The interior door-pulls are a pain, the door caps hard plastic and the Bright Magenta Metallic paint isn't a colour adult males of a certain vintage will feel entirely comfortable with - but otherwise the new Fiesta is the best subcompact Ford's sold here since the last Fiesta it had a fling with in the late 1970s.
I owned one of those as a twentysomething, in bright yellow paintwork, and recall it being a neat little car. Stylish inside and out, and with a 1.6-litre motor pumping 66 hp to the front wheels through a four-speed transaxle, it was pretty peppy and economical at about 9.5 L/100 km.
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It would have cost me $3,880, almost a grand more than a Pinto but the portion of that ending up in Ford's profit column apparently wasn't too impressive as it was yanked after three years. A couple of subsequent subcompact attempts, the Festiva in the 1980s and Aspire in the 1990s, didn't prove to be what North Americans were looking for either.
But with gas prices inflating a couple of years ago Ford decided adding a fuel-sipper to the lineup again - just in case everybody stopped buying its thirsty and profitable full-size pickup trucks - might be a good idea. And, as with the first Fiesta, it looked to Europe where the current versions, launched in 2008, were already a success with three-quarters of a million sold.
The Fiesta became available here in the summer in base roll-up-windows S and better-equipped SE sedan versions priced at $12,999 and $16,099. You have to step up to the SE trim level (air conditioning, info display, CD player, power windows, locks, mirrors, keyless entry) and $16,799 for a hatchback.
With this Fiesta, Ford has switched its subcompact strategy from trying to sell cheap and decidedly un-cheerful little cars to attempting to interest North Americans in a more up-market small vehicle. This is why it boasts standard features such as push-button start, blind-spot-mirrors, a cap-less fuel filler, electronic stability control and seven airbags.
The five-door tester Fiesta SE came with automatic transmission, Ford's clever Sync entertainment and communications system, sport appearance and winter packages that popped the price up to $20,879, including destination charges.
All Fiestas are powered by a 120-hp/112-lb-ft torque, 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with five-speed manual or optional six-speed automatic. The automatic is a dual-clutch design, the most advanced transmission offered in this car category. Oddly it doesn't have a shift-it-yourself feature, but perhaps we'll see one on a future sports version.
Fuel economy ratings are an impressive 6.9 L/100 km city and 5.1 highway with the automatic (a couple of tenths better than the manual). I averaged 6.6 L/100 km and at highway speeds it managed 5.9 L/100 km.
I liked the Fiesta from the first tug on the door handle and the satisfying thud it made when I pulled it shut. No tin-can small car this one, it's obviously got some structural substance.
The inside door pulls, however, require that you turn your palm inward and extend a couple of fingers and insert them into a narrow slot. Awkward. It's also puzzling why Ford chose to cover the dash with a soft-touch material and the door caps, where your elbow is often propped, with hard plastic.
Those niggles aside, the Fiesta's interior is pretty cool with a rather busy centre stack with info screen above simple climate controls, easy-to-read instruments, quality sound system, nicely padded wheel and ambient lighting in the foot wells and cup holders. Seats are short-ish but have some firmness and headroom is okay. Rear-seat knee-room is marginal with tall-ish folk up front, and there's 435 litres of space under the hatch.
Keeping in mind that 66 hp was considered adequate three decades ago, the Fiesta's 120 hp is fine, although you will have to press the pedal to let it rev a bit. The engine is smooth and well isolated so this isn't bothersome, although there's a little motor hum at highway speeds and hills will often bring on a downshift out of the tall top gear.
Past criticism of Ford for "Americanizing" Euro imports' handling doesn't hold true with this one. The electric power steering controls the front wheels with a deft touch and they respond willingly to alter your course and the well controlled suspension doesn't clatter and bang over bumps.
Are North Americans going to switch their affections to small cars in great numbers in the near future? Not likely, but the Fiesta will at least change the way many think about them.
The BMW revolution
2011 Ford Fiesta SE
Type: Subcompact, five-door hatchback
Base Price: $16,799; as tested, $20,879 (including freight)
Engine: 1.6-litre, DOHC, inline-four
Horsepower/torque: 120 hp/112 lb-ft
Transmission: Six-speed automatic
Fuel economy: 6.9 city/5.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Mazda2, Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa
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