Ford says the Fiesta is Europe's best-selling car so far this year, but there hasn't been a U.S. model that has carried that name since 1980. What's more, America is not Europe, and our tolerance for the tiny car remains in doubt. Ford wagers this: The new Fiesta is nimble and fuel efficient, sharply styled and well appointed.
The Fiesta has plenty of sizzle -- but you'll have to give up some space. My prediction? America is about to get a little more European.
With a manual or automatic transmission, the front-wheel-drive Fiesta sedan comes as a sedan or hatchback. Sedan trims comprise the S, SE or SEL; the hatchback comes as an SE or SES.
The Fiesta's rising beltline and sharp nose give the sense of movement; its short overhangs and taut sheet metal look as European as ... well, the European Fiesta that's been sold globally since late 2008. This is not some watered-down U.S. version. It looks good.
You wouldn't think it by the Fiesta's narrow stance, but it's actually slightly wider than competitors. It shows in its 34.4-foot turning circle, the biggest of its class.
The base Fiesta S has body-colored windows and mirrors -- a premium touch, given its sub-$14,000 price -- while SE models add a body-colored grille. The grille is slightly different between the sedan and hatch. Fifteen-inch alloy wheels are optional on the Fiesta SE. The SEL sedan and SES hatch get 16-inch alloys, along with some nice lighting elements.
Get-up & go
The Fiesta's sole offering, a 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, moves the car capably around town. Getting up to highway speeds requires a steady prod on the accelerator, and uphill stretches call up the engine's full reserves to maintain speed, but this is the norm in the entry-level class.
The Fiesta's optional six-speed, dual-clutch auto is mechanically impressive. As is often the case for dual-clutch automatics, however, it isn't the smoothest. Encounter stopped traffic on a city boulevard, and pulling out to pass requires a long gap -- not because the Fiesta's engine can't muster the power, but because the automatic takes so bloody long to kick down. That said, in undemanding situations, the automatic behaves like any other.
With a five-speed manual transmission, Ford expects the Fiesta to earn EPA ratings of 29/38 mpg (city/highway); the dual-clutch automatic will get an even better 30/38 mpg, an engineer estimated. An optional Superior Fuel Economy Package on the automatic-equipped Fiesta SE, which adds aerodynamic enhancements and low-rolling-resistance tires, bumps that up to 30/40 mpg. Those figures top the current class-leader -- in the automatic SFE's case, by around 10 percent.
As is common in this class, the Fiesta employs disc brakes up front and drums in back; antilock braking is standard. The Fiesta's pedal feels reasonably linear.
Handling and ride quality
The car steers precisely, darting from one corner to the next with remarkable aplomb. Body roll is limited, and short of the most demanding handling situations, the nose-heavy tendencies that most front-wheel-drive cars exhibit remain masked here.
Especially remarkable is how well the Fiesta tracks. Get up to 70 or 80 mph on the highway, and the steering wheel requires few corrections to stay on course. Ford endowed the car's electric power steering -- a setup popular these days for its fuel-efficiency benefits -- with systems to compensate for crosswinds and even tire imbalance. The result: The subcompact Fiesta feels as settled on the highway as a compact or midsize car.
Highway wind noise is impressively quiet, and the engine doesn't get loud until pushed hard. Our test cars came with 16-inch wheels and P195/50R16 tires, which picked up some road noise depending on the surface.
The suspension -- independent up front and semi-independent in back, with similar tuning across all trim levels -- responds skillfully to expansion joints or pavement ruts. The cushioning isn't pillow-soft, but it dispatches bumps cleanly, with no reverberations afterward.
With sharply raked contours and cell-phone-like center controls, the cabin is big on style -- and there's substance to back that up. Materials are handsome for this class, with high-rent stereo and climate controls. It's a step in the right direction for Ford.
Upgraded cloth upholstery comes in SE, SES and SEL models, with leather optional in the SES and SEL. For a $15,000-odd car, these are some fine seats. The bottom cushions provide ample thigh support. The bolsters hold you in on curvy roads without pinching your sides getting in and out. The optional leather feels deserving of a $25,000 model, though driving enthusiasts will want to stick with the grippier cloth.
