Versus the competiton:
Ford says the Fiesta is Europe’s best-selling car so far this year, but there hasn’t been a U.S. model that has carried that name since 1980. What’s more, America is not Europe, and despite an uptick in entry-level models, our tolerance for the tiny car remains in doubt. Ford wagers this: The new Fiesta is nimble and fuel efficient, sharply styled and well appointed. But in a segment where some competitors have managed to fit big room into a small car, this one remains cramped.
In effect, the Fiesta has plenty of sizzle — but you’ll have to give up some space. My prediction? America is about to get a little more European.
With a manual or automatic transmission, the front-wheel-drive Fiesta sedan comes as a sedan or hatchback. Sedan trims comprise the S, SE or SEL; the hatchback comes as an SE or SES. Click here to compare them.
Another automaker, another buzzword. Hyundai calls its design ethos “fluidic sculpture”; Ford makes a big deal out of the Fiesta’s “kinetic styling.” Kinetic is hardly new — in recent years PR scribes have attributed it to cars from the Nissan 370Z to the Acura ZDX — but, true to form, it works here. The Fiesta’s rising beltline and sharp nose give the sense of movement; its short overhangs and taut sheet metal look as European as … well, the European Fiesta that’s been sold globally since late 2008. This is not some watered-down U.S. version, as the Ford Focus has been for much of the past decade. It looks good.
You wouldn’t think it by the Fiesta’s narrow stance, but it’s actually slightly wider than competitors including the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa. Its 34.4-foot turning circle, however, ties the Fit for worst among that group.
The base Fiesta S has body-colored door handles and mirrors — a premium touch, given its sub-$14,000 price — while SE models add a body-colored grille. The grille is slightly different between the sedan and hatch; check out the photos to see how they differ. Fifteen-inch alloy wheels are optional on the Fiesta SE. The SEL sedan and SES hatch get 16-inch alloys, along with some nice lighting elements.
The Fiesta’s sole offering, a 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter four-cylinder, moves the car capably around town; drive solo, and this should suffice for all your local errands. Getting up to highway speeds requires a steady prod on the accelerator, and uphill stretches call up the engine’s full reserves to maintain speed, but this is the norm in the entry-level class.
The five-speed manual has medium throws and a light clutch, but I wonder why Ford didn’t offer a six-speed. Curvy mountain roads had me swapping second and third gear, which are just too far apart. Wind out second to get some satisfying high-rev punch, then third dumps you to a feeble 2,500 rpm. Fourth and fifth, in contrast, seem too close together: Earnest passing on the interstate can’t be done with either, forcing you down to an engine-howling third. Six manual gears, with more even spacing, would do a lot of good.
In a class where most competitors have four- or five-speed automatics, the Fiesta’s optional six-speed, dual-clutch auto is mechanically impressive. As is often the case for dual-clutch automatics, however, it isn’t the smoothest. Encounter stopped traffic on a city boulevard, and pulling out to pass requires a long gap — not because the Fiesta’s engine can’t muster the power, but because the automatic takes so bloody long to kick down. It eventually stumbles down two or three gears in quick succession, but others — the Versa’s CVT automatic, for one — are far more responsive. I noticed a few jarring transitions getting back to first gear in the Fiesta, and there’s no manual control to take matters into your own hands. Ford’s transmission is nowhere near the train wreck that Smart employs in the single-clutch ForTwo, but other automatics are more responsive.
That said, in undemanding situations, the automatic behaves like any other — and don’t forget the Fiesta’s price. This is an entry-level car, after all.
