Having learnt to drive on country roads in north-west Tasmania, I have always preferred small, well-sorted cars rather than large, heavy ones. I have enjoyed showing a Commodore V8 a clean pair of heels on a windy road with some black ice in my modestly powered Fiat 128 Sport when, if raw power is compared, the Commodore should have left the Fiat in the dust.
It doesn't take long to learn that a lighter car with a well-sorted chassis, good tyres, a manual gearbox and knowledge of the local roads and conditions is difficult to beat.
In November 2011, I was in Brisbane for a work trip and saw a new Ford Focus XR5 Turbo in a Ford dealership. I soon learnt it was one of only three left in Australia and was on sale at a significant discount ($32,800 drive-away!). As soon as I learnt this German-built Focus – a car famous for having a well-sorted chassis – had the exceptional Volvo T5 engine, I had to test drive it!
The 166kW Volvo-sourced five-cylinder, low-boost turbo engine has 320Nm of torque, along with a slick six-speed manual gearbox. It is effortless to drive, with a huge wave of torque starting low in the rev range. I bought the car and drove it home to Sydney, where I owned it for five years and 121,000km.
Being silver, it is a very subtle car, which suits my style. I don't want to stand out and only careful observation of the snowflake alloys, wider tyres, lowered stance and larger brakes will show some of the potential underneath.
The XR5 is a very easy car to live with, and I praise the engineers at Ford in Germany for the perfect suspension set-up. Riding in the standard Recaro seats, the suspension finds the perfect balance between comfort for daily driving duties and performance when a winding mountain road demands it. Regardless of the occasion and mood, the XR5 was the perfect companion.
I could fit my pushbike in the back or my wife and three daughters in comfort.
While the Focus did have voice commands for phone and stereo functions, it did not come with cruise control, which was the only fault I could name. Over five years the car was supremely reliable and never let me down. German build but reasonable Ford service and parts costs meant the best of both worlds!
The sound of the five-cylinder engine, particularly as it came on boost, was an orchestra worthy of the price of admission. That sound is so unique and enjoyable, it added a whole new dimension to a fun drive.
The look on the face of the driver of the car he/she paid at least twice as much for, as the XR5 out-accelerated them, was also very unique. How can a boring silver Focus be so fast? Ford's long history of building well sorted, fast and cheap performance cars is well deserved.
Sure, go and spend more on those other brands so you can feel special. But there is a unique satisfaction of driving a car with 'plentiful sufficiency' power, a brilliant suspension supporting a predictable and well-sorted chassis up a favourite winding road, and the song of that five-cylinder playing in your ears... Well, unless you've experienced it, you just wouldn't understand.
But if you do get the chance, I'd recommend giving it a try. But I warn you, it is addictive!