Small mass-produced cars long have taken a back seat to larger vehicles in America. But now Ford hopes its 2011 Fiesta will convince Americans they need not sacrifice with a small, premium car.
In short, Ford hopes the stylish, upscale front-drive Fiesta will “redefine small-car customer expectations” and thus be a “game-changing product for North America.”
With unusually stiff upcoming federal fuel economy and emissions regulations, automakers fervently hope far more Americans will embrace small cars. Ford rivals also will be introducing upscale small models.
A lengthy test drive of the Fiesta over twisty, challenging mountain roads outside San Francisco and on freeways surrounding that city during a media preview of the car showed it to have European road manners, lively acceleration and sparkling fuel economy.
Indeed, the Fiesta has projected best-in-class highway fuel economy of up to 40 mpg on highways and 30 mpg in the city with its small, but advanced, potent 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine. And this is no hybrid.
The car has a good global track record. Nearly 700,000 Fiestas have been in Europe and Asia. The car is essentially unchanged from the foreign version as part of Ford’s new “global” marketing plan.
“In Europe, across North America and in the Asia Pacific region, customers are looking for a distinctively designed small car that offers world-class quality, convenience, comfort and connectivity,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president for global product development.
The Fiesta went on sale as a 2011 models in the summer of 2010 as a four-door sedan and four-door hatchback. Both have a 91-inch wheelbase, but the sedan is 173.6 inches long and the trimmer hatchback is 160.1 inches long. Both are built in Mexico.
Base prices are $13,320 to $17,120, excluding $675 freight.
Both sedan and hatchback have racy styling. The hatchback retains the Fiesta’s global grille opening, while the sedan uses Ford’s North American signature three-bar look.
“The hatchback says ‘sporty’ in a distinctly European way, while the four-door sedan uses kinetic design language to bring a forward-looking aesthetic to a more traditional profile,” said Ford designer Moray Callum.
Depending on the model, equipment includes remote keyless entry, power windows with driver’s one-touch-down functionality, automatic locking doors, message center and metallic painted interior accent trim, besides CD and MP3 capabilities for the audio system. There’s also a premium audio system with six speakers, unique floor console, heated outside mirrors, cruise control and 16-inch aluminum wheels.
The SES Sport and SEL offer an Upgrade Package with push-button engine start/stop and heated front seats. Also offered are a power sunroof and leather-trimmed seats, besides premium exterior colors, such as Yellow Blaze metallic tri-coat.
Vivid new Fiesta colors include Lime Squeeze, but I’ll take Tuxedo Black metallic.
Expected to be especially popular is Ford’s SYNC option offers turn-by-turn navigation and integrates a driver’s mobile phone with the Fiesta’s onboard, voice-activated communications and entertainment system.
Some fear small cars aren’t safe, but the Fiesta has seven air bags, including a driver’s knee air bag, anti-lock brakes with good pedal feel and a stability control system. The car’s rigid body shell contains lots of high-strength steel.
The Fiesta is fun to drive, although some may feel its quick, fuel-saving electric power steering feels a bit heavy under some conditions. The steering system includes Pull-Drift Compensation to help the car track true regardless of road crown or side wind conditions. Also, “Active Nibble Cancellation” helps detect and compensate for tire balance irregularity and the related steering wheel vibration, or “shimmy,” it can cause.
The Fiesta’s specially tuned front struts, bushings, dampers, stabilizer bars and a rear twist-beam axle kept it sure-footed and planted on the media drive’s twisting mountain roads. Go for the 15- and 16-inch wheel options fitted with grippy, all-season tires.
The ride should be supple on rough pavement, partly because the Fiesta has a long wheelbase, but only smooth test roads were encountered during the preview.
The heart of any car is its engine, and the Fiesta’s 120-horsepower four-cylinder has dual-overhead camshafts and twin independent variable camshaft timing for continuously optimized camshaft “phasing” for throttle response, performance and flexibility.
Being small, the engine calls for lots of revs for the best performance, and that leads to lots of shifting with the manual transmission in the city for the best performance.
But the four-cylinder doesn’t get too noisy because the Fiesta is packed with sound-insulation material. It often feels like a larger car because it has none of the typical noise generated by many small, fuel-stingy autos. Special padding behind the instrument panel and foam baffles inside body pillars help keep the Fiesta quiet. Even the headliner material on the inside roof was specified for its sound-deadening qualities.
The engine works with a five-speed manual transmission or innovative PowerShift six-speed automatic. The manual’s shifter occasionally becomes notchy and the clutch throw is long, although its action is light.
The manual allows swift acceleration from a stop, responsive power at mid-range speeds and relaxed highway cruising in its overdrive fifth gear—although I often wished it had a sixth gear.
The automatic seldom made a wrong move, even during the preview’s demanding mountain driving. It provides the responsive performance of a manual shift with the convenience of a traditional automatic. But it gives better fuel efficiency than a traditional torque converter automatic or manual shift transmission.
Twin internal clutches keep PowerShift in constant mesh, always optimizing for maximum responsiveness and fuel efficiency, depending on engine speed, vehicle speed and input from the driver’s foot on the accelerator pedal. It’s a dual dry-clutch transmission, operating with sealed internal lubrication, reducing friction and adding to fuel economy.
The interior has soft, boldly sculpted surfaces, contrasting colors and comfortable, supportive materials. Gauges are easily read, and the instrument panel’s center stack is designed to feel as useful as the keypad on a mobile phone, although some controls seemed too small. Front cupholders are handy, but placement of power window controls on the driver’s door sometimes caused me to open a rear window instead of a front one.
The front-seat area is roomy, with comfortable, supportive bucket seats. Higher-line Fiesta interiors look especially good with leather that has sporty contrast accent color piping. For what it’s worth, ambient lighting allows a driver to “maximize the mood” with seven complementary colors for interior accent lighting. However, the rear seat area doesn’t give tall occupants much room to spare.
A low, wide opening allows easy entry to the large cargo area. Split 60/40 rear seatbacks can be flipped forward to enlarge that area, but don’t sit entirely flat. And the sedan’s pass-through area from the trunk to the rear seat is only moderately large.
Will the Fiesta be a “game changer” car in America? For one thing, watch gasoline prices.
Dan Jedlicka, the former car reviewer for the Chicago Sun-Times, has been an automotive journalist for more than 40 years. The read more of his work, visit: www.danjedlicka.com.
Article Last Updated: May 31, 2013.
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A sports, travel and business journalist for more than 45 years, James has written the new car review column The Weekly Driver since 2004.
In addition to this site, James writes a Sunday automotive column for The San Jose Mercury and East Bay Times in Walnut Creek, Calif., and a monthly auto review column for Gulfshore Business, a magazine in Southwest Florida.
An author and contributor to many newspapers, magazines and online publications, James has co-hosted The Weekly Driver Podcast since 2017.