Join Date: Dec 2005
CAR AND DRIVER: 2009 Ford Focus SES Sedan; inspires us to really get to know Sync
Never ask a gas-station attendant where to get a good steak. Many moons ago, a pair of desperate staffers did just that. The attendant responded with “Chili’s is good for steaks,” and proceeded to give directions that included pointing left when she said “turn right.” When asked what other options might exist, she looked straight at the staffers and said—with identical intonation—“Chili’s is good for steaks.” Dejected, the duo went to Chili’s and ordered burgers.
We were reminded of this story when we drove the 2009 Ford Focus SES with Sync, the Microsoft-developed, voice-activated vehicle-and-audio interface. Sync’s ability to understand human speech is impressive—in a prior test, it successfully responded to a request to call our former editor-in-chief, Csaba Csere, a name that has confounded subscribers and auto executives for decades. But other staffers have had mixed results, so we wondered: how would it recognize our voices?
A Cast of Characters
We started out with a good Yoda impersonation. Although the Jedi Master’s irregular weaving of words might confound Sync—which responds only to commands following the proper form, such as “play artist Golden Earring,” or “play track My Heart Will Go On” (you don’t have to add the parenthetical “Love Theme from Titanic”)—Sync had no trouble understanding Yoda’s requests. Be warned, if you ask for the Top Gun anthem by artist, you’ll have to ask Sync to “play artist Harold Faltermeyer and Steve Stevens.” Asking for just Harold Faltermeyer won’t get you anywhere.
Sync also understood our best impressions of two of our favorite Jerky Boys characters, Sol Rosenberg and Tarbash the Egyptian Magician, as well as a Brooklyn accent as demonstrated by Jocko Johnson. It struggled with your basic talking-horse voice—a combination of whinnying and talking—recognizing only about 70 percent of the commands. Will Ferrell’s Jacob Silj, the voice-immodulated Saturday Night Live “Weekend Update” shouter, on the other hand, had a 100-percent success rate.
Sync’s standard practice when uncertain about a request is to present a menu of options. When the horse asked for The Who, Sync offered the following options: Gary Allan, Phil Collins, and Van Halen. None of those sound like “The Who” to us, but maybe they do to Bill Gates.
Shrieking, Screaming, and Being Hacked with a Machete. Plus, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Silj’s voice immodulation inspired a trio of different screams. We started with a basic scream, which Sync understood just fine. But when we puffed up for a window-bulging bellow, the system ignored us. Then we commanded “Play artist Talking Heads” in a crying/screaming help-I’m-being-attacked-by-a-psycho-killer horror-movie shriek, which Sync understood. So if the Scream killer ever appears in the back seat of your Focus, you’ll be able to order Sync to call 911 while keeping both hands safely on the wheel. Incidentally, Sync works perfectly at 75 mph with all windows down in dense traffic.
A thorough test of any voice-activated system would be un-American without gauging its sensitivity to the range of international accents possessed by American drivers. Sync understood our best attempt at a Chinese accent, as well as butch German caricature, but only begrudgingly accepted orders from an effete German. French was flat-out denied, as was a squeaky English accent. A deeper, Churchillian cadence had better success, perhaps because Winston’s eloquence makes him universally recognizable.
Hey, I Know That Guy
From there, we moved into American social stereotypes, where we had 100 percent success with hillbilly, high-school jock and nerd, that annoying woman from your office, and voice-cracking teen. Sync’s soothing female persona also understood a male robot voice and our best impression of herself. Understanding herself gives Sync a distinct advantage over many in our office, who will quite possibly never figure themselves out.
So, how else can you have fun in a Focus? Chili’s is good for steaks.
VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, front-wheel-drive, 5-passenger, 4-door sedan
PRICE AS TESTED: $22,305 (base price: $18,560)
ENGINE TYPE: DOHC 16-valve inline-4, aluminum block and head, port fuel injection
Displacement: 121 cu in, 1999cc
Power (SAE net): 140 bhp @ 6000 rpm
Torque (SAE net): 136 lb-ft @ 4250 rpm
TRANSMISSION: 4-speed automatic
Wheelbase: 102.9 in Length: 175.0 in Width: 67.8 in Height: 58.6 in
Curb weight: 2830 lb
C/D TEST RESULTS:
Zero to 60 mph: 10.2 sec
Zero to 100 mph: 34.3 sec
Zero to 130 mph: 5.9 sec, if you drop it from an airplane*
Street start, 5–60 mph: 10.8 sec
Standing ¼-mile: 17.6 sec @ 80 mph
Top speed (governor limited): 112 mph
Braking, 70–0 mph: 189 ft
Roadholding, 300-ft-dia skidpad**: 0.79 g
EPA city/highway driving: 24/33 mpg
C/D observed: 25 mpg
*In a vacuum.