Intense and fuel-efficient, the 2012 Focus and 2011 Fiesta head to Asheville, N.C. to show why small cars rule.
By Jeff Wise
Photographs by J. Kane
We’re zooming through a canopy of lush green, my red 2012 Focus tailing a blue 2011 Fiesta along the Blue Ridge Parkway. Breaks in the tree cover now and again reveal a panorama of North Carolina hills hung with mist. At every curve of the road, I feel the precision of the European-inspired suspension. On the straightaways this car has power to spare. We pull over to take it all in, leaning against the warm metal of our cars. If cars die and go to heaven, it must be something like this.
Tucked away between two mountain ranges in the westernmost reaches of North Carolina, Asheville is both insular and surprisingly worldly. Its elevation and scenic beauty have long drawn Southerners fleeing summertime heat, and as its reputation spread, it attracted admirers from farther afield—including the magnate George Washington Vanderbilt III, who chose it as the site for his Biltmore House, still the largest private home in the U.S. Today Asheville remains a small town (just 80,000 souls) with a thriving music scene and an eclectic community of artisans and artists.
I arrive in town in a brand-new 2012 Focus to meet up with my sister, owner of a vibrant 2011 Fiesta. We’ve set aside a weekend to discover Asheville and the surrounding Blue Ridge Mountains—and what better vehicles to go exploring in than these impressively fuel-efficient small cars. We can hit all the sights and not spend our precious time—and dollars—at the gas pump.
And there are lots of things worth spending time on here. We park in the center of town, where the athletic, aerodynamic lines of the Focus and Fiesta stand out against the charming, historic row of shops and restaurants. We start out in the center of town, strolling along Broadway Street. Right away, I get it: This is the kind of town that’s easy to fall in love with.
Carefully preserved architecture nurtures a feeling of connection to the past. Across the street from the old-fashioned movie house we find the Mast General Store, a two-story emporium with creaky wooden floors and shelves piled high with all manner of dry goods, from camping supplies to wind-up toys to an enticingly large selection of candy in glass jars. We plan to do plenty of shopping, and with the rear seats folded down in the Fiesta, there’s more than enough room for our gear and our new purchases.
We’re eager to beat the lunchtime rush at 12 Bones, Asheville’s most storied barbecue joint. From the outside it doesn’t look like much, but inside, the energy is contagious. The restaurant boasts an eclectic and ever-changing menu of nouvelle BBQ delights. The day we visit, Blueberry Chipotle and Spicy Peach are the featured rib flavors on the blackboard menu. Faced with this sort of culinary creativity, you just have to go with the flow, so I dive in and order the special of the day, house-made corned beef with watermelon pickles, apples, bacon and pepper jack on Texas toast. With that kind of deliciousness being served, it’s not surprising that by noon the line stretches out the door and across the parking lot.
Keen to discover other local gems, we stroll across the railroad tracks and wander around the River Arts District, a clutch of buildings that house artists and artisans. Visitors are welcome to pop into the different studios and observe the creative process.
We walk down a low embankment, past a ceramics workshop and a craft brewery, and arrive at a loading dock that faces the railroad tracks. Inside, a twenty-something woman with safety glasses and ear protectors is working on a red-hot piece of steel. We sit and watch; after a few minutes she dunks the steel in a tub of water and comes over to introduce herself. At 26, Tina Councell has been a blacksmith for seven years. In that time, she says, “this neighborhood has really blossomed. All sorts of people are moving here, doing all sorts of things. In this building alone there are painters, ceramicists, jewelry makers, weavers. We all help each other out. I love it here.”
After wandering a bit more, we decide to head across the river into West Asheville, an area of town that’s undergoing something of a renaissance. I slip behind the wheel of my Focus and pop a new address into the navigation system; SYNC® with My Ford Touch® gives me turn-by-turn directions.
We cruise over to West Asheville; though it’s still a neighborhood mostly of tire stores and dingy shops, in recent years it has attracted the young, talented and hip. For an instant entrée into Asheville’s vibrant music scene, we swing by Harvest Records, a thriving emporium for CDs and vinyl. Many of the flyers posted in the store are for acts at legendary downtown venue the Orange Peel.
After browsing through the music selection and noting a few bands we want to check out, we’ve worked up an appetite for the Admiral, an unprepossessing restaurant that has quietly emerged as one of North Carolina’s most exciting culinary destinations.
Hidden inside a cinder-block building that once housed a dive bar, it’s still outfitted with neon signs, low-slung acoustic tile and lighting fixtures that went out of style during the Ford administration. The diamond-in-the-rough vibe only adds to the appeal, however, when the food arrives at your table—in my sister’s case, a Black Angus rib eye. Topped with a succulent relish of basil and green tomato and a side of smoky-flavored whipped potatoes, the dish is so delicious that she takes it as yet more evidence that she’s found the perfect town. “If I had to create a city that I wanted to live in from scratch,” she says, “it would be Asheville.”
As much as we are enjoying the city, we’re also becoming restless to get back into our cars and on the road, so the next morning we get up early and set out for adventure. Our destination: a newly opened zip-line canopy tour, Navitat, located north of town. As I turn into the facility’s driveway, I note with satisfaction that despite my meandering the past few days, my gas gauge still reads more than half full. “Don’t be smug,” my sister tells me, teasingly. “My Fiesta gets crazy good gas mileage too.”
On the canopy tour, we fly from tree to tree down double sets of cable, getting a unique, squirrel’s-eye perspective on the Appalachian forest, one of North America’s most diverse ecosystems. The beauty of these mountains is unparalleled, and zipping through them this way is exhilarating.
But it’s a quick ride, and over all too soon—just like our trip to this lovely town. As I wave good-bye to my sister, I realize that there’s so much more for us to discover here. Nonetheless, I can’t help feeling a thrill of excitement as I get back behind the wheel of my Focus; it’s time to hit the road.