Ford Fiesta — Back with a vengeance

 By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

The 2011 Ford Fiesta was born in Europe and carries all the best and some of the worst traits of B-segment European cars.

The cause for celebration, the good stuff far outweighs the minor annoyances in this nifty little car, which has been sold in Europe for decades and is in its sixth generation.

If the name Fiesta rings a bell (please don’t confuse it with the Festiva) it was last in the United States in 1980, with at best minimally modest results. The brand now returns Ford to the subcompact ranks in North America at a time when fuel efficiency is the thing and with gas prices always on the verge of rising from currently affordable (ha!) prices.

Subcompacts have traditionally faced a U.S. consumer that was just not interested in small. After the shock of $4-plus per gallon the concept became much more palatable to a far larger number of buyers and caught some automakers off guard. Those that could, including Ford, have once again reached out to their European operations to find an answer for the burgeoning B-segment growth in the U.S.

For Ford it was a natural move, already a part of the “One Ford” globalization plan that is wringing out substantial growth and success for the company. 

Now the award-winning Fiesta has been brought to our shores in pretty much the same form as those sold in European and Asian markets. It comes in two flavors — sedan and five-door hatchback — and in three trim levels for the sedan and two for the hatchback.

You may favor a sedan, perhaps for its styling, but we found the five-door hatch, which is a near match to the European version, taut with near flawless handling, and responsive to the most minute driver input to be our favorite.

We enjoyed the five-speed manual with its short throws and easy-to-shift demeanor. It will probably yield the most driving fun if you care to mix some weekend excitement with your daily family chores. That being said, we realize most people will opt for the very good — in fact, downright sophisticated for the class — six-speed automatic. You will have made a good choice, but note that the automatic adds $1,070 to the cost.

During a drive near Los Angeles last spring and spending several weeks with the cars on both coasts since, we found that the automatic-equipped hatch is well balanced, and handled the tight turns and sweeping switchbacks of our mountain and coastal drive routes with ease. Use of a low gear or the hill start assist tool kept the automatic from overworking and gear hunting.

Then there is the sedan. It is extraordinary what some added length to accommodate a trunk and an additional hundred pounds in the rear can do. The sedan lost the tight feel of the five-door; steering at the top was a bit sloppy and thereby taking a tad longer to accept the input. And while the suspension is identical the sedan’s performance was less athletic.

The sedan is a good looking car but it lacks the exciting look and charm of the five-door. But there is no doubt that the sedan will serve the purpose of a small family on a budget extremely well. The five-door will do the same but with more driving excitement. It all depends on how you want to attack the road.

The hatch is the more practical of the two because it holds more of the stuff of life. It makes for easier access and with the rear seatbacks folded, can be crammed with 26 cubic feet of cargo. Although the space between the hatch and the rear seats is slender, if packed correctly, 15.4 cubic feet of cargo can be accommodated. The sedan’s trunk will hold 12.8 cubic feet.

Truthfully space is one of the Fiesta’s shortcomings, the same problem that confronted the compact European-spec Ford Contour more than a decade ago. 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 was not made up in passenger space. Rear seating accommodations are tight at best. Adult rear seat passengers will have to enter into serious negotiations with those in front to gain any sort of comfort. And to make riding in back even more unrewarding, the seatbacks, which are set in a fairly upright position, do not recline.

Further, Ford made no allowance for the rear seat headrests when folding the seats flat. They stick against the back of the front seats unless removed and stored.

But it’s easy to forgive these shortcomings once behind the wheel experiencing the tight, slot-car feel of the suspension and steering. Surveying the cabin’s excellent fit and finish and quality materials can certainly be a mood elevator.

The dash is cutting-edge modern and at first glance seems overly done. But after just a few minutes behind the wheel the audio and climate control knobs and buttons become intuitive. Controls are well marked and easy to use. Our only complaint is that the center stack information readout tended to fade out in bright sunlight. Even with that it’s a classy job, well done.   

Pride in ownership is a big thing and Fiesta owners will have no qualms about proudly showing off their new purchase — inside and out — to friends and family.

All Fiestas come with a frugal 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder engine developing 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque. Performance from both transmissions — the automatic is actually a dual-clutch manual that provides for quicker gear changes than a standard automatic — is adequate and can be rewarding if the driver is aggressive in running into the higher reaches of the rev band. Zero to 60 has been measured at 9.3 seconds. It’s not a race car but has enough torque to keep you amused. If you long for more power, stop for a second and relish the Fiesta’s gas mileage rated by the EPA at a rather astounding 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway for the automatic and 28/37 for the manual.

The Fiesta sedan starts at $13,995 including destination charge but the base model is a bare-bones stripper that few people will consider. Most will opt for the mid-level SE starting at $14,995 for the sedan and $15,795 for the hatch. Standard equipment is generous and includes full power equipment, tilt and telescoping steering wheel, 16-inch wheels, and a four-speaker audio system with CD player. The SYNC multimedia voice-command system, which now includes turn-by-turn navigation, can be added to the SE trim for $1,480. It’s standard on the top line models.

While we are dismayed by the lack of interior space, the new Fiesta overall has such a great personality that if we were shopping for a subcompact, it would be at the top of our list.

Base price: $13,995; as driven, $18,095
Engine: 1.6-liter 4-cylinder
Horsepower: 120 @ 6,300 rpm
Torque: 112 pound-feet @ 5,000 rpm
Drive: front wheel
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Seating: 2/3
Wheelbase: 98 inches
Length: 173.6 inches
Curb weight: 2,583 pounds
Turning circle: 34.4 feet
Luggage capacity: 15.4 cubic feet
Cargo capacity: 26 cubic feet
Fuel capacity: 12 gallons (regular)
EPA rating: 37 mpg highway, 28 mpg city
0-60: 9.3 seconds (Car and Driver)
Also consider: Honda Fit, Kia Soul, Nissan Versa

The Good:
• Outstanding driving dynamics
• Quality fit and finish
• Excellent gas mileage

The Bad:
• Small cargo space

The Ugly:
• Very tight rear-seat quarters