Performance Cars

I learned to drive like Ford's test drivers

Getting an idea of what it takes to pass Ford's Tier 4 driver certification.

Matt Leaver/Ford

It looks like something out of a post-apocalyptic action movie, with its stripped bodywork, giant tubular roll cage and enormous outriggers at each end. But the Buggy O' Fun -- which began life as a Ford Explorer Sport Trac -- is key to how Ford trains its test drivers to evaluate vehicles effectively and safety.

Ford Buggy O' Fun testing vehicle

This modified Explorer Sport Trac likes to drive on just two wheels.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

I'm at Ford's Dearborn Proving Grounds to meet with Ben Maher, who among other roles helps train Ford's testers, drivers and engineers to meet the company's rigorous internal driving certifications. The plan: put me through a half-day course to give me an idea of what's involved in becoming one of Ford's testers.

Since 2001, Ford has had a four-stage driving certification process for its employees. Tier 1 is essentially open to anyone with a driving license; it certifies an employee to drive on proving grounds property. Tier 2 requires extra training and testing, but allows employees to conduct subjective and objective tests. "That covers 95 percent of the business," says Maher, adding that about 11,000 Ford employees globally have Tier 2 certification.

Things get tougher for the next two levels. Tier 3 training is intended for staff who might need to conduct braking, stability control or other chassis tests, allowing them to do "at-limit" driving at speeds up to 150 miles per hour. There are about 315 active Tier 3 drivers within Ford. Tier 4, meanwhile, is even more exclusive, with about 20 active drivers holding that certification within the company. It allows for high center-of-gravity tests, limit-testing while towing a trailer and "limit off-road" test -- essentially the most extreme types of driving Ford would ever require from its testers.

Ford Performance Mustang FP350S

Driving Mustangs fast is tons of fun, but the goal is to teach test drivers good, safe habits behind the wheel.

Matt Leaver/Ford

"They're able to jump from platform to platform unlimited," Maher says of Tier 4s. To make the move up to that class, drivers must hold a Tier 3 license for at least five years, be nominated by their manager to make the jump for a "legitimate business purpose," and undergo about 80 hours of training and testing with someone like Ben.

The goal of the certification process is, above all else, safety. Not everyone is qualified to safely perform some of Ford's most rigorous tests, and the tiered licensing system makes sure that, for instance, "You don't have someone that runs a computer model then decides they're going to go run around on the track" without the appropriate skills to do so.

My introduction to Tier 4 begins on a wet skidpad in a Mustang GT which has had its rear tires swapped for winter rubber. The goal is simple enough: lap a circle of cones, get the car sliding and maintain that drift for an entire lap. Ultimately, Tier 4 drivers have to be able to do that lap, then transition directly into sliding around an adjacent, smaller circle of cones.

Drifting Mustangs is fun and all, but the real point here is to teach drivers the instinctive reactions they would need to counteract a side while testing. If you can feel out the car's motions well enough to drift this circle, you should be able to keep a test vehicle in check if something goes wrong.

"What we're talking about a lot is self-preservation," says Maher. But it's also about re-training drivers' reflexes. On my first few laps, for instance, lift off the throttle as the car slides; Maher and his team work to get Tier 4 drivers to override any such panic reactions so they can stay in control. "You're trying to get them to change their driving patterns."

Next up is the aforementioned Buggy O' Fun. Maher and others developed the vehicle after Ford grappled with SUV rollover concerns in the late 1990s; it was a handy way to experiment with top-heavy vehicles. The Buggy was an Explorer Sport Trac but it's been heavily modified with heavy weights on the roof and more weights where the bed used to be that can be moved up or down to change the vehicle's center of gravity. Outriggers are intended to stop outright rollovers while the black external roll cage is there in case one does happen (the cage is scratch-free).

Ford Buggy O' Fun testing vehicle

Adding weight or moving it up and down can dramatically alter the Buggy's center of gravity -- making it more or less prone to tipping.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

The goal of this exercise is, again, safety. With its tippy nature, the Buggy can easily be kicked up onto two wheels during hard cornering. The trick, says Maher, is for Tier 4 drivers to be able to put the vehicle back down on four wheels safely without causing a trip-and-roll kind of crash. It's also important to be able to set all four wheels down gently so as not to break any suspension parts.

