In our marriage, transmissions are unmentionable. This is because it's understood that the family car will not require the shifting of gears in any circumstance, beyond selecting Drive.
In any enduring marriage there are certain to be subjects best not talked about. In ours, a manual transmission rates right up there with painting the house purple.
But evaluating the 2011 Ford Fiesta requires some consideration of the way it feels, the liveliness in its progress, the amount of fuel it consumes, and how all this differs according to that unmentionable object between the engine and the front wheels. Well, she's unlikely to read this anyhow. Let's not mince words: The transmission.
We both drove two 2011 Ford Fiestas, the wife and I, one Fiesta with an automatic and then a manual, and I was certain she'd exclaim the second came alive with manual shifting. She did not.
Subsequently, I surveyed the neighbours. I uncovered strong feelings whichever transmission was favoured. The couple to the north is committed to manuals, man and wife, whereas two other couples across the street want nothing to do with constantly shifting gears in city traffic. A single man relishes that very engagement. The next-door neighbours to the south are split on the subject, like my wife and I, but still able to talk about it.
Ford of Canada reports that 77 per cent of Fiesta buyers choose automatic transmissions, a $1,250 option. Obviously, most folks feel just like my wife on this unmentionable subject.
It's no ordinary automatic in this subcompact. Following Volkswagen's lead, Ford has developed a box that shifts faster and more efficiently than is humanly possible with a manual. No need to go into details here about its double clutches - all that matters to most drivers is the absence of clutch pedals. A great thing, this so-called PowerShift.
Perhaps most significantly, with this automatic, superior fuel efficiency ratings are generated in government-regulated lab tests, whereas in the past manuals produced the best numbers. Check the Tech Specs for the evidence.
Even the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada - my peers - are playing a role in the ascendance of automatic fitment, demanding that all but the sportiest entries in our annual Canadian Car of The Year competition be so equipped for properly direct comparison. Moving a gearshift through a shift pattern may soon become as unnatural a motion as chickens flying.
This automatic constantly selects among six gears without any jarring or intrusion. It eases the driving process. The driver is free to enjoy the electrically assisted responsive steering of the nimble little Ford, note the bump-free ride and luxuriate in the superior sound of the Sync system's six speakers, two mid-woofers and two tweeters.
Those with Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones and the latter option can make hands-free calls, play music on command and so on, just as in more expensive Fords and Lincolns. The automatic, it seems, is only one example of progress.
The Fiesta is snail slow, though, and even if acceleration isn't high among your priorities, moving smartly does come in handy sometimes. Accelerating to 60 km/h averages 6.0 seconds in our testing, compared to 5.3 for a Honda Fit automatic, another subcompact evaluated earlier in this EcoDriver forum.
Another disappointment comes with the final fill-up. We've averaged 9.7 litres/100 km in our city area driving, far off the Natural Resources Canada city rating of 6.9. Can it be that the automatic's gears and shift strategy have been selected to maximize fuel efficiency test results, but aren't so effective in normal usage?
The second test car with its five-speed manual takes its turn in our driveway several weeks later because Ford of Canada initially only has automatics in its fleet. First impression? Its Lime Squeeze Metallic paint turns more heads by far than did the Bright Magenta Metallic. But does its acceleration snap my head back, or even lift my chin? Not really.
It is, however, more responsive than was the automatic Fiesta. Acceleration to 60 km/h takes 5.7 seconds in a typical start, or 5.0 seconds driven aggressively with wheel spin. What's more, over our week's driving, its fuel consumption is lower, averaging 9.1 litres/100 km.
The Fiesta manual shift has a lovely smoothness in its action so selecting the five gears is a pleasure rather than a chore, and depressing the clutch comes close to being effortless.
A minority of drivers enjoys this involvement - less than one in four by Ford's reckoning for these small cars. Those of us who do relish handling a gearshift (as opposed to selecting Drive or utilizing the paddle, button or lever shifting afforded by some automatics) increasingly are dinosaurs.
"It's driving as opposed to pointing the car," neighbour Peter Bartosh argues and further builds his case by pointing out that manuals facilitate push starts in the case of battery failure or rocking a vehicle between first and reverse when stuck in snow.
But next-door's Tina Robertson reasons, "Manual seems too complicated and pointless in Toronto's stop-and-go traffic," and most agree, including the co-owner of this writer's family car.
2011 Ford Fiesta SE and SES
Type: Compact four-door hatchbacks
Base Price: $16,799 SE and $18,899 SES; as tested, $20,879 SE (including freight and automatic) and $20,879 SES (including freight and manual)
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 120 hp/112 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual/six-speed automatic
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): Rated at 6.9 city/5.1 highway with automatic and 7.1 city/5.3 highway with manual; in our city area driving 9.7 with automatic, 9.1 manual; regular gas
Alternatives: Nissan Versa, Toyota Yaris, Honda Fit, Kia Forte5
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