2014 Ford Fiesta

DEARBORN, Mich. — The Ford folks at the 2014 Fiesta staging area couldn't stop talking about the high-performance Fiesta ST due in U.S. showrooms later this year with a turbocharged 1.6-liter four-cylinder pumping out 197 horsepower. It's truly a small car juggernaut with the ability to hit 60 mph in the mid-six-second range and carve up a canyon road in sports car style. The Fiesta ST should give such nameplates as the Fiat 500 Abarth and the Mini Cooper S a real run.

But perhaps nearly as impressive — when compared to the first-year model of the current iteration Fiesta we drove in 2011 — is the standard version of the refreshened 2014 model.

It gets an exterior face-lift (now wearing the Aston Martin-derived Ford face), more standard features, a revised interior that includes upgraded materials (the cloth seats look terrific), and a new list of optional features that until recently have been relegated to bigger and more expensive cars including MyFordTouch, navigation, heated front seats, leather upholstery, power moonroof, keyless ignition, and a rearview camera.

We came away from a test drive impressed not only with the updated interior digs and the worthwhile features, but with the car's handling and performance capabilities. The standard-engine Fiesta sporting a 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine (the same powerplant found in the Fiesta from 2011-2013) is certainly capable compared to segment competitors. But it's the overall handling, the little cars agility and point-and-shoot capability that will bring grins to the guy who purchases the car for price and family utility. It's a bonus not found on such entries as the Honda Fit and Hyundai Accent.

The ST is the new Fiesta gold standard, but the S, SE and Titanium trims promise their own fun and excitement in addition to excellent fuel mileage measured at 29 mpg city, 39 highway with the new six-speed automated manual transmission and 27/38 with the five-speed manual.

We drove the five-speed manual and found it an easy, precise shifter. The pedals have been moved slightly farther apart for better feel and control. This Fiesta definitely falls on the side of "driver's car" in the economy sub-compact segment.

Forward momentum feels good in stop and start situations, but the Fiesta — although competitive with other segment vehicles — is still not going to win any awards in running from a dead stop to 60 mph, which we estimate to be around 9 seconds. For most who will choose the automatic over the manual, figure about 10 seconds.

The Fiesta continues to be offered in sedan and hatchback (five-door) formats. Only the hatchback was available for us to drive, but that would be our emphatic recommendation, especially for small families. Its utility outweighs the sedan and, frankly, the sleek hatch design works better, one of the most stylish sub-compacts on the road.

Space continues to be one of the Fiesta's shortcomings, however. The Fiesta's cargo capacity, for instance, trails chief competitors Honda Fit (57 cubic feet), Nissan Versa (58 cubic feet) and Scion xD (36 cubic feet). And what is lost in load capacity is not made up in passenger space. Rear seating accommodations are tight at best. Adult passengers will have to enter into serious negotiations with front-seaters to gain any sort comfort.

But Ford has noted these shortcoming and sought to make things more acceptable in several ways. For instance, the second-row seatbacks in the earlier Fiesta five-door model would not recline taking a toll on long-distance comfort. The Ford folks were quick to point out that the seatbacks in the 2014 Fiesta do, indeed, recline. We jumped in for a first-hand appraisal and found a new level of comfort.

The updated Fiesta has enough attributes to leave us convinced that it has the goods to continue standing tall in a growing, rapidly evolving and highly competitive segment.

Now we not so patiently await an ST to arrive for some really spirited driving.

Footnote: Available later this year, in addition to the ST, will be a 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine making 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque that should yield more than 40 mpg in highway driving. The tiny engine has already racked up several awards in Europe.

— Jim Meachen