By on February 20, 2013

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-

“Stop that.”

“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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45 Comments on “Trackday Diaries: Double clutchin’, not granny-shifting like I should....”

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    Are we having second thoughts about the “quality” of the Fiesta or its auto manual tranny which is how most people will but them here?

  • avatar

    one never needs much more than an excuse of “nothing” to leave the cold, exhausted Midwest in winter

  • avatar

    I emerged through the thicket of the tangled sentences learning that the author knows some girl named Melisa, blew a speaker on a rented Fiesta and is rude to women over fifty.

    • 0 avatar

      Do you not know how to read? I’m sorry.

    • 0 avatar

      I emerged knowing that you’ve aptly named yourself.

      As always Jack, a great read. What has happened to Ms. Vodka?

      • 0 avatar

        Is she THAT Miz Vodka McBigbra?

        Not really any surprises with the car, except the 6666666666 plate number seems appropriate, given the mood.

      • 0 avatar

        Jack took some artistic license with the plate in those photos, as I’m sure he does with the stories recounted here. There’s some telltale Photoshopping and the CA plate template is #XXX###.

        I had a 5-spd diesel Fiesta rental in Germany last week in black as well – great little driver’s car but the center stack is a mess and storage space is nonexistent. It certainly makes the Focus an interesting proposition but I could never get past the funky tail lights on the hatch.

        Ovation round backs and Carvin basses? Talk about terrible gear choices ….

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    The author did not blow the speaker, it was another previous renter.

    • 0 avatar

      I suggest you go into the article again, but this time bring a machete. It’s a jungle in there…

    • 0 avatar

      Love the reference to the Punch 45 and Kicker subs. Clearly JB knows his old school car audio stuff. I was a HiFonics man back then when Zed Audio made them, before (like everything else “modern”) the whole operation was sent off to China and nothing but junk came back. Just yesterday the wife claimed she blew one of the factory Dynaudio speakers in her Volvo blasting Sir-Mix-Alot. Guess its time to replacement them with something that can take a pounding… like Polk, Infinity or JL Audio. Given the laughable “bass” output of most factory audio systems I can’t blame anyone for blowing speakers by attempting to get something below 120Hz to play louder then the engine drone, especially in an low powered rental.

      • 0 avatar

        Not many factory radios these days are really that great…especially from Bose or Clarion. However, I’ve been quite pleased with the Pioneer in our Accord.

        Speaking of Volvos, my wife’s old 760 had a late-80s Denon stereo setup with cartridge CD changer. Best part about the car.

      • 0 avatar

        I don’t know about their other drivers, but I’ve been very happy with the Dynaudio D-76dome midranges in my home system. They’ve taken years of abuse – but then I don’t have a real high powered amp. They’re pretty cool drivers, can be crossed over as low as 300 hz, makes for real natural mids in a three way system.

      • 0 avatar

        You’ll probably be disappointed if you have a listen to the current Infinitys. That’s all my friends and I had purchased over the last ten years but the new ones didn’t make the cut last summer. Surprisingly, the Alpines are sounding good now. With good amps and good subs, they now just need to figure out how to get their head units to remain fully functional for more than a year at a time.

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    That car had too many sixes on its tag, a sure sign of devilish roots.

  • avatar

    That dang Powershift auto sure takes some getting used to. My nephew got one, and I got to drive it a few times when she was on vacation and left the car with us. No wonder people complains about it. Often it shifted just like a conventional auto tranny that’s slipping.

    • 0 avatar

      What’s funny is, with our Fiestas, you slot it into L and it’ll hold gear up to the speed limiter (around 110 mph or so). Should’ve tried it Jack. Maximum engine braking… everywhere. Not for the faint of heart, and I imagine it’s murder on whatever molasses they use to lubricate the system.

      • 0 avatar

        There’s no way it was in 1st gear all the way up to 110 (or 118 or whatever the top speed is) — that’d be way past redline. If you put a Ford in L, at least older Fords, it will stay in the lowest gear possible at that speed, as determined by the transmission.

        So if you are going 45 and dump it to L, it will stay in 2nd or 3rd until your speed drops enough to be in 1st. However, older Fords wouldn’t upshift if you were in L, whereas it sounds like the Fiesta does.

        However, what you’re also suggesting is that the PowerShift shifts so smoothly that you actually thought it stayed in one gear the whole time!

  • avatar

    That plate is almost more awesome than the article itself. And that’s how you write a car driving story.

  • avatar

    Didn’t notice the author’s name before I started reading but guessed it by the end. Good read.

  • avatar

    Orchestrion. Excellent. Even better in person. It’s like visiting Oz and discovering the cat really does have it all going on behind the curtain. Pat showed the audience just enough about the instruments to totally confuse us all. Happily.

  • avatar

    There was really no room in it to fit a bass guitar? Really?

    :dreams of getting a Fiesta ST shattered:

    • 0 avatar

      Good to know, I cross shopped a Fiesta with a Fit and settled on the Fit.
      A recent trip saw my fit happily transport: me, my girlfriend, a brand new full size dishwasher (still in packaging), several bags of Christmas presents, 120 lbs of bagged flour and enough other assorted baking items to produce almost 1000 pieces of Christmas baking.
      Sounds like the Fiesta might not have made the same trip.

  • avatar

    Then as he descended into Columbus, the inevitable took over his brain…..”the horror, the horror!”

  • avatar

    That’s a lot of sixes!

