The Ford Fiesta is Europe's best-selling car this year. That's the good news for Ford.
The tough news is this: while the 2011 Fiesta hitting Canadian showrooms in June is no Ford Aspire, Ford's new European-bred subcompact will have a tough time matching the Fiesta's European success. That is not to say the 2011 Fiesta is a bad good car. Not at all. The Fiesta is an excellent runabout and will be the class of the segment this summer.
The thing is, Canadians like small cars - they buy them by the boatload - but we don't go nuts over really small cars. Look at the list of Canada's top 10 best-selling cars this year. Eight of them are compacts like the Ford Focus, Honda Civic, Volkswagen Golf, Mazda3, Toyota Corolla and Hyundai Elantra. The only subcompact in the 10 is the Hyundai Accent, which starts at less than $10,000; it's selling strictly on price.
Click here for Jeremy Cato's review of the 2011 Ford Fiesta
No, we're a compact-car nation, though this Fiesta is so good it could prove to be an exception: an affordable but not a bargain-basement subcompact hit.
There is nothing humble or cheap about the Fiesta. It may start at $12,999 (plus $1,350 for freight), but even the most basic version (a sedan, though there is also a much hotter five-door hatchback that starts at $16,799) is anything but undersized, underpowered and understyled.
So if you know your Fords, do not even begin to associate the Fiesta with the old Aspire - the one with roller-skate wheels. The Aspire lasted here from 1994-97, which was three years too long. Manufactured by the then-Kia Motors, the Aspire was underpowered (63 horsepower), came with a lamentable three-speed automatic transmission and was - how can I say this delicately - ugly. Really ugly. AMC Gremlin ugly. And it was noisy, too.
But back in the mid-1990s Ford was busying printing money by selling profitable SUVs like the Explorer. Passenger cars were a sideline.
Fast forward to 2010 and Ford's world has done a 180-degree turn. SUVs are now rapidly becoming a sideline; going forward, Ford's emphasis is on selling what Frank Davis calls "a more balanced product portfolio."
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Davis is Ford's North American product program executive director. He's a big shot in the product development world at Ford and concedes that even just three years ago Ford was far too dependent on sales of large pickups and SUVs.
Global small-car sales, he says, are projected to explode from 23 million in 2002 to 38 million in 2012. Ford wants a big piece of that action and the Fiesta, followed in January by the all-new Focus compact, are key.
Also critical is how Ford is developing its new models, ones like the Focus. The buzz phrase is "One Ford" and it means that, unlike even three years ago, Ford has now put in place a global product development system to replace the haphazard, regionalized system of before. That is, Ford product development teams in North America, Europe and elsewhere all follow the same script - and that script dictates that the engineers consider local market tastes and regional government regulations when creating a new model. And that new model must essentially be one for the world.
Sure, Ford's engineers can somewhat tailor certain elements to suit local tastes, but the big idea at work here is to do the basic engineering just once. Global cars, in other words. That saves money, but requires a depth and breadth of engineering and product development expertise and commitment never really seen before in a Detroit-based auto maker.
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The Fiesta is almost a global car, but not quite. The European team that took the lead in putting this one together set all the hard points in place before Ford One took hold in the company. The real test of Ford One is the upcoming Focus. This will be Ford's first truly global product. If Ford nails it, the company expects to sell up to two million vehicles a year across 10 different models, all using the same basic platform.
If this 2011 Fiesta is any indication at all, Ford is certainly going down the right road. The car looks great and drives better than its price tag.
"B-cars [subcompacts]do not have to look like appliances," says Davis. "The vehicle engineers did not 'dumb-down' the suspension," and for good measure threw in a ride quieter than the bigger Toyota Corolla, along with fuel economy that is "four to five miles per gallon better than B- and C-car (compact) rivals."
For the record, Ford estimates 45-46 miles per gallon on the highway from the 120-horsepower 1.6-litre four-banger mated to the six-speed PowerShift automatic transmission. In metric, that's an expected 5.1 litres/100 km. The base 117-hp Honda Fit ($14,480 with a very basic five-speed manual) gets 5.7 litres/100 km on the highway.
But let's not quibble over fractions of a litre. The big picture here is of a new small Ford that rides and handles better than anything else in this class. By a wide margin.
Ford will make all sorts of noise about the design - chief engineer Steve Pintar points to the "inverted trapezoid grille" and "wraparound lamps with the rising beltline," along with the "quality and depth of the paint."
And he'll point to the quietness created by extra sealing and the design of the windshield. He'll tell you that the body structure of the car is 55 per cent high-strength steel and that not only is at the heart of responsive road manners, but also makes this a safer, stronger small car. Just in case, there are seven air bags, including one for the driver's knee.
But it's still just one car, though Ford is not shy about its "best-in-class" aspirations. What makes the Fiesta even more interesting is that it's one car that looks to be another in a line of new Ford models - Taurus, Fusion with more coming - that are so good, so compelling, they give pause and force the marketplace and the competition to take notice.
With 90 per cent of its models now "Recommended" by Consumer Reports and all of Ford's brands ranked in the top 10 of J.D. Power and Associates three-year Vehicle Dependability Study, Ford looks like it's back in the "car" business, rather than just "Aspire-ing" to be.
Click here for Jeremy Cato's review of the 2011 Ford Fiesta