With a five-speed manual transmission, Ford expects the Fiesta to earn EPA ratings of 29/38 mpg (city/highway); the dual-clutch automatic will get an even better 30/38 mpg, an engineer estimated. An optional Superior Fuel Economy Package on the automatic-equipped Fiesta SE, which adds aerodynamic enhancements and low-rolling-resistance tires, bumps that up to 30/40 mpg. Those figures top the current class-leading Toyota Yaris — in the automatic SFE’s case, by around 10 percent. Impressive.
| Small-Car MPG Compared
| EPA Combined Mileage
| 2011 Ford Fiesta*
| 2010 Toyota Yaris
| 2010 Honda Fit
| 2011 Mazda2*
| 2010 Hyundai Accent
| 2010 Nissan Versa
| 2010 Kia Soul
As is common in this class, the Fiesta employs disc brakes up front and drums in back; antilock braking is standard. Though not as confidence-inspiring as the Fit’s brakes, the Fiesta’s pedal feels reasonably linear.
Like the larger Focus, the Fiesta’s European roots play out through its handling. The car steers precisely, darting from one corner to the next with remarkable aplomb — perhaps even approaching Mini Cooper territory. Body roll is limited, and short of the most demanding handling situations, the nose-heavy tendencies that most front-wheel-drive cars exhibit remain masked here.
Especially remarkable is how well the Fiesta tracks. Get up to 70 or 80 mph on the highway, and the steering wheel requires few corrections to stay on course. Ford endowed the car’s electric power steering — a setup popular these days for its fuel-efficiency benefits — with systems to compensate for crosswinds and even tire imbalance. The result: The subcompact Fiesta feels as settled on the highway as a compact or midsize car.
Highway wind noise is impressively quiet, and the engine doesn’t get loud until pushed hard. Our test cars came with 16-inch wheels and P195/50R16 tires, which picked up some road noise depending on the surface.
The suspension — independent up front and semi-independent in back, with similar tuning across all trim levels — responds skillfully to expansion joints or pavement ruts. The cushioning isn’t pillow-soft, but it dispatches bumps cleanly, with no reverberations afterward. Still, any shopper stepping out of a larger car may find the setup too firm. Poorly maintained highway sections send the Fiesta into an up-and-down rhythm that’s sure to fatigue road-trippers, and sudden dips in the road can bottom the car out unsettlingly. If you find the Fiesta too firm, check out the Versa; it has one of the smoother rides in this class.
With sharply raked contours and cell-phone-like center controls, the cabin is big on style. It’s a good thing there’s substance to back that up. Materials are handsome for this class, with high-rent stereo and climate controls. It’s a step in the right direction for Ford, whose self-described “poke-through” controls in cars from the Escape to the Focus have been hit-and-miss.
The upper dash is padded, which Ford claims is segment-exclusive. Car reviewers care way too much about padded dashboards, though, and I’m as guilty of it as the next guy. Far more important in most cars are the door panels, where arms and elbows regularly rest. The Fiesta’s are rock-hard, and I’m not sure why Ford didn’t invest there instead of on the dash. To the automaker’s credit, the Fiesta at least has cushioned armrests, front and rear. A lot of budget cars forgo that.
Upgraded cloth upholstery comes in SE, SES and SEL models, with leather optional in the SES and SEL. For a $15,000-odd car, these are some fine seats. The bottom cushions provide ample thigh support. The bolsters hold you in on curvy roads without pinching your sides getting in and out. The optional leather feels deserving of a $25,000 model, though driving enthusiasts will want to stick with the grippier cloth.
Either way, taller drivers won’t care; rather, they simply won’t fit. The driver’s seat height adjustment pumps up on a forward plane, and with the seat cranked to an appropriate height, I needed it all the way back in its tracks. The gearshift sits on a hefty outcropping, leaving little room for your knees to move. A lot of competitors, including the Versa and Fit, free that space up by mounting the gearshift closer to the floor.
The standard tilt/telescoping steering wheel helps out, but I’m 5-foot-11, and anyone much over 6 feet may deem the Fiesta too small. Indeed, total passenger volume in both the sedan and hatchback is 85.1 cubic feet — that’s Yaris-sized, and some 5 to 10 cubic feet short of a Versa or Fit.