Either way, taller drivers won't care; rather, they simply won't fit. The driver's seat height adjustment pumps up on a forward plane, and with the seat cranked to an appropriate height, I needed it all the way back in its tracks. The gearshift sits on a hefty outcropping, leaving little room for your knees to move.
The standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps out, but I'm 5-foot-11, and anyone much over 6 feet may deem the Fiesta too small. Total passenger volume in both the sedan and hatchback is 85.1 cubic feet.
The rear seats sit low to the ground. Adults may find their heads touching the ceiling and knees digging deeply into the front seats, which at least have plenty of give for such situations. The Fiesta sedan has a competitive 12.8 cubic feet of volume; the hatchback's 15.4 cubic feet trails most competing hatches. Fold the seats down, and the Fiesta offers 26 cubic feet of maximum cargo room.
Optional on the SE and standard on the SEL or SES, Ford's latest version of its Sync infotainment system incorporates turn-by-turn navigation via any Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone. Pair your phone with your car on Ford's SyncMyRide.com Web site, hit Sync's voice button on the turn-signal stalk and request directions, and Ford's data affiliates will send turn-by-turn directions to any address or point of interest (a nearby Starbucks, for example) to the display above the radio. Sync now includes a GPS module, so it can alert you if you make a wrong turn and reconnect to Ford's data partners for revised directions.
Sync picks up your directions by voice-command. That requires a certain level of specificity: You may need to know that it's 3rd Street and Jefferson Avenue. Ford's system works off your cell phone, so it will use a minute or so of your voice plan, a Ford spokesman told me. It does not require using your data plan. Sync's directions are free for three years and $60 a year thereafter.
Sync also offers USB compatibility with iPods and other MP3 players, with voice activation to pull up any songs. Bluetooth smartphones can also connect through streaming audio. Ford's latest AppLink feature allows BlackBerry and Google Android smartphones to run hands-free versions of Pandora, Stitcher and Twitter module OpenBreak. Next year it will also work with the iPhone.
Safety, features & pricing
The Fiesta has yet to be crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Seven airbags, including a driver's knee airbag, are standard; so are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. The stability system is notable: It's standard on about half the cars in this class, though that could well improve come the 2011 model-year changeover this fall. Stability control will be required industrywide for 2012.
The Fiesta S sedan starts at $13,320. It comes with standard air conditioning, power mirrors and locks and an AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. Ford expects most buyers to get the Fiesta SE, which runs $14,320; it adds power windows, painted dashboard trim, a trip computer, a CD player and remote keyless entry. Add $800 if you want an SE hatchback, which isn't available in S trim.
The SEL sedan ($16,320) or SES hatchback ($17,120) top things off. Both add Ford's Sync system and a USB/iPod input, alloy wheels, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. Leather upholstery, heated front seats and a moonroof are among the options; the SFE package comes only on the Fiesta SE. On all trims the automatic adds $1,070.
Load a Fiesta up with factory options, and it tops out around $20,000.
Fiesta in the market
The waning recession could produce a permanent shift in shopping habits, and analysts point to the need to capture the all-important first-time buyer. The Fiesta has plenty of potential for just that. Throw the redesigned 2012 Focus alongside, and Ford could win big with young buyers this decade.
2011 Ford Fiesta snapshotStarting MSRP $13,320 -- $17,120
EPA Fuel Economy:City: 29 -- 30Highway: 38 -- 40
Available Engines:119-hp, 1.6-liter I-4 (regular gas)
Available Transmissions:5-speed manual w/OD6-speed auto-shift manual w/OD
New or Notable* All-new subcompact model* Sedan and four-door hatch* Manual and automatic transmissions* Optional Sync system can run some smartphone apps* Seven airbags, stability control standard* Upscale options
What We Like* Handling* Low wind noise* Fuel efficiency* Cabin quality* Seat comfort* Safety features
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