By Alex Kramer
- Exceptional ride quality for an economy car
- Precise steering and capable brakes
- Smooth clutch action
- Cheerful exterior design
- Solid build quality
- Could use a few more horsepower
- Tires start to protest way too early
- Interior is a bit cramped, even for a subcompact
- Exterior might be a bit too cute for some
Small is the new black, at least when it comes to automobiles. With the economy still lagging and consumers adjusting to what looks to be permanent $3 per gallon gas, the days of selling millions of large SUVs per year are over and small cars may just become the hottest segment of the market.
For once, American car manufacturers appear to have taken notice. Chrysler dealers will soon start selling the pint sized Fiat 500 and GM has several new small cars in the works, but it is Ford who is probably most well positioned to capitalize on this trend, with the new for America Fiesta subcompact now available and a fully redesigned Focus coming next year. We finally had the chance to thoroughly review the new Fiesta and although we aren’t completely bowled over, we could see quite a few people finding plenty to like in Ford’s European best-seller.
After our promising test drive of a Euro spec Fiesta last fall, we were anxious to find out if the American production version would retain the excellent driving manners and impressive build quality that folks have been enjoying across the pond for the past several years. Luckily, the Ford engineers left the good stuff alone and only made a few changes to the bumper so that the car would meet US safety standards.
Once behind the wheel of our Fiesta SE hatchback test car, we quickly recognized the responsive chassis and perfectly tuned suspension that had us smiling in the Euro Fiesta. Ride quality is far more refined then the average small economy car, with the suspension doing an excellent job of absorbing the bumps and dips in the road, to the point that you’ll often be wondering if you’re really driving a car that stickers at well under $20k.
The Fiesta handles pretty darn well too, primarily due to exceptional steering response and a well-composed chassis. Speed demons might wish for slightly stiffer shocks, as there is noticeable body roll when cornering, but throw the Fiesta into a series of S turns and you’ll be impressed with how easily the car changes direction, and even rotates a bit when cornering hard.
Unfortunately, our test car was shod with a set of rather tall and narrow Kumho all season tires, which started to protest way too early when trying to hustle through tight turns. This lack of grip is almost tragic given how capable the chassis feels. Wider, lower profile tires do come standard on the more expensive trim levels (SEL sedan and SES hatchback) and are a necessary option for anyone looking to unleash the Fiesta’s true sporting potential. Fortunately the brakes serve up a healthy dose of stopping power, which helped to bring back some of the confidence that the sketchy tires had taken away. The Fiesta also comes with traction and stability control, safety features not always found at this price level.
For now, the only available engine is a 1.6 L 4-cylinder that puts out a modest 119 hp and 109 lb ft torque, although there are rumors that Ford will offer a high performance Fiesta with one of its EcoBoost turbo motors under the hood in the future. The little engine does a decent job of scooting the car around, and she revs eagerly and smoothly to the redline, but get stuck under 4000 rpms and it will take a bit for things to get moving at anything resembling a fast pace. The upside to mediocre acceleration is excellent gas mileage and here the Fiesta doesn’t disappoint. After several hundred miles of mixed driving, much of it in hot weather with the a/c on, we still managed close to 35 mpg. Keep the speed at around 70 and you should be able to get close to 40 mpg on the freeway.
Our test car came with the standard 5 speed manual transmission, although we kind of wish we could have sampled the optional 6-speed PowerShift dual-clutch automatic that is also offered in the Fiesta. Fancy dual clutch transmissions have up until now been reserved mainly for exotic sports cars and luxury sports sedans, and their powerful engines. It would have been neat to see how this technology translates at a much lower price point and with a lot less horsepower. Luckily for spendthrifts (the auto is a $1k option) the manual tranny works perfectly fine, with the same silky smooth clutch we sampled last year and a shifter whose only weakness is a longish lever throw.
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