Ask Bark: Don't Call It a Comeback
Yes, dear readers, I’ve missed you. More importantly, I’ve missed your questions and the opportunity to provide my occasionally helpful feedback. So we’re rebooting the “Ask Bark” column, which will run approximately as often as I have time to write it (hopefully 3-4 times per month). But I’m going to be doing things a little differently than we were doing them before.
While I’m still happy to answer your “What Car Should I Buy” questions (which is, coincidentally, the name of a series on a competing site that is probably in no way, shape, or form a ripoff of the original “Ask Bark”), I also want to answer more of your “how do dealerships work” questions. A recent job change has moved me outside of the world of directly selling advertising to dealerships, so I no longer feel that I have any conflict in revealing all of my dirty little secrets to you, the people. So if you’ve ever wondered exactly how a foursquare works, or why you never seem to be able to get KBB Excellent for your trade-in, or anything like that, shoot your questions to email@example.com.
And if you’re a recent TTAC convert, you’ll get the idea after reading today’s question, which comes to us from long-time reader and commenter, Sobro. Click the jump and let’s get to it.
I just turned 60 in April and I think it’s time for a mid-life crisis toy. As I thought about it during the last couple of years, I determined that I was caught up in the topless driving, wind through my hair (I am genetically blessed), open road, downshifting the corners fantasy. My dilemma was deciding between that one fantasy involved driving a Jeep with the doors removed and top off for the full open air effect and the other that involved piloting a Miata pulling actual g-forces around corners on country roads. I live in west Nashville, so the country roads part is at least reality.
Of course being a young Boomer, my other fantasy was restoring a relatively rust free Datsun 260Z or early 280Z to full mechanical reliability and disregarding cosmetics. I decided that I would end up spending more time working on it than driving it, and there’s no wind blowing through your hair when bent over or lying under a 40-year old import changing every bit of rubber tubing and plastic.
My pragmatic 60-year old self started thinking that I rarely touch the moonroof button on my wife’s Lexus ES 350 and that I’d rather have fun driving than spend time tinkering, so the full open air experience is no longer required. Which brings me to my question:
I have decided that a 4-to-7-year-old hot hatch is the answer. They seem to be fun to drive with an excellent power to weight ratio but are still practical enough to comfortably and reliably take two old-ish people and their luggage on a weekend driving trip on country roads with corners. And they all come with manual transmissions, which is the top requirement for fun driving. I just have no experience with them and no idea about the reliability of these high strung 4 cylinder turbos. Price is no object for the vintage I’m thinking of. What would you recommend?
Welllll, if it’s hot hatch information you’re seeking, you’ve come to the right place, amigo. As the internet’s most notorious rollerskate-shaped car owner, time-trialer, and daily-driver, I have plenty of opinions on the subject of using such a vehicle for all of your needs.
The answer to the “fun-to-drive” question in this segment will forever be the Fiesta ST. It might be the slowest hatch in a straight line, with a zero-to-sixty time of right around seven seconds, but the steering feel, the baked-in oversteer, and the practically perfect transmission and shifter make it the right recipe for smiles. It’s so unlike me to even think a sentence like that, but the FiST is an inspiration, even to this grumpy Gen Xer. And let us not forget that the power-to-weight ratio is roughly the same as an E30 M3.
You’ll also love the fuel economy of the FiST on those trips. I observed a combined number of somewhere around 28-29, and highway mileage was around 36. Plus, it doesn’t require 91+ octane (although it’s definitely a happier camper when you feed it premium).
However, the FiST doesn’t age particularly well. After 24 months, mine was already starting to get a bit squeaky. Underneath that marvelous skin and glorious motor, it’s still a Fiesta. You won’t love getting in and out of it, either — I’m twenty years your junior, and I didn’t love it. I banged my left knee in a painful way more than once. My mother-in-law, who’s a couple years your senior, struggled with it, as well. The back seats will be entirely useless for anything other than the occasional carry-on luggage storage. And that suspension on road trips? Hard no.