    Speaking of “getting the job done”, after boarding a Philly-bound 737 in New Orleans around 10pm, my roommate freaked when they made everyone get right back off due to an “oxygen problem” (great planeside manner, co-pilot).

    So she did what anyone would(n’t): rent the cheapest car she could (a Mazda2) and drive 20 hours nonstop to Philly with the aid of a satnav. It got the job done.

    She was just glad it didn’t have the 3’s demonic grin…or an oxygen problem.

  • avatar

    Your powers of observation, pattern recognition, and command of the written word are superlative. e.g. –

    “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…”

    “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.”


  • avatar

    Say what you want about the Fiesta, but it’s a tough little roley-poley. I totaled one on the way back from Manheim Tampa as a 2005 F-150 SuperCrew pulled out directly in front of me, violating my right-of-way in 6PM gridlock traffic, and causing me to t-bone him at ~35MPH.

    No reaction time was allotted and all front airbags deployed (including the knee airbag – a little blessing I forgot about), leaving a crumpled front end, a relocated transaxle, and a total loss.

    However, the cabin kept its integrity, all doors opened flawlessly, and it not only even started up again, but went into gear and tried to lurch forward (tires were flat and wheels cocked out).

    Left me with nothing worse than a brief mental shakeup, a small laceration, two sore wrists, and a ridiculous amount of prescription meds that could’ve helped me buy ANOTHER Fiesta if I decided to go that route.

    So, yeah, that changed my impression of subcompact in accidents. Also, after buying it for $8,750 and getting a total loss check for $14,459, it was my most profitable retail deal to date.

    • 0 avatar

      Not to diminish the seriousness of your accident, but I think just about *any* new car of any size should (and could) handle that accident as well as the Fiesta did. Hitting a deformable object (such as the side of a truck) at 35 mph, with the force of impact distributed across the full width of your vehicle*, is less severe than both the NHTSA tests (full-width, rigid barrier, 35 mph) and the IIHS test (frontal-offset, deformable barrier, 40 mph).

      *I’m making an assumption here since I don’t know for sure what happened.

      • 0 avatar

        Oh, I know that all cars pretty much have to perform at least as well as my Fiesta did by simple federal standard, but tests are tests and to experience something like this in the real world validates the advancements that have been made in automotive safety, even to the lowliest tin can like a Fiesta. Its impressive. And a wake up call to all those dopes (esp on Jalopnik for some reason) who love to say how they wish they could buy a brown 2014 6SPD rotary RX-9 shooting brake with crank windows, no crumple zones, no airbags, no safety belts, no impact bumpers, and an oil lamp dangling over the front end for forward illumination.

      • 0 avatar

        As much as the Feds are considered “evil” by some, crash standards have saved a lot of people from serious (or fatal) injuries. As distracted driving is on the rise, at least we have something going in our favor. – and it’s something that people have railed against all along.

    • 0 avatar

      The safety of modern vehicle structures is a great thing. I’d expect you to have no serious injuries if you had hit it at twice that speed, even if the airbags had failed to activate.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    With my Fiesta, I was able to drop the rear deck lid, flatten the rear seat, and cram the black face Bassman 50-watt head, along with the matching 2-15 cabinet, and a hard case containing my Rickenbacker 4001 inside. Granted, the year was 1985, and the car was a ’79. It’s sad to see the most recent Fiesta is capacity challenged by a single acoustic guitar, a carry on bag, and a sack of booze. It’s also sad I no longer have the instrument or the amp. The car, not so much. The Rick and the Bassman? Ah the impulsive nature of youth. Just had to have a Steinberger? What was I thinking?

  • avatar

    So you slept with her Jack but to her it was just a physical act? (No hand holding?) ;)

  • avatar

    “Cage’s four-thirty-three”

    Man, that’s a brutal test of an audiophile system. Dyanamics, soundstage, clarity, the ultimate test of the golden eared.

  • avatar
    George B

    Jack, how do you carry a bass guitar on an airplane, assuming it fits in the rental car? I didn’t find the length of the SB4000 case, but I assume it’s about 48 inches long.

  • avatar

    A rare miss for me. Great quality as always, but I feel like this was just a wasted trip.

    Browsing guitar shops and just buying guitars has to be a huge waste of time and money.

  • avatar

    I refuse to dump $1,000+ in to any car’s audio system.

    The best Bang for you’re Buck would be a piggy-back bass tube and stick-on tweeters. Most basic factory systems sound pretty good for mids so if you set the bass at 50% and the treble at 80, you just let powered tube and spliced in tweeters do the rest. I’ll wire up the ‘tube’ so it plugs into a cigarette lighter so it’s easily removed or thrown into a rental.

  • avatar

    Excellent job – I thoroughly enjoyed that. Sad to hear the Fiesta wasn’t aging well with so few miles, though a rental mule isn’t necessarily a fair judge for real world holdup.

    Anyway, great writing. Makes me want to get out of Ohio desperately…

  • avatar

    Might have been worth a peek to see if the blown speaker was a factory unit, and not something which was blown out in someone else’s car and swapped by an unscrupulous customer.

  • avatar

    Kundera, albeit an American one, with a smidge of polite Bukowski thrown in for good measure. Nice.

  • avatar

    Self involved much? It doesn’t take 16 paragraphs to state that the Fiesta’s auto-manual transmission feels weird. Wow.
    I am sick and tired of automotive journalists writing stories about themselves instead of the cars.

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