The Ford Fiesta, even with the 1.0-liter three cylinder, isn't the perfect car for everything. For instance, there are times when a Jeep would be better.
My friend hadn't driven stick in years and I was supposed to give her a quick refresher. This new Fiesta and its suitcase-sized 1.0 liter would have just pootled around some big parking lot somewhere, hardly running beyond first and second gear.
But she had to cancel and I had a Fiesta for a day. I did the natural thing, which is to go off looking for new roads.
I wasn't actually planning on going offroad, just off the roads I regularly drive, but a number of bad decisions led me to a place that, in retrospect, is clearly offroad.
I had written down directions (there's no GPS in this car) to New Jersey's Pine Barrens. Climate change means there are more and more tree-killing beetles down there, and I wanted to see the pines before they're gone.
The highway blended into two-lanes. The two-lanes blended into suburban streets, and then the pavement washed out. It was everything I'd hoped for. Endless rows of pines like nothing I'd seen growing up in California. Soft orange sand making up smooth, wide paths. Sure, I'd need to wipe down the car a little before I returned it, but the plan was to do nothing that a normal owner wouldn't do.
I'd plotted a route that went through a few little pieces of forest land, and after a few miles on a main dirt road, I turned south, through one patch of woods and on to the next. This is where things started to go wrong.
The little road I turned onto was supposed to take me on a shortcut through the Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area. It wasn't even two and a half miles long, and it even showed up on Google Maps. I figured there wasn't anything to worry about. I should've checked the satellite view.
The orange sand turned white. The only other vehicles I saw out there were a lifted Jeep going the other way and a KTM.
The KTM pulled off into the woods. I was undeterred. The road got rough. I slowed down. The bushes and trees started to come close. I didn't mind. The little Fiesta continued to cut through the toothpick pines without any kind of drama. Bushes closed in, but the car was so narrow it didn't seem like a problem.
There was a little log that had me getting out of the car to pull off the path, but that was the only stumbling block for two full miles.
Everything seemed to be going fine, until it wasn't.
Just as I neared the very last half mile of the shortcut, a fence sprang up, a downed tree blocked the road (if you could still call it that), and a red arrow pointed me further into the woods.
There was actually a third little path that I followed for a few hundred yards until a set of trees blocked the way. A dirt bike would've gotten through, but it was too tight for the Fiesta. Without any trouble I backed up, turned around in a little clearing, and went back to the red arrow way.
Now, I didn't like the red arrow path. It was dark, and the cleared sand was narrower than anything else I'd seen all day. But the map said I was so close to a real paved road that I decided to go down this way just for a look. I sort of thought that around every brushy turn, I'd see a stop sign and pavement up ahead. Here is where I learned my first lesson.
1. Never trust Google Maps when it comes to dirt roads.
After a few minutes, two trees grew close enough to stop the Fiesta from going any further. I backed up again, pulled a three-point turn in a clearing, and started my way back.
Clearly, my day was over and it would only be safe and prudent to go back home...
But something wasn't right. Just as I was going through the last bit of the three-point turn (more like an eighteen-point turn), I checked over my shoulder and there was a tree right behind me. I tried to pull up, but there was a tree right in front of me. And right next to the passenger door stood a rotted half-sapling blocking any good kind of turn.
It was like the trees snuck up on me. Like they crept in while I wasn't looking. They jumped into the road, I swear!
I tried backing up, but bumped the tree behind. I pulled as far forward and tried to cut back as best I could, but that tree on my passenger side wasn't going away. I cut forward and back, forward and back, but I was hemmed in on all my sides. I felt like Austin Powers, and I was starting to get an understanding of the second thing I'd done wrong on this trip.
2. Always bring a buddy.
If I hadn't been alone, a buddy would've told me to start my three-point turn further back in the clearing. I'd never have boxed myself in between those three trees in the first place. And speaking of bumping, I had just learned my third lesson.
3. Never bring a car you worry about getting hurt.
I thought I had it. I'd spun the wheels in the dirt a few times and showered my seat in sand, but I had myself right in line to make it out of the pen of trees and drive out of the woods altogether.
And then there was the crunch. It sounded more like a clunk, really. Short and clear, and probably very expensive. Maybe it wasn't so bad, I thought, as I stepped out of the car. I didn't think the tree could do much damage, and I figured the stout Ford would've only brushed by its soft bark. A scratch, I expected. A ding.
Not so much.
I can't tell you how pissed I was. I have to take good care of this car because it's my job and people don't do well who fuck around with press cars and yeah I know the stories of people driving them off the road and crashing at tracks and blowing tires and getting keyed and getting towed and rolling and wrecking, too.
I stopped at the main road. I double-checked. The damage was as real as I feared, so I made some calls, and drove right back to Manhattan, and the nice guy at the Ford service department and left him the keys.
The Fiesta was fine. It went right back to a seventy mile an hour cruise without complaint. No shimmy in the wheel, no nothing. If it weren't for the scrapes, you'd never know I dented it.
It was the door and the rocker panel that got dented or scraped or whatever you call it. You could say 'banged up' and it wouldn't sound so bad. No one else who I talked to thought it was so bad. I felt like shit the whole highway back, but the Ford guy listened to me apologizing and didn't seem to mind much of anything. I told him I hoped the next people who were supposed to get the car didn't end up delayed. He said that was appreciated. When I called Matt, he was just concerned that I was safe. Well, I think he figured I rolled the car, so a couple bent panels were a good step down towards ok.
I learned some lessons, though. If you trust Google Maps with getting you through a forest, you'll end up like one of those idiots who drives into a lake following their GPS. More than that, you really, really never go off the road alone, and you don't go out into the rocks and the dirt with a car you mind getting bent.
The Fiesta, though I'd never intended to bring it there, was great offroad. I just wish it had a better driver at the wheel.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove
(Editor's Note: It's generally our belief that, when you seriously damage a press car it's news and should be reported on and, generally, that it's ideally the job of the person who damaged the car to write about it. While this doesn't apply to every issue — spilling coffee if the spill is because you're an idiot and not because of a design flaw — it certainly applies when there's something to be learned by the experience. This is an evolving belief and something we're still trying to reckon with.
It's our goal to never damage any car we've been given, including press cars, but it's a reality of the job.)