We’re in sun-kissed southern Spain just a stone’s throw away from the Mediterranean Sea. But this is no holiday. In a lock-up in the middle of a small industrial estate, a highly camouflaged next-generation Ford Focus prototype is having its shock absorbers adjusted for the sixth time that day. The new Focus has made its European and North American debut at the auto shows, and engineering teams are working to finalize all of the details and get it ready for market.
Minutes after this shock adjustment, the matte black machine pulls back onto the road and the driver sets off on a familiar 40km route. This particular stretch encompasses virtually every type of road surface. It’s a process that will be repeated every day for the next two weeks, or until the driver is satisfied that he’s achieved the optimum shock absorber set-up for the vehicle.
The man behind the wheel is Jürgen Pützschler, supervisor C-Car vehicle dynamics. His colleague on this trip is Stephan Anssems, new Focus vehicle dynamics team leader, and the two are part of an eight-person team tasked with raising the quality bar in terms of C-Car driving dynamics. Lommel proving ground in Belgium is where they’re often found, but as the Focus enters the final stages of its development, it’s vital to drive it on public roads too.
“We can test a lot at Lommel but the weather isn’t the best at this time of year,” says Pützschler. “We’ve come to Spain because we need warm, dry conditions for optimal testing. We’re focusing on shock absorber tuning at present and this location is perfect. There are smooth roads, very uncomfortable roads, twisty roads, highway. It’s also quiet with not too much traffic and there are no press with cameras here either. You don’t want too much attention driving prototypes.”
After each lap of the route, the wheels are removed, and Pützschler and Anssems give their feedback to the on-site shock absorber partner. The shock absorbers are then taken apart and rebuilt with an adjustment. The tiniest change to an internal component can have a huge impact on a vehicle’s driving dynamics.
“We only make one change at a time,” says Anssems. “It’s important that we always drive the same route at the same pace and with the same load and tire pressure. Fine-tuning shock absorbers isn’t an exact science. That’s why we have to test so rigorously.”
Both these men can really drive. The speed at which they cover the ground is impressive. Even with four on board, the new Focus feels agile and poised. Pützschler and Anssems aren’t happy though. They feel that there’s a small issue with how it reacts to dead-center steering inputs. More fine-tuning of the front shocks is required.
“Our job is not about driving like madmen and breaking rules,” adds Anssems. “Our goal is to develop a vehicle that is capable, precise and predictable, not only in everyday driving, but also in emergency situations. If a child runs in front of you and you have to steer around, what you really need is a predictable and stable car. We have to deliver just that.”
Test team facts:
“Our customers will get a car that drives better, steers better, is more agile and is more comfortable than its predecessor,” predicts Pützschler. “We do have a lot to do still. We have to fine tune each and every derivative of this Focus, so that includes different engines, body styles and so on. It is a lot of pressure and we are a small team but we all love what we do and are very proud of the cars we develop. We’re perfectionists. We want our customers to enjoy the best possible quality drive!”