In the never-ending search for greater fuel efficiency, the number three seems to be gaining ground. Three, as in three cylinders, instead of four. Many manufacturers have tried this approach, but none have pulled it off quite as convincingly as Ford, which now offers a three-cylinder, turbocharged 1.0-liter engine option in the Fiesta subcompact.
The result is an impressive boost in EPA ratings. The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder Fiesta with a five-speed manual transmission is rated at 28 miles per gallon in the city and 36 on the highway. The SFE, which is Ford’s designation for the three-cylinder EcoBoost engine with the same transmission, comes in at 31 miles per gallon in the city and 43 on the highway.
This gain in fuel efficiency doesn’t mean a reduction in performance. The smaller engine produces more power and torque than the base 1.6-liter four cylinder. Chalk up the improvement to the advantages of turbocharging and other upgrades in technology, such as direct fuel injection.
Not only does that mean that the Fiesta with the EcoBoost three-cylinder engine upgrade has the potential to out-hustle the larger four-cylinder model, it also does so with none of the traditional shortcomings of a three-cylinder; namely a lumpy idle and shrill exhaust tone. This three-cylinder feels like a four, and a smooth one at that.
Achieving this required some clever engineering. Ford reduced the potential for vibration with engine timing modifications and careful attention to the flywheel and front pulley, rather than resorting to expensive, heavy and friction enhancing balance shafts.
The ride is relaxed over bumps and surprisingly comfortable for a subcompact. Noise levels are reasonable on the highway and the Fiesta tracks nicely, even when being buffeted by crosswinds. When the road throws the car a curve, the Fiesta answers with nicely weighted and communicative steering. Lean is apparent and the tires, likely chosen for fuel efficiency rather than ultimate grip, signal their limitations during spirited driving, warning the driver that their limits are being approached.
The front seats feature bottom cushions that feel short to a taller driver. Nonetheless, comfort is reasonable. The back seat is a lost cause for adults when the front seats are pushed back. Legroom quickly becomes scarce.
Two body styles are offered: the sedan, which Ford loaned my wife Paula and me for this review, and the more practical hatchback.
However, there are some downsides. Ford only offers the three-cylinder motor with the manual transmission, which was a deal-breaker for many people who expressed interest in the vehicle. The engine carries a price tag of $995, but is only offered on the upscale SE models. Ford also limits options. When I went on the Ford website and specified that I wanted the factory navigation option, a screen popped up that told me this would not be a problem; I just had to give up the EcoBoost engine. Question for Ford: Why is the three-cylinder motor incompatible with navigation?
The lack of an automatic transmission option suggests that the market for this car will be limited. However, this Fiesta has a lot going for it for those who don’t mind do-it-yourself gear selection. It’s main appeal is fuel economy. We averaged 40.8 miles per gallon in our week with the vehicle. There are diesels and hybrids that don’t do as well.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta with the three-cylinder engine has finally arrived. Ford has been talking about bringing this engine to the United States for more than a year and now that it’s here, it was definitely worth the wait.
This Fiesta is as easy to drive as the Fiestas my husband Jim and I have had in the past. The engine starts instantly and idles so smoothly and quietly I actually had to check the tachometer to be sure that it was running. You don't even have to hold the key in the start position while the engine is cranking. Just turn to the start position and immediately release the key. The starting motor cranks until the engine starts.
The clutch and shift linkage are easy to work and acceleration is adequate. Jim found it took exactly ten seconds to reach 60 miles per hour.
Unlike many cars with a small engine, highway cruising is relaxed. I noted only 2,000 rpm on the tachometer at 60 miles per hour when in fifth gear. Other cars we’ve tried with small engines run at around 3,000 rpm at that speed, which can add to the noise levels and be tiring on a long trip.
It’s also rewarding to keep an eye on the trip computer while traveling on the highway. The average fuel economy readout shows ever higher numbers as the trip progresses. We topped off at about 44 miles per gallon. Around town, without really paying much attention to fuel-efficient driving, the trip computer still displayed 33-plus mile per gallon readings.
This car is well suited to a smaller driver. The adjustments for the seat, mirrors, steering wheel and shoulder belt height all allowed an ideal seating position. While Jim thought the bottom seat cushion was short, I thought it was perfect. The electric mirrors are even adjustable with the key off.
The steeply raked windshield means that it would be a long reach to a portable GPS device with a typical suction cup mounting. Note that a factory-installed navigation system is not available with this engine. This car also needs a backup camera. The view to the rear is limited for a shorter driver.
There’s a lot to like about the Fiesta. The extra $995 for the three-cylinder EcoBoost engine is also easily justified. With gasoline at $4 per gallon, and assuming you’d get 30 miles per gallon in the four-cylinder version and match our 40 mpg in the EcoBoost model, this option would pay for itself in about 30,000 miles.
Engines: 1.6 1.0 1.6 Turbo (ST model)
HP: 120 123 197
Torque: 112 125 202
EPA Manual: 28/36 31/43 26/35
EPA Automatic: 27/37
Starts at: $14,400
Next week: Infiniti Q50
Jim MacPherson is the host of "The Car Doctor" show Sundays at noon on WTIC-AM. Paula MacPherson is his wife and new-car review partner. Send comments, questions, suggestions in care of Special Publications, Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more automotive news, check out the Cars.com On The Road section each Wednesday in The Courant.