The rear seats sit low to the ground. Adults may find their heads touching the ceiling and knees digging deeply into the front seats, which at least have plenty of give for such situations. The Fiesta sedan has a competitive 12.8 cubic feet of volume, but the hatchback’s 15.4 cubic feet trails most competing hatches, in some cases considerably. Fold the seats down, and the Fiesta’s 26 cubic feet of maximum cargo room trails all but the Yaris.
| Cargo Volume (Cubic Feet)
| 2010 Honda Fit
| 2010 Kia Soul
| 2010 Nissan Versa
| 2010 Hyundai Accent
| 2011 Ford Fiesta
| 2011 Mazda2
| 2010 Toyota Yaris
Optional on the SE and standard on the SEL or SES, Ford’s latest version of its Sync infotainment system incorporates turn-by-turn navigation via any Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone. Pair your phone with your car on Ford’s SyncMyRide.com website, hit Sync’s voice button on the turn-signal stalk and request directions, and Ford’s data affiliates will send turn-by-turn directions to any address or point of interest (a nearby Starbucks, for example) to the display above the radio. Sync now includes a GPS module, so it can alert you if you make a wrong turn and reconnect to Ford’s data partners for revised directions.
Rather than connecting you to a live operator — like the Directions & Connections service from GM’s OnStar — Sync picks up your directions by voice-command. That requires a certain level of specificity: With OnStar, you can tell an operator you’d like to go to 3rd and Jefferson, and he or she will pull up your options; with Sync, you may need to know that it’s 3rd Street and Jefferson Avenue. Ford’s system works off your cell phone, so it will use a minute or so of your voice plan, a Ford spokesman told me. It does not require using your data plan. Sync’s directions are free for three years and $60 a year thereafter; OnStar-equipped GM vehicles usually offer only a yearlong subscription, and Directions & Connections costs a hefty $299 a year.
Sync also offers USB compatibility with iPods and other MP3 players, with voice activation to pull up any songs. Bluetooth smartphones can also connect through streaming audio. Ford’s latest AppLink feature allows BlackBerry and Google Android smartphones to run hands-free versions of Pandora, Stitcher and Twitter module OpenBreak. Next year it will also work with the iPhone. Check out more on AppLink here.
The Fiesta has yet to be crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Seven airbags, including a driver’s knee airbag, are standard; so are antilock brakes and an electronic stability system. Click here for a full list. The stability system is notable: It’s standard on about half the cars in this class, though that could well improve come the 2011 model-year changeover this fall. Stability control will be required industrywide for 2012.
The Fiesta S sedan starts at $13,320 — hardly the $10,000 bargain bin the Versa and Hyundai Accent offer, but the Fiesta comes with standard air conditioning, power mirrors and locks and an AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary MP3 jack. Ford expects most buyers to get the Fiesta SE, which runs $14,320; it adds power windows, painted dashboard trim, a trip computer, a CD player and remote keyless entry. Add $800 if you want an SE hatchback, which isn’t available in S trim.
The SEL sedan ($16,320) or SES hatchback ($17,120) top things off. Both add Ford’s Sync system and a USB/iPod input, alloy wheels, cruise control and a leather-wrapped steering wheel with audio controls. Leather upholstery, heated front seats and a moonroof are among the options; the SFE package comes only on the Fiesta SE. On all trims the automatic adds $1,070 — a steep but justifiable price, given its technical proficiency. Many higher-level features are optional on lower trims, but it would be nice to see power windows as an à la carte option on the Fiesta S; the sight of crankers alone will likely send a lot of shoppers up to the $1,000-pricier Fiesta SE.
Load a Fiesta up with factory options, and it tops out around $20,000.
Small cars are all the rage overseas, but I remain skeptical as to the extent of America’s embrace. Two successive waves — a flurry of hatchbacks around 2007, followed by some boxier models circa 2009 — have fueled a respectable uptick in the segment’s popularity, but it’s still a blip on the radar. That the Fiesta is late to the game is obvious; I’m just not sure how much of a game is really going on.
That said, the waning recession could produce a permanent shift in shopping habits, and analysts point to the need to capture the all-important first-time buyer. The Fiesta has plenty of potential for just that. Throw the redesigned 2012 Focus alongside, and Ford could win big with young buyers this decade.