Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Road Tripping

A fortnight after the trip to York I once again found myself heading to the hills with the Focus, except this time it was South Wales.

Before leaving I called into the dealers (Hutchings Motors in Goff's Oak) for them to have a look at the electrical gremlins. They were all too happy to oblige and within a matter minutes both were fixed for free.

I was very glad of my (newly) fully functional windscreen wipers as the heavens opened shortly after departure, yet it was bright sunshine again by the time I stopped to pick up a friend a few miles away. After packing both the bikes and a considerable amount of associated paraphernalia there was still room to spare.

The M25, at first, lulled us into a false sense of security. It wasn't quite the hellish gridlock I expected from half three on a Friday afternoon. No, that came with the M4. We slogged through eighty miles of stop-start traffic, before it suddenly dissolved around Bristol, only to reappear again at Cardiff. Some time later the moment finally came to turn off the motorway near Port Talbot. I welcomed this for two reasons – firstly we were overdue for some food and, secondly, I knew what was coming next.

The A4107 starts at a rather dodgy looking underpass beneath the M4. From there it snakes through the village of Cwmafan before the much-welcome national speed limit sign plunges you into the Welsh countryside.

The Focus started to come into its element on the smooth dry tarmac as the steep-sided Afan Valley got progressively more alpine. Despite still being hampered by the less-than-ideal front tyres limiting the overall grip, it steers very directly with a good level of feedback and relatively flat cornering. The comically vocal tyres only added to the amusement on the road's impressive variety of corners, while a decent length straight gave even our fully loaded 1.6 the chance to pass a dawdling MPV.

As we approached the first stop at Cymmer the car was presented with a slightly more unusual challenge. We swung down a series of tight hairpins before climbing up the opposite side of the valley and there – on one of the steepest sections of road I've ever driven up – was the B&B's parking. Conscious of the heat in the brakes after our enthusiastic drive over and aware of a motor-industry colleague who'd watched a development car roll off the edge of a mountain as its brakes cooled, I gingerly parked the car with the handbrake on as high as it would go… and with the wheels pointing straight into the curb… and left in gear. Then I walked away and offered silent thanks to the fact I wasn't in the TVR.

The following day after a brief, but entertaining drive retracing our steps to the forestry centre at Afan Argoed we rode the Penhydd trail. In fact it's such a sublime loop of singletrack that we rode it twice, after which the bikes needed a good clean. We put our rucksacks in the car and headed for the bike wash, except it was at this moment that a slight problem dawned.

The Focus allows you to open the rear hatch while leaving the two front doors locked. Quite why it does this (when you can easily crawl from the boot to the front or vice-versa) I don't know; clearly someone in product design at Ford thought it was a handy feature. However it also makes it particularly easy for the absent minded to lock their keys in the car. And at that precise moment my keys were in my camelback, which in turn, was securely locked in the boot of the car.

Much to everyone's relief my AA membership was still in date and I merely had to sit in the afternoon sunshine being lightly mocked for an hour or so until the van arrived. I know from experience that it's not hard to find someone capable of braking into a car in South Wales, but the professionals fortunately use a much more delicate touch. Having progressively used various devices to prise a gap at the top of the door frame our new friend used a three foot long stick to jab the central locking button and open the doors.

Much obliged and safely on our way, we drove back down the A4107 for one last time. Fortunately the stretch of the M4 that came afterwards as we headed towards our next destination near Cardiff was mercifully clearer on this occasion and we made good time.

Turning off the motorway we headed up a quiet stretch of semi-suburban dual carriageway. With so few people around and an array of roundabouts to play with it proved difficult not to be at least a little juvenile. Once again the Focus' chassis wanted to oblige and once again the Fateo tyres blunted its ability to do so.

It remains throttle-adjustable, but with such an overwhelming rear-bias to the reserves of grip the most it will do is tuck its nose in a little. It's still good fun and a very positive indication of how the car will handle with some better rubber, but boy does it need some.

As we turned off the dual carriageway the rural roads narrowed and dictated a far more cautious pace. We only continued for around a mile and a half, yet our destination felt completely removed from 21st century suburbia. The Rectory Cottage B&B nestles in a truly idyllic spot on the edge of the Brecon Beacons. If the alpine slopes of Cymmer had elements of Tolkien's Rivendell, then that spot with its lush rolling hills must have been The Shire.

Wandering to the local pub for dinner after a long day in the saddle (and the driving seat), I found myself lost in the beauty of the landscape again. It really is a stunning part of the world. To the north, the Brecon Beacons rise like a wall, but to all other sides the verdant farmland seems the complete opposite to the wild and windswept terrain I normally associate with Wales.

The following morning - without a hint of irony - we found ourselves about a dozen miles away on yet another windswept Welsh hillside. This time it was the Twrch trail. Home to a gruelling initial climb, some fantastic cross country singletrack and one of the best descents this side of the Alps.

Awesome as the Cwmcarn trails were, I was still concentrating sufficiently when I got back to the car to avoid a repeat of the previous day's hilarity. So with the keys safely to hand we headed back to England. Fortunately the traffic was flowing far more freely than it had been before and we maintained a reasonable cruising pace for the whole route back.

Under those conditions the Focus once again displayed its versatility. While its defining feature upon release may have been class-leading handling, its natural habitat was always going to be ferrying reps and the occasional family across motorways. It does so in a very civilised manner for a small and relatively inexpensive car. Admittedly the 1.6-litre engine lacks the torque required for truly relaxed motorway cruising, but that really is about the only thing that spoils the Focus' case.

I don't have to wait long for the next road trip – out to the Nurburgring at the weekend – but this time the Focus is staying at home. As for what I'm actually going to be driving, that's yet to be decided.

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