Trackday Diaries: Double Clutchin', Not Granny-shifting Like I Should.
Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul… you know the rest, right? If you don’t, find your high-school English teacher and ask for your money back. Ishmael had his berth on the Pequod, but I had a narrow-pitch seat on Southwest Airlines’ egalitarian 737, and my no-particular-purpose destination, chosen in a fit of pique and self-pity, was Los Angeles.
I had no purpose in my trip save for escape. I left no calling for this idle trade, no duty broken, no father disobeyed. In my haste to leave Ohio, I neglected to consider the fact that many of my Los Angeles friends would be missing due to the Chicago Auto Show; once that sunk through my head, I promptly stopped calling people and in doing so missed out on some friends who hadn’t gone to the show after all. Oh well.
At least I had a place to stay: the notorious dating blogger Melisa Mae had agreed to let me crash on her couch for a few days. That much, at least, I’d planned out. My flight arrived past ten on a Friday evening, and by the time I’d driven to Burbank and stocked up on vodka at the local Ralph’s it was way past midnight. Melisa met me at the gate to her house, nodded approvingly at the brown paper bags, then directed a considerably less cheerful glance at my $23/day rental. “That,” she pronounced, “is, like, the crappiest little car ever.”
Nearly three years ago, I’d driven some well-equipped Fiestas at the launch event and had been impressed by the car’s combination of refinement and features. The little black hatchback waiting for me at LAX, however, wasn’t a twenty-grand, chrome-plated, stick-shifted little Euro-whip. The sole option I could discern was the PowerShift dual-clutch transmission. The interior was relentlessly dark and already showed mild signs of wear at twenty-two thousand miles. Some moron had set the stereo to only play through the left front speaker. I fixed that and immediately unfixed it. The right-side speakers had blown out.
I’m not sure there is any excuse I would accept for blown speakers in a new car. In my misspent youth I regularly saw Rockford Fosgate Punch 45s and the like bridged together to eject the cones out of Kicker boxes at Yeageresque speeds, but in a factory sound system it should be very easy to ensure that the amplifier is incapable of damaging the speakers. It’s no different than placing a limiter on a Mustang for driveshaft resonance. Sloppy.
In the stop-and-go traffic outside the airport rental lots, the Fiesta shuddered as the Powershift clutched it away from each stop. I couldn’t tell if it was a clutch wear issue or an engine programming problem, but the experience didn’t inspire confidence. After being favorably impressed by the CVT in an Altima with nearly twice the rental mileage on it, I was less inclined to cut the PowerShift slack for the abuse it had certainly endured under a string of uncaring daily drivers. I briefly considered returning the car and asking for something else, but I was already running late to meet Melisa and I had high hopes of being dead asleep within a few hours.
Once I found my way to the 405, the Fiesta reminded me why I’d enjoyed my first experience with its media-fleet brethren a few years ago. The 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four never impresses with its strength, but coupled to the PowerShift it got me up to 85mph in reasonable time. As I skimmed through the narrow leftmost lane, a Jersey barrier to my left and a series of intrusive semi-trucks on my right, the little Ford inspired plenty of confidence through its thick-rimmed wheel. There’s very little slack in the driving experience and it’s possible to place the wheels within an inch or so at speed. Lane changes, when necessary, are easy to hurry a bit without upsetting the Fiesta’s composure.
Pat Metheny’s “Orchestrion Project” suffered considerably from its monaural assignment to the left front speaker, but the relatively low wind noise and more-than-class-average mechanical insulation made it possible for me to at least hear the music as I glued myself to the bumper of an E60 550i for the final blast across I-210 and Route 118. My Ovation Celebrity roundback banged around in the space I’d made for it by folding down half the rear seat. This isn’t a spacious vehicle for cargo, musical or otherwise.
Still, the Fiesta got the job done that night and when Melisa and I woke at the crack of two o’clock the following day for a little guitar shopping in Hollywood the PowerShift seemed better behaved. The deliberate abuse I’d given the Altima’s CVT a week previous seemed like a good solid way to make sure I’d be walking home from the Guitar Center Platinum Room with a very angry blonde, so I satisfied myself with cutting through the Hollywood gridlock as aggressively as possible, forcing the transmission to repeatedly grab gears in a hurry as lights turned green and gaps opened between parked cars on the side lanes. In this application, Ford’s dual-clutch transmission is deliberately obtuse, slurring shifts where you want a solid bang into the next gear. Nor is there any paddle-shifting or sport mode available to address the situation. The sole extra choice on the PRNDL shifter is “L”, and it locks the Fiesta into a very short first cog. No good. Why go through the trouble of bringing over the Euro car and then lobotomize the thing into doing a very bad impression of an ’84 Escort’s slushbox?
Having spent a few years driving my Town Car around downtown Columbus, I thoroughly appreciated the Fiesta’s missing four and a half feet of length. Parking was a breeze, but as I prepared to leave the Carvin store with a SB4000 bass guitar, I realized that there simply wasn’t room for such a thing inside the passenger compartment. Luckily, shipping back home was a very reasonable twenty-nine bucks. Ten days later, I’m still waiting for it to arrive in Ohio, but it isn’t like I don’t already have two of them in other colors.
“Let’s eat at the Sunset Grill,” I suggested, then broke into song. “Down at the Sun-”
“Well then,” I sulked, “I want to go to the ocean.” At the end of the Santa Monica Pier, surrounded by cops and kids and fishermen and young people in love, I grasped for Melisa’s hand and she delivered an authentic are-you-crazy look in return. It was dark and all I could see was the oily reflection of the waves listlessly crashing into the pilings below. The proper thing to do would be to return in the morning and see the bright sand and the sun but I already knew I’d be finishing my bottle of Ketel One later and another fifty-mile drive before my flight left would be slightly less possible than starting the day with a brisk half-marathon run. I chanted a series of names under my breath, an accelerating and panicky recital, casting my memories of them into the black water. The casual acquaintances, the hopeful romances, the half-forgotten loves, the victims of sentiment, and then one final name, the worst hurt of all, to disappear and never haunt me again.
Shantih shantih shantih.
That next morning, by which I mean afternoon, Melisa booted me awake and my eyeballs shrank under the assault of an authentic California day. Bright and sunny, even as ten-degree winds were whipping my home back in flyover country. I loaded the Fiesta and self-consciously enjoyed the drive with windows down and a smile for all the pretty women I saw. I was running early so I pulled off in Inglewood to amuse myself by people-watching. Then I remembered it was time to fill up. Under four gallons for over one hundred and fifty miles. It seemed scarcely possible, but Ford did pitch the car as a 40mpg contender at the launch. The PowerShift shuddered out onto the airport access road, really no better or worse than when I’d left the airport thirty-six hours previously. It was a brave move to put that transmission into this car. I’m not sure it paid off.
I reported the stereo system’s failure to the young lady at the rental counter. She regarded me suspiciously. “What music were you playing when it happened?”
“Cage’s four-thirty-three. Had it cranked.” Even in hijab she was remarkably attractive but there was no humor in the way she faithfully recorded the incident for the massive corporation whose logo stood higher than the American flags at the airport entrance. Ninety minutes later they closed the doors on my plane and the fifty-something woman next to me inquired,
“What brought you to L.A.?”
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Kundera, albeit an American one, with a smidge of polite Bukowski thrown in for good measure. Nice.
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