2011 Ford Fiesta
Base price: $13,320 – $17,120
MPG: 29 city/40 highway
- Exceptionally nice subcompact car
- Impressive build quality and standard features
- Looks great, hybrid-like fuel mileage
- Miniscule rear seat, limited cargo space
- Doesn’t work for taller drivers
- Expensive when equipped with desirable options
By Jim Prueter
Ford’s new subcompact Fiesta bests Honda and Toyota
The last time Ford had a vehicle named Fiesta in dealer showrooms, Jimmy Carter was president. That was 1980, the last year Ford built the Fiesta, which was a response to the energy crisis triggered by the Arab-Israeli War in 1973 that created demand for smaller, fuel-efficient cars.
But small sub-compact cars have never caught on here in the U.S. like they have in Europe and elsewhere. Maybe it’s because gas is two and three times the price there that it is here, or that the offerings in this segment have been, overall, poorly built. Dodge Neon, Hyundai Excel, Ford Escort, Chevrolet Chevette and Cavalier were about as exciting as watching paint dry.
But things change, in particular the American economy. When headlines like “Foreclosures,” “Record high unemployment,” “$3 gasoline,” “Environmental impact,” and “Carbon footprint” started grabbing everyone’s attention, suddenly high fuel-economy hybrids and non-hybrid subcompacts became desirable, if not downright cool. Some experts predict a permanent shift in driving habits, and Ford has begun to grasp what Toyota and Honda did years ago — the value of capturing the all-important first-time buyer. Once you’ve done that and built loyalty to your brand, you can move them up the automotive food chain to more expensive and profitable vehicles.
Until now the smallest offering in Ford’s lineup was the compact Focus, an overall decent car in its own right. But watching the sales success of newly minted subcompact cars like Hyundai Accent, Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa and Cube, Toyota Yaris and especially Honda Fit, Ford is betting Europe’s best-selling car so far this year, the Fiesta, will be greeted with open arms on this side of the Atlantic.
Set to go on sale this summer, Fiesta, along with the next generation European-based new Focus compact due next year, represents Ford’s commitment to the future of smaller cars — a segment that has been dominated by Toyota and Honda for years.
Similar in size to the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Chevrolet Aveo, the Fiesta is surprisingly pleasant to drive with agile handling, a controlled ride and quiet and impressive fit and finish. It completely dispels the myth that driving a subcompact car means having to tolerate cheaply built interiors, jejune exteriors, underpowered engines and few amenities. In fact, stylish touches abound, from a padded dash and stylish sheet metal to unexpected standard equipment included at an affordable price.
Initially Fiesta will be available in both sedan and hatchback body styles, both with four doors and three trim levels for the sedan (S, SE, and SEL) and two for the hatchback (SE and SES).
We first drove a Euro-built two-door hatchback Fiesta last summer at the Ford Motor Company proving grounds in Dearborn and were disappointed that model was not included with the initial U.S. launch. Ford says to hang on because a sportier Fiesta is coming but failed to elaborate on the details.
Most recently, we drove a well-equipped SEL sedan with the optional six-speed automatic transmission. It’s a dual-clutch automatically operated manual transmission that provides quicker gear changes than a traditional automatic. It shifts like a manual transmission, except the electronics do the shifting; there’s no clutch pedal to push or actual gear-shift action. Ford says this achieves increased fuel efficiency, but what drivers will notice is the inability to downshift to a lower gear, and no manual-shift mode.
Critics have been quick to pan the transmission for those omissions. However, I had no objection whatsoever, observing that the preponderance of drivers never use the manu-matic manual mode anyway. We simply put the shift selection in “D” and drove the car without noticeable difference.
All Fiestas are powered by the same 1.6-liter inline four-cylinder, 120-horsepower engine. A five-speed manual transmission is standard. Ford claims a zero to 60 time of 9.5 seconds for the manual shift Fiesta. That’s in line with Yaris and Fit. Fuel economy is rated at an impressive 29 miles per gallon in the city, 40 highway and 34 overall.
Things we especially like about the Fiesta include:
- Ford’s excellent Sync infotainment audio system, which allows for hands-free operation of a driver’s audio system, including turn-by-turn navigation via any Bluetooth-equipped mobile phone, USB compatibility with iPods and other MP3 players with voice activation to select any song by title, word, group or singer. Ford also includes the latest AppLink feature that allows BlackBerry and Google Android smart phones to run hands-free versions of Pandora, Stitcher (an Internet news radio), and Twitter module OpenBreak.
- Seven standard airbags, including a standard driver’s knee airbag, virtually non-existent on all but very upscale luxury cars.
- Nine “candy” exterior color choices including our test car in Lime Squeeze.
- Standard tilt and telescoping steering wheel.
- Keyless entry by pressing a button on the door handle, then push a button to start the vehicle.
- Classy LED front running lights.
- Excellent ride, handling and build quality.
- A rainbow of color choices for ambient interior lighting. Looks great.
- Standard electric power-assisted steering provides a great feel and saves on gas over traditional pump-assisted power steering units.
- Quiet, an impressively quiet interior even at highway speeds.
- Available leather seating surfaces and heated seats. Something seldom offered in subcompact vehicles.
- Stylish interior with silver accents, comfortable bucket seats with numerous adjustment capabilities for all size drivers.
- Large, easy-to-use controls and gauges.
And a few things we didn’t care for:
- If you’re much over six feet tall, you run out of head, hip and shoulder room in a hurry. I’m a bit over 6 foot 5 inches tall and the back of my seat was bumping up against the very tight back seat.
- Competing models (Versa, Soul, Cube) all have much roomier interiors.
- Navigation system unavailable.
- Limited cargo space.
- Price can easily top $20,000 with options selected.
Overall, the all-new Fiesta is a great small car that’s loaded with unexpected features and appealing, stylish good looks. It’s nimble on curvy roads, easy to drive and park and most importantly is fun to drive. Fiesta could easily be the best subcompact on the market and that includes the Honda Fit that was awarded a AAA Top Pick for 2010 in the subcompact class. But inside, Fiesta is small and lags well behind Nissan Versa, and Cube and Kia Soul for both cargo and especially people space.