I Got Trapped On A Tiny French Mountain Road In The New Ford Focus

I Got Trapped On A Tiny French Mountain Road In The New Ford Focus
Image: Ford Focus Titanium

I never imagined that my first time behind the wheel of a left-hand drive would be alone in the French Alps.

And yet there I was, white-knuckling my way up the raised mountain roads that seem to have been built specifically with MINIs in mind.

I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. I didn’t know what to do. And I was cursing these roads with every colourful language combination that I could muster.

This article was originally published on August 17 2018.

To be fair, I was looking at the situation through the lens of someone who learned to drive on spacious rural Australian roads. So perhaps I was a tad biased.

But at the time I cared less about logic and more about avoiding the deep ditches that hugged either side of the road.

Fortunately, I wasn’t in an SUV or Canyonero-style truck. I was behind the wheel of a 4th generation Ford Focus — a comparatively smaller vehicle that doesn’t take up three-quarters of a minuscule road. Even though it felt like it at the time.

I’ve driven a lot of Fords in my time, so the familiarity helped — even in a left-hand drive. So did the knowledge that the particular model I was driving, the Vignale, was specced out with safety features:

  • Autonomous emergency braking
  • Post-impact braking
  • adaptive cruise control with Stop&Go
  • Lane keeping aid
  • Lane departure warning
  • Lane centering
  • Evasive steer assist
  • Blind Spot Information System (BLIS)
  • rear cross-traffic alert
  • 180-degree reverse camera
  • Night-time pedestrian detection
  • Cyclist detection
  • Active park assist

Sadly, the Vignale won’t be available in Australia. But we will be getting the Trend, ST-Line and Titanium, all with a 1.5L EcoBoost three-cylinder engine.

On the tech side, the range comes with an 8-inch Sync 3 touchscreen that is compatible with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, as well as voice-activated sat nav and climate control. And for those of you interested in the ST-Line, you can add Qi wireless phone charging to the lineup.

There are also been a push when it comes to lighting, including automatic high-beam control, ‘Follow Me Home’ lighting and dynamic bending which enables the light beam to swivel into a road curve before the car reaches it.

While my fellow journalists relished the opportunity to push the Focus to its limits and smash tight corners in Sports Mode, I certainly was not.

During my solo ordeal, I was more concerned with the steering and tyre handling as I drove on the opposite side of the bumpy roads. And fortunately, the eight-speed automatic transmission took care of me in an almost-intuitive fashion. I had less control than I would have in a manual, but in this instance, it worked out.

This was also evident the next day, if we may fast forward momentarily. My driving partner and I were thrashing down a highway at 130km/h — and the stability still held strong. This was yet another driving situation that I was less accustomed to. Our highways don’t allow speeds that high, and you really can feel the difference that 20km makes. But behind the wheel of the ST-Line the cabin was surprisingly stable, as well as quieter than I anticipated.

But back to the mountain.

Image: Ford Focus ST-Line

The safety tech features in the new Focus aren’t really anything new. A few tweaks can be found here and there (such as the 180-degree reverse camera), but otherwise you’ve seen them in competitor vehicles as well as Ford’s previously existing Tech Package.

But a lack of ingenuity didn’t make me any less grateful for the familiar inclusions on that day. Especially when the compact road was made all the more crowded by the existence of cyclists and barefooted people wandering around for no particular reason.

I’m pleased to report that the Focus isn’t shy about letting you know when a pedestrian and cyclist is encroaching on your road space. As a driver, you can’t miss the overt warning, which gives you plenty of time to avoid the hazard. Or in my case, ensuring that I didn’t accidentally run someone into a ditch.

The rear cross traffic alert was also useful for letting me know if it was safe to pull out after I finally found a place large enough to stop and almost have a panic attack.

Image: The cabin setup of the ST-Line

I mentioned driving partners earlier. Mine was Peter Anderson from CarsGuide and The Red Line. The day after my solo adventure on the mountain, he was the best at being encouraging when I was still nervous. Not only did he provide tips for left-hand drives and driving on the opposite side of the road, but he also regaled me with stories of past driving trips he had been on.

As it turns out, everyone has trouble in some way or another, which made me feel like less of a hack.

It’s interesting when you’re a newcomer to an industry. You’re unsure of what to expect from the people who are now your peers, especially when some have been there for decades longer than you.

I’ve been fortunate in the vast majority of other auto journalists, particularly on this trip, were deadset legends. They were welcoming and kind, quick to offer advice, and concerned when I copped an unfortunate bout of food poisoning.

But despite their generosity, I couldn’t bring myself to tell these experts and veterans just how difficult it had been for me to get off the mountain the previous day. I couldn’t admit that I sat on the side of that road, unsure if I could actually make it back down by myself.

That I wondered if I was going to have to destroy all credibility with my peers by making a humiliating phone call to the PR.

That I sat in that Focus, verbally psyching myself up to turn the engine back on, repeating a lame mantra for what felt like an eternity

“You’re going to be okay. Just drive.”

“You’re going to be okay. Just drive.”

“You’re going to be okay. Just drive.”

And eventually, I did.

A sliver of self-belief and sheer necessity made me grit my teeth, ignore the ice coursing through my veins and not give up that afternoon. But so did the carefully constructed metal surrounding me. I genuinely don’t know if I could have done it in a car I was less familiar with or wasn’t built with trust and comfort in mind.

Not only did the Focus feel stable when I drove it, the interior is designed for ease-of-use. Perhaps that’s why I jumped behind the wheel by myself in the first place. It felt natural and I figured I’d be fine. And in the end, I was. Despite the fear.

Image: Focus Titanium

Fear is perhaps what stopped me from writing up this first-drive immediately. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of what people would think. One of the major parts of this job is writing about cars, and yet I almost couldn’t drive on a road that everyone else could.

It took me a little while to remember that cars aren’t just for auto journalists, experts and enthusiasts. And I’m not the first to experience fear behind the wheel. I think it’s safe to wager that most of us have at some point as everyday drivers.

And that’s what the Focus is at the end of the day. Sure, it has a Sports Mode and can do a nice little job at speed. But it isn’t a hypercar or in the luxury market. It’s a normal vehicle that was equipped in a way that helped me get back to a safe place on unfamiliar, scary roads that I was tackling for the first time.

Maybe that’s a simplistic perspective. And maybe that’s all that’s needed. The 2019 Ford Focus is a car for normal people that had what I needed to stay safe in extenuating circumstances. And on that day, that was enough.

The author travelled to the Focus launch in France as a guest of Ford.