So, even though I really want to recommend a Fiesta ST…I just can’t. Ugh. It hurts. But we have to move on.
I think it comes down to the holy trinity — Golf GTI, Civic Si, and Focus ST. All of them will have the additional space you’ll need, more comfort, and they’ll be a little more stable for daily driving. Which one you’ll choose is really up to you, of course, but let me give you my thoughts (since you asked for them and everything):
GTI — The immediate and obvious first choice, given your situation. But maybe not the correct one. The GTI swings a little bit too far in the other direction for me — maybe more practical than fun. And I am among the many who think the DCT GTI is better than the manual.
Civic Si — I love the tenth-generation Si. Like, I love it. For reals. For daily driving, it’s going to be the clear winner in this group. When you aren’t driving 9/10, it feels just like you’re driving a regular Civic. But is that a good thing? Is that what you want for your mid-life crisis? Methinks not.
Focus ST — First of all, even though you said that price is no object, early Focus STs, which are pretty much identical to the ones on showroom floors in 2019, are going for a song. It’s going to be the most muscle-bound car in the class (other than the $35k+ Golf R and Focus RS) and the one that visually looks the most like a performance car. Downside is that you’re not going to love your daily ride as much — the suspension, while not as stiff as what you’d find in the FoRS, still has a bit of paint-can shaker in it. And Mrs. Sobro might not enjoy the boy-racer looks of the ST (or she might, who knows).
My recommendation? Shocker, Bark picks the Ford. But I think I’m correct in doing so. The engine answers your reliability questions, as Focus STs have been going strong for six model years now. Just be careful about getting yourself in the right gear — the Focus doesn’t like being asked to do a lot of work in lower gears. And, even though you’d rather be driving than wrenching, it sounds like you don’t mind doing a bit of work on the car yourself, which is great news for the Focus ST, because there is a vast world of aftermarket tuning available.
So, don’t forget to send your questions, comments, concerns, and rude remarks to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I look forward to seeing what y’all have to say about my recommendation. See you next time!
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Oops, I hit reply somewhere above so my comment may be lost so herewith is that same comment: OP here. Thank-you Mark for answering my email. And thanks to everyone here for their input. I’m glad I could help spark a lively discussion. I’ve always loved Mustangs. But I have a few reasons I chose the hot hatch segment instead. A Mustang is larger (and heavier) than a hot hatch. We already own an ES 350 and F-150 so why not go small? Back in the old days we used to judge car trunks by how many dead bodies could be stacked inside. With today’s mail-slot trunk openings you have to use a sawzall just to get a body inside so a hatchback wins. (If I have to tell you “dead bodies” is a metaphor, you need to delete all of your social media accounts and put your cell phone in the blender.) Hot hatches IMO are the original Mustangs of today. Economy car roots with go fast parts available straight from the factory. Mustangs are everywhere. Hot hatches are not. Z-cars are nice, but I decided on a turbo four with stick shift because it seems like it would be more fun. Regarding the German makes, remember I’m 60 and will soon enough be on a fixed income. GTI is of course a consideration, but Audi and BMW are right out. And I believe the Mini Cooper is serviced by the BMW parts bin, so same applies. I was thinking Elantra GT or Veloster Turbo, but Elantra GT’s are rare on the used market in the Southeast and the cheaper Asian hot hatches have a lower power to weight ratio. I think the Fiat-Chrysler hatchback design is really ugly, so Abarth and friends are not under consideration. Same for WRX. The Toyobaru twins aren’t hot hatches but would be fun for a weekend rental. For the Miata Is Always The Answer commenters, I decided that topless driving can be had at the local car rental place and I like the idea of fold down rear seats when necessary. So that said, it leaves me a pretty good array of fun hot hatches to choose from.
Please buy a manual transmission Genesis G70.