Most of the best ride-development engineers will tell you that you can pretty much get the measure of a car in 10 minutes of driving. Often in less.
I spent most of a day in the 2011 Fiesta and while I am no professional ride engineer, I do test 100 cars a year. The 2011 Fiesta is just a good small car. Period.
Frankly, I was surprised. I was certain that Ford would soften the European Fiesta's rear twist beam axle and front strut suspension layout. Ford didn't. In a day of mountain-side switchbacks, highway zooming and stop-and-go city traffic, this little runabout stood out for its quiet ride, predictable handling and surprisingly good (fuel-saving) electronic steering.
This Fiesta is also big enough to carry four adults, though even the five-door hatchback is not as cargo-friendly as the rival Honda Fit, with its fold-and-flop back seats. The sedan, of course, is the starter model at $12,999 in Canada, but the five-door Fiesta hatch is by far the most versatile. Ford of Canada obviously can see it's the most desirable Fiesta; that's why hatchback pricing starts $3,800 higher at $16,799.
Still, at just under $17,000, the five-door Fiesta S is all the car most people will need - power door locks with keyless entry, a rear wiper, four-speaker stereo with Sirius satellite radio pre-paid for six months, air conditioning, pleasant ambient lighting, removable package tray in the cargo area, cloth seats and power windows.
The one option buyers should consider, and consider long and hard, is the $1,200 six-speed PowerShift automatic transmission instead of the standard five-speed manual. This is not just any run-of-the-mill hydraulic with a torque converter. No, this is a sophisticated dual-clutch manual-automatic that delivers superbly fast and clean shifts, while also saving fuel.
This sort of gearbox is normally only available on much pricier European cars. It comes connected to a number of sensors that allow shifts to adjust to driver inputs and the car's situation. Most of the time the brainpower here is near-perfect. Only occasionally, only when the Fiesta is really being driven hard through tricky terrain, does the gearbox pause now and then to decide how to shift, or not at all. The shifts themselves are very smooth.
Beyond gearboxes, well, if you want more stuff, Ford Canada offers a fully loaded Fiesta SES five-door ($18,899) with everything from cruise control to heated front seats, a six-speaker sound system, Sync voice-activated communications and more. Leather seating is a $1,200 option.
However you equip the Fiesta, the basic look remains the same. The car has balanced proportions, a low-lying greenhouse, elongated headlamps, a small grille and a large front air intake - as well as an LED bar below the bumper that wraps around the corner of the front. Note the body creