Driving long distances isn’t always easy. Traffic jams, roadworks, accidents and bad weather can all spoil the experience but despite all of these difficulties one thing remains true – driving a car is the very best way to take in a country.
To prove the point, I planned a trip to the Czech Republic, taking in four European countries in one trip. Leaving Great Britain, the plan was to visit France, Belgium, and Germany before arriving in Prague some 1,800 miles later.
My car for the trip was going to be a Ford Focus ST, but the difficulty was in knowing which to pick. Petrol? Not this time, the distance of the trip dictated opting for the more frugal diesel. Estate body? Without knowing exactly what my driving partner planned to pack, I thought it safer to opt for the extra room on offer should she bring along the kitchen sink – and a tenth pair of shoes – for our eight-day journey.
In mid-range ST-2 spec, the ‘Deep Impact’ blue Focus looked every bit of its £25,320 asking price. Not that I thought that at 5:30am as I stepped inside the car. At that point it was still dark and I was thinking about the still-warm bed I’d left behind.
With the M20 turned into a HGV park thanks to Operation Stack, the route from Berkshire to the Eurotunnel wasn’t as straightforward as it could have been, but delays of just one hour at the terminal were smaller than they could have been.
During this time I busied myself fiddling around with the optional £500 SYNC2 system. After checking out various multimedia options and car settings on the touchscreen, I switched the on-board computer and driver information over to ‘European’ figures and settled into the excellent Recaro seats.
France isn’t always the most interesting place to drive through, but the motorways are well looked after and providing you’re not too close to Paris, the drivers aren’t bad either.
The long, straight, toll-demanding motorways can get a little boring, but on this particular evening the distinct lack of traffic meant there was a lot of fun to be had. Over roads like this, the ST proved to be more comfortable than some have suggested, and with the music up and the throttle down, we were able to cover ground just a little quicker than normal.
Eventually growing tired of the monotony of the motorway, I turned to the beautiful A-roads and wheat-field-lined narrow country tracks. I made full use of the 182bhp on offer but, while it was enjoyable, I was pining for the petrol engine and the more nimble dynamics provided by the hatch.
Passing by the now-silent battlefields of the great wars of the 20th century, the setting sun produced a beautiful golden and orange light across the wheat fields. After contemplating what had happened in the past, it was time to look to the future, and that looked a lot like Paris and a glass of good red.
Paris is a truly hateful place to drive. The infamous Peripherique always leaves you wondering if a natural disaster has occurred somewhere behind you, such is the desperation to keep moving forward. Thankfully my stop for the night wasn’t far from the horrors of the ring road and I didn’t have to suffer Parisian traffic for too long.
I managed to squeeze the ST into a tight parking space in a busy car park that was a driver’s nightmare; dual-lane exits, narrow and high-curbed lanes and stingy parking spaces all conspired against the Ford’s wide turning circle, leaving me on the losing side for spaces. Eventually I found a traditionally tight space alongside a traditionally terrible French saloon.
Both the excellent rear-view camera (a £165 option) and the outwardly folding door edge protectors (also optional at £85) came in useful here, allowing me to open the doors with the confidence that I wasn’t going to add to the numerous scars that littered Jean Publique’s ride.
Perrine, my glamorous assistant for the trip – a Hepburn-esque French blonde who combines a wicked sense of humour with a shoe obsession and a token but vital grasp of the German tongue – was duly collected. Over the course of the trip she’d be most useful for keeping me alert, on track, and out of trouble. Tonight though, it’s French cuisine.
As soon as you cross the border into Belgium you notice the change in road quality. Suddenly the surface is several decibels louder and littered with cracks and potholes that scream “we don’t make our citizens pay to use this.” In some ways it reminded me of home.
Dodgy motorway surfaces were forgotten as we got closer to the Spa-Francorchamps race circuit. Situated in a truly beautiful part of Europe, the villages, hills and deep forests of the region make for a spectacular backdrop for what is arguably the greatest racing circuit in the world.
With a race event on, we couldn’t get near the modern circuit but driving on the old roads and circuit around Stavelot is well worth anybody’s time. Follow in the lines of the legends, and take in the beautiful Ardennes while you’re at it.
The glorious forest roads exiting Belgium and heading into Germany were some of the most enjoyable kilometres (we were in Europe, after all) of the trip, twisting through villages, cresting over stunning views, and blasting past delightful chateaux. Sadly, the motorways of Germany were more of a disappointment, as the much heralded German driving discipline just wasn’t visible.
The original plan was to stop by the Nurburgring, but with time against us, the circuit closed, and the driving beginning to get frustrating, the decision was taken to press on to our overnight stop in Fulda.
The mood wasn’t enhanced by our discovery that a wrong turn in Germany can easily cost you an hour. After taking a wrong turn for the third time, I found myself driving through a 4km long tunnel while being mocked for my ability to get lost even with the SYNC2 system guiding me. Though later than planned, we eventually arrived at our stop.
Right in the heart of Germany, Fulda is a beautiful and lively city blessed with some wonderful architecture that really warrants a weekend or more to appreciate. We arrived just in time for some traditional comfort food of beer, bread, and meatballs at a local pub which in turn gave us enough energy to take a look around the streets and squares as night set in.
Fulda at midnight is a delight but, having been on the road since 5:30am, my bed was calling and I wasn’t going to ignore it.
Refreshed, it was time to head towards the Czech Republic. Ignoring the motorway in favour of some explorative driving, we ended up alongside a river in a valley in Eastern Germany surrounded by beautiful tall trees . It was here that the 400Nm of torque available in the Focus ST provided some real giggle inducing moments. Rocketing out of low-speed corners never failed to entertain, the front wheels squirming as all that torque was released through the rubber. It isn’t quite as sharp or as fun as the petrol powered hatchback, but our diesel estate, carrying a boot full of luggage, was providing a seriously engaging driving experience.
The road began to climb as we crept closer and closer to the Czech border, passing through small towns and villages until the crossing was in sight. Looking back, all that we could see of Germany was the sun setting over a castle.
A thin, snaking road through densely forested mountains welcomed us into the Czech Republic. The road was falling apart, the forest was spooky, but the route was leading us right into Litvinov. This is the town we would be staying in for a few days, crashing at a friends house.
We’d made it.
The journey wasn’t over though. Over the next few days I was the designated driver for all kinds of trips and adventures; Karlovy Vary (a glamorous Spa town with spectacular hotels and 16 hot springs), the national park of Bohemian Switzerland (where we drove in beautiful the deep valleys after hiking and getting soaked by an almighty storm), and Prague.
One of the most enchanting and beautiful cities in Europe, packed full of history, breathtaking architecture, and some of the most frighteningly bad drivers on the continent, when they say Prague is a very special place, they aren’t lying. Walking from Charles Bridge up the hill to Prague Castle is spectacular, while St. Vitus Cathedral, a building that took 600 years to finish, is incredible.
Prague might be the jewel in the Czech crown, but my heart lies in the mountains, forests and castles of the north. You’ll encounter all kinds of roads and surfaces, where the ST proved itself to be a fine all-rounder. Balancing that sensible diesel estate practicality with its feisty sporting tendencies, on the more open, flowing forest roads it was engaging and involving to drive. More than anything else though, it was bloody good fun.
On the long and busy motorways and inside the hectic cities is it quiet, economical and comfortable. This Ford Focus ST is sensible yes, but with a sense of humour.
After four days of enjoying the company of friends, hearty Czech cuisine, and some of the finest lager in the world, it was time to get back on the road for the return leg. We said goodbye to our friends, loaded up the car once again and headed home.
The #STtrip was over.
The Focus ST is at its purest in hatchback form and with a petrol engine, of that there can be no question, but the diesel sibling proves its sense of humour with the quite ludicrous torque it generates. Wheel spin is a certainty on any virtually any surface, and coming out of corners requires a tight grip of the wheel and sensible application of the throttle.
It isn’t a tricky car to drive, but it does involve you and make you feel like more driving input is required from you.
This particular version of the ST was well suited to the adventure, being equally capable of having fun on twisting roads as it was returning continuously high economy figures over distance – at 50mpg over the course of the trip, it was far more frugal than I expected.
Really though, it’s the feeling of fun engineered into the car that will win you over. The Ford Focus ST will put a smile on your face whatever guise you end up selecting, and that is what makes it so lovable.
Even though this particular adventure is finished, I’m still wearing that same smile.
|Model Tested: Ford Focus ST-2 TDCi Wagon|
Engine: 2.0-litre turbo diesel
Top speed: 135 mph
0-62 mph: 8.3 seconds
Power: 185 PS (182 bhp)
Torque: 400 Nm (295 ft-lb)
|Official fuel economy: 67.3 mpg
Road Test economy: N/A
CO2 Emissions: 110 g/km
VED Band: B / £20 per year
Car insurance group: 26E
Kerb weight: 1,488 kg