Brave new world

I would not have thought of myself as one for long-term commitments. Yet I’m still with my first wife after 36 years. I’ve been with the same company for 35 years. And my last new car was bought in September of 1993. That was a black 1993 Mustang 5.0 LX hatchback with 5-speed manual transmission, the first to wear the plate TFROG.

I will never forget… When I drove the car home for the first time, I stopped to fill up the gas tank. While I was at the pump, the automatic car alarm chirped, and all doors locked. I think someone had forgotten to tell me that the car does this – 30 seconds after the door closes, the car alarm arms itself. If it weren’t for the fact that I HAD just bought the car and that the second set of keys were in my pocket, I’d have been stuck (and embarrassed) at the gas station. Lesson learned.

I will never forget… Shortly after, I was sitting at a light and noticed that the car behind me didn’t appear to be stopping. I will never forget the look on that driver’s face as he suddenly realized that he was about to slam into the back of a brand new Ford Mustang – and the profound relief displayed when he knew he was going to stop in time. I think we both had our hearts in our throats.

I will never forget… Driving too fast down a straightaway at night, only to find that the road ahead did a sudden right-angle zig-zag over a bridge. I braked, but entered the first turn way too fast. The rear tires hit gravel and the car fishtailed a little, but the front tires held and we made the turn. I understood a little better what a “performance car” was all about that night. TFrog always had massive tires, expensive tires, but for a good reason. With performance cars, you pay a lot for tires and they don’t last very long, but the combination of power and good tread makes driving an absolute pleasure. I was always confident driving that car. It also had another feature, “escape velocity.” Countless dangerous situations were avoided by a simple blip of the throttle. The car could MOVE.

I will never forget… Moving to pass a car on Route 926, I accelerated to over 70 in no time, then saw a car cresting the hill up ahead. I couldn’t complete the pass, and slowed to resume my place behind the passee. But the passee was also braking to let me in ahead of him. I basically slowed from 70 to nothing, then sheepishly tucked in behind the passee, but my brake rotors were billowing white smoke (okay, the stock brakes on the Mustang flat-out sucked). The first ten years with TFROG were all about upgrades – I didn’t simply replace parts, I replaced them with better. Brake rotors were the first, and I had PowerSlot rotors installed, and never wondered again whether I would be able to stop in time. A complete suspension makeover followed, along with upgraded cooling system, eletrical system, exhaust system… ad nauseum.

I’d never had a car that swallowed so much money. Between the upgrades and maintenance, the new pricey tires every 18 months, TFrog was an expensive hobby. The second ten years were all about just keeping the car on the road. Break-downs came at unexpected times and places, but I will say that my own driveway was TFrog’s favorite place to stop running. Even so, I ended up with two different tow truck numbers stored on my cellphone. I’ve had water pumps go bad, alternators, air pumps, and a five-year bout of transmission problems that four different shops couldn’t fix. TFrog had long ago been paid off, but repair bills (some very high) would come at odd moments, and there’s never a convenient time to have a car in the shop. I have twice had my tailpipe fall off because of age (not an attractive look or sound).

But, oh, how I loved that car. We had recently passed the 250,000-mile mark, and I drove almost all of those miles with a big grin on my face.

After 19 years, TFrog was in need of thousands of dollars in repairs and restoration. A really good show-black paint job was quoted at $4,000, alone. The right tailpipe fell off one day, and, looking up underneath, I saw that TFrog had cancer – a good deal of rust. TFrog’s days were numbered.

After a succession of Ford Escapes, Jean surprised me by picking out her next lease, a 2013 Focus SE Sedan, fully optioned. The Ruby Red color was extra, but so pretty… I played with that car for a week, read all the reviews, and decided that it was time to trade TFrog for a 2013 Focus S sedan, tuxedo black (of course), with no options. The savings in gasoline, alone, would offset the lease payments, so I was getting a de facto free car.

Of course, I miss the V8. There is much to be said about the sound, the acceleration, or just burbling down the street in 2nd gear. The Focus is an entirely different world. But with TFrog dying and an all-new Mustang due out in late 2014, I opted to lease the Focus for three years to get me through.

The Focus is a hoot. First was the amazement at seeing my average mpg go from 17 to 30+. I found myself playing the mpg game – I’d fill up, get out on the highway to go to work, and try to get the mpg above 50 (which I did on a number of occasions). If I take it easy on the accelerator and do a lot of coasting, I can average 34mpg over a tankful of gas. I don’t often end up there, but somewhere over 30mpg is the norm.

The manual transmission is … well … sweet. Shifting is carefree, even though it seems to jump out of first ahead of the shift to second. It could use a 6th gear for highway driving, but the easy clutch pedal is no struggle in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Ford has nailed the suspension and handling in these cars. For a front wheel drive car, the Focus is a joy on twisty roads. Reviewers refer to the suspension and tightness as very European, which makes sense, since the car was designed by Ford Europe.

Since this is my first new car in 20 years (Jean has had a succession of leased vehicles, on average every 3 years), I am enjoying the newness of it all. I have a good number of old Mustang parts in the garage, along with oil, rags, carnuba wax, and other things I don’t need now. The Focus is mine for 39 months, and then gets traded for something new.

The plan was to get back into a Mustang (at this writing, I still haven’t seen the new 2015 Mustang in person), but I can’t stop reading the reviews. It may be that what I really wanted was not the base model sedan with no options, but the Focus ST with no options. While the base Focus has a lively 4-cylinder 2.0 liter engine putting out 160hp (not shabby in a little car), the Focus ST has a turbocharger with an output of 250+hp, and suspension tweaks to help put all of that power to use. On paper, the Focus ST is a tick faster to 60mph and in the quarter mile than my old 1993 5.0 V8 Mustang. Impressive. And it would still average more than 30mpg.

So I debate. New V6 Mustang or Focus ST. At the moment, it is likely that my Mustang days are over, since I’m leaning Focus…

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