The Buggy redefines the words body roll, wallowing all over as I lap a painted circle faster and faster. Suddenly the Buggy tips even further as the two inside wheels lift off the ground. I straighten the wheel, the tires touch back down and all is right. Then it's the same process but through a slalom: as I pick up speed on each run, the Buggy leans more and more, lifting tires, until I eventually push really far and scrape one of the outriggers on the pavement. Hey, that's what they're there for, right?

Again, this test is entertaining for a visitor to try but serves a real purpose. After we're done, I see another Ford engineer putting a camouflaged crossover through lane-change maneuvers with weights strapped to the roof and outriggers on each bumper. Maher says the test can be used to see how braking or stability controls cope with heavily overloaded vehicles in extreme situations.

The highlight of the day, though, is getting behind the wheel of a Mustang race car. Specifically, the Ford Performance Shelby FP350S. It's a serious machine intended for SCCA racing series, packing a 5.2-liter cross-plane version of the GT350's crankshaft, fully adjustable suspension, a roll cage, ultra-snug race seats and a fire-suppression system. And with only 50 of them built for customers for the 2017 model year, it's safe to say I won't have another chance behind the wheel.

Unlike most customer cars, this FP350S has a passenger seat so Maher can strap in next to me, as well as a noise-cancelling intercom system so I can hear his tutelage in my helmet over the roar of the unmuffled V8. I head out onto a big expanse of concrete where a handful of cones define a small autocross course and start lapping.

The FP350S is a real beast of a machine, in part because it's ferociously quick. Ford doesn't quote specific output figures for the V8 but Maher says it's over 500 horsepower. The racing tires deliver tremendous grip through bends, while the AP Racing brakes clamp down to slow the car in an instant. Building speed as I lap again and again is a riot, and I genuinely feel like I'm building up a solid pace and taking advantage of the car's abilities. Until, that is, Maher takes me for a hot-lap thrill ride on Ford's handling course, where his knowledge of both the car and circuit show how much I was leaving on the table.

Though the FP350S is not cheap -- Ford listed the MSRP of each of the 50 cars sold as $114,900 -- the automaker did endeavor to keep costs reasonable wherever possible. For instance, as many parts as possible, including the brake master cylinder, ABS pump and radiator, are all stock Mustang parts. That frees up money for developing things like adjustable suspension camber plates, the adjustable rear wing and all sorts of other upgrades over the street car.

Ford Performance Mustang FP350S

This version of the GT350's 5.2-liter V8 uses a traditional cross-plane crank, unlike the street car's flat-plane one.

Jake Holmes/Roadshow

The goal of Tier 4 students driving cars like this is two-fold. First, it's to ensure a tester can get the maximum out of any car: they must be within 2.5 percent of their instructor's lap time to pass Tier 4 certification (within 4.5 percent for Tier 3). But far more important is consistency: can this driver set pretty much the exact same lap time repeatedly? Consistent drivers allow engineers to more easily evaluate how mechanical tweaks are changing a test car's performance, Maher says.

While Maher didn't record any lap times, he did note I was the only journalist (two had driven the car a day prior) not to spin the FP350S. I'll let you decide whether that's because I wasn't pushing as hard or because I was more skillful.

OK, so I didn't qualify as a Ford Tier 4 driver; the entire training course takes about 80 hours of work spread out over several weeks, so I'd have a lot more work to do if I wanted to come close to passing. But the half-day experience was a great insight into how seriously Ford takes safety for its test drivers. In fact, Maher says about 35 percent of drivers who take the Tier 3 test fail it. In other words, you can rest assured that the automaker only puts its most qualified drivers at the helm to test your next new car.

Ford Performance Mustang FP350S

I'd need a lot more seat time and practice before I passed Ford's Tier 4 certification.

Matt Leaver/Ford