a crack at the cars and courses, and Friday afternoon folks from the area Ford dealerships got their turn.
I’m not a big fan of trying to evaluate a vehicle with only a very brief and very controlled driving experience. But I did do the street drive in a new Transit Connect Wagon because I was a big fan of the original Transit Connect and hadn’t had an opportunity to drive its successor. I have driven a couple of its new competitors and was very favorably impressed by each of them.
Though the 2015 Transit Connect Wagon belied the EcoBoost Challenge by having a normally aspirated 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, the long-wheelbase, three-row version I drove was roomy, easy to maneuver, and I think it provides a lower-priced but just as versatile alternative to the standard minivan. Plus Ford kept the wonderful overhead shelf that runs along the windshield headliner. And there are cupholders and power outlets at each seating position.
While others stood waiting for their chance to drive the EcoBoosted 2015 Ford Mustang, I headed over to the ST Reaction Time Challenge, where I found a 2015 Ford Fiesta ST and a 2015 Ford Focus ST sitting there, waiting for someone to drive them, and to drive them fast and hard.
I’d been in Dearborn a few years ago when Ford first brought over the European version of the Fiesta. I took it out for a couple of laps around the Dearborn test track and was hugely unimpressed with its lack of power. That’s not the reaction I had with the new ST version of the car.
For one thing, you open the driver’s door and are greeted by a racy Recaro driving seat (available as an option). And if you’re paying attention, even before opening that driver’s door you’ve noticed that this Fiesta rides on 17-inch 205/40 aspect Bridgestone Potenza high-performance (not all-weather) tires.
Oh, and set into the floor just ahead of the bolsters of those Recaros is the shifter for a six-speed manual gearbox.
Once you get everything adjusted properly, you drive the car into what looks like the launch lane at your local drag strip. There’s even a Christmas tree-style light box to measure your reaction time off the starting line. The instructions are to rev the engine to 3,000 rpm, watch the lights count down and launch just as the green light glows.
No quarter-mile sprint here, just enough track to have your reaction timed before coming to a full stop.
But once you make that stop, you get to turn into a very tight autocross-style circuit in which you face a challenging set of S curves, an almost hairpin, and then a fast, tight lane-change maneuver before racing toward the finish line.
The good thing is that after you’ve done it once, you get to do it again, and then switch over to the 2015 Ford Focus ST for two more laps.
While you don’t get to experience either car at highway speeds, the autocross does a very nice job of showing just how nimble and quick these two small cars can be.
Obviously, part of the enhanced capability comes from the turbocharged engines. The Fiesta ST gets a turbocharged 1.6-liter four cylinder that pumps out 197 horsepower and 202 pound-feet of torque. The car weighs only 2,742 pounds.
While the Focus ST weighs in at 3,223 pounds, it benefits from a turbocharged 2.0-liter four that provides 252 hp and 270 pound-feet of torque, and that torque peaks at just 2,500 rpm. Again, you sit on an optional Recaro seat and get to manipulate a six-speed manual shifter. The Focus ST rides on 235/40-aspect 18-inch Goodyear Eagle F1 asymmetric summer tires, and it has 12.6-inch front brake discs to help bring things under control.
As we quickly discovered, the engine is only part of the performance-boosting technology. Both of the ST models benefit from three-mode Advance Trac ESC (Electronic Stability Control), enhanced torque-vectoring control and sport-tuned suspension components.
We found the Fiesta ST to be wonderfully tossable in the turns, where the torque-vectoring technology helps the car rotate wonderfully as you line up for the exit.
We found the Focus ST to be faster and grippier, sticking through the curves and then launching out the other end.
Both ST models get redesigned interiors and carry front and rear fascias, grilles, body kits with lower valences and rocker-panel moldings, rear spoilers and other features.
Personally, I liked the big Fiesta ST body wrap on the green car I drove. Can I get it without the Reaction Time Challenge words on it? I asked.
OK, maybe you don’t want your car wrapped so flamboyantly, but if you haven’t driven a Ford lately, you should, especially these compact ST versions.
2015 Ford Fiesta ST
Vehicle type: 5-passenger hatchback, front-wheel drive
Base price: $20,945 Price as tested: n/a
Engine: 1.6-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 197 horsepower @ 6,350 rpm, 202 pound-feet of torque @ 4,200 rpm Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 98.0 inches Overall length/width: 160.1 inches / 67.8 inches
Curb weight: 2,742 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 26 city / 35 highway / 29 combined
Assembled in: Cuautitlan Izcalli / Mexico
2015 Ford Focus ST
Vehicle type: 5-passenger hatchback, front-wheel drive
Base price: $24,370 Price as tested: n/a
Engine: 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder, 252 horspwer @ 5,500 rpm, 270 pound-feet of torque @ 2,500 rpm Transmission: 6-speed manual
Wheelbase: 104.3 inches Overall length/width: 171.7 inches / 71.8 inches
Curb weight: 3,223 pounds
EPA mileage estimates: 23 city / 32 highway / 26 combined
Assembled in: Wayne, Michigan