Editor's note: This review was written in October 2012 about the 2012 Ford Fiesta. Little of substance has changed with this year's model. To see what's new for 2013, click here, or check out a side-by-side comparison of the two model years.
Ford resurrected an old name for its subcompact car when the Fiesta returned to the U.S. for the 2011 model year. Like David Hasselhoff, this tiny car is a big hit in Europe, where it's been on sale for years, but Americans' affection for subcompacts and permed '80s icons is a fickle thing. Does the Fiesta have what it takes to make it in the U.S.?
The 2012 Ford Fiesta has competitive pricing, great fuel economy and an upscale cabin, but those attributes don't trump its unrefined transmission, lack of cargo space and frustrating multimedia system.
The Fiesta is again available in hatchback and sedan body styles for 2012; we tested a hatchback model in a midlevel SE trim. Not much has changed since 2011; compare both years here.
The Fiesta goes up against several hatchbacks that offer more cargo room for a similar price, namely the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa. See all three compared here.
The Fiesta's Transmission Is No Party
Despite popular perceptions, subcompact cars aren't always slow. In this case, though, the shoe fits. The Fiesta has enough pep from a stop, but once you get on the highway you'll be begging for more. It feels very weak and takes its time gathering speed for passing and merging.
The 1.6-liter, four-cylinder engine makes a respectable 120 horsepower; competitors offer similar output. The albatross is Fiesta's optional six-speed, dual-clutch automatic transmission, which feels and sounds jerky and clunky. Shift timing is also all over the place: erratically quick at low speeds, but on the highway … wait for it, wait for it … kickdowns are delayed. Remember learning how to drive stick? The way the six-speed bogs and surges should feel familiar — only this time, you can blame the car. Low speed, stop-and-go traffic brings out the worst in its lurchy nature.
If the automatic is a deal-breaker, those who like the Fiesta's size and don't want to drive a manual should check out its Mazda2 sibling. Though it offers less horsepower, the Mazda2's four-speed automatic is better-behaved.
Great fuel economy takes some of the sting out. During a 378-mile trip, I averaged 37.6 mpg. The automatic Fiesta is EPA-rated at 29/39 mpg city/highway; the standard five-speed manual gets 1 mpg less on the highway. In highway mileage, the Fiesta blows away the competition. An automatic-transmission Fit is rated 28/35 mpg, while the Versa hatch with a CVT is rated 28/34 mpg.
The Fiesta is also ahead of the pack in terms of ride comfort. Though the ride is firm-ish, it feels compliant compared with the super-stiff Fit. It's also got better bump absorption than either the Fit or the Versa. Noise levels are high, however; the engine is loud, and road noise and tire thrum fill the cabin at highway speeds.
Maneuverability is great. It's agile, fun to sling through corners, and has reactive, natural-feeling steering. A true city car, it negotiates narrow streets well and squeezes into parking spots with ease.
Cabin Materials & Controls
The hatchback looks fresh and fun on the outside, but the interior is filled with both hits and misses. It beats rivals in materials quality; richer-looking and richer-feeling plastic and chrome trim put it way ahead of the Fit and Versa, whose interiors look bland and feel cheap.
The train goes off the tracks when it comes to the seats. They're comfortable enough, but they look borrowed from the booths of an '80s bowling alley — the cheesy blue patterns in our test car were dated and loud, especially compared with the tasteful, black, padded plastic surfaces and chrome pieces. To be fair, there are other interior color palettes to choose from, and a few are more reserved. Leather seats — an uncommon option in this class — are available on uplevel models for $825.
The climate controls are on the hit list. They're large and easy to use, and the pop-out gauge cluster and winged instrument panel look neat, too, though some audio functions get lost in the design and are confusing: There's no easy way to input radio channel presets, for example.
Things go from complicated to frustrating with Ford's Sync voice-activated multimedia system, which is optional on the Fiesta. It often didn't recognize my spoken commands, and I frequently had to repeat simple ones like "Bluetooth." Then, after streaming music from my Android phone for hours, it would lose the device and I'd have to start over.
Putting the Sub in Subcompact
At just 160.1 inches long, the Fiesta is small, so it should come as no surprise that it feels tiny inside. It trails the competition when it comes to passenger and cargo room. Up front, however, I had enough space, as did my 6-foot-tall passenger.
The backseat is where it gets tight, with just 31.2 inches of legroom and 37.2 inches of headroom. Kids should fit fine, but adults will need more space in both areas to avoid scraping the ceiling and knocking the seatbacks. The Fit and Versa have it; each offers more than an inch of additional headroom and several inches more legroom. The Versa's 38 inches of rear legroom is impressive for this class. Granted, both hatchbacks are a tad longer — the Fit is 161.6 inches and the Versa 169.1 — but both feel roomier still.
Your cramped backseat passengers won't be all that happy with the storage situation, either. There's only one cupholder, one seatback map pocket and no door pockets. Things aren't much better up front, where there are two cupholders and a tiny glove box.
Pack light, because there's just 26 cubic feet of cargo space, and that's with the seats folded. The cargo hold is pretty narrow, but I was able to fit a small stroller in it. The Fit and Versa hatchbacks easily trump the Fiesta, with 57.3 and 50.4 cubic feet, respectively.
Features & Pricing
The Fiesta is smaller than the competition, but it's also cheaper. Hatchback versions start at $14,895 (all prices include destination charges). The Versa hatch starts at $15,450, and the Fit tops the list at $16,115. An automatic transmission is optional on all three and adds anywhere from $800 (Fit) to $1,200 (Versa). The Fiesta's hatch body style will cost you an extra $900 over the sedan, which starts at just $13,995.
The Fiesta comes standard with a couple of niceties some subcompacts lack, like a tilt and telescoping steering wheel and a driver's knee airbag. A navigation system isn't available for 2012, though, and both the Fit and Versa offer one.
Customers can have fun with some unique customization options, like an exterior graphics package ($375) or an ambient lighting package that allows you to illuminate parts of the interior in seven colors ($370).
Both the 2012 Fiesta body styles received an overall rating of four out of five stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Insurance Institute for Highway Safety testing, the Fiesta hatch earned Top Safety Pick status, receiving the highest score, Good, in all areas of testing.
The Fiesta has seven standard airbags, including a driver's knee airbag. Click here for a full list of safety features.
Visibility is fine straight back, but large backseat headrests get in the way. However, they conveniently flip down out of view when not in use. All Fiestas have standard blind spot mirrors incorporated into both side mirrors. I find them distracting; some people love them.
A cramped backseat and buried Latch anchors complicate child-safety seat installation. Click here for the full Car Seat Check.
Ford Fiesta in the Market
The Fiesta scored fifth place out of seven cars in Cars.com's $16,000 Subcompact Shootout, and the consensus there still stands: It "looks good both inside and out, but put it on the road and the driver is bound to be disappointed."
Eye-catching styling and great fuel economy can't make up for a lack of cargo space and an automatic transmission that really needs work. Subcompacts don't have to be slow, cramped and chintzy on the inside. For the most part, Ford got the last third of the recipe right. It must have missed the memo on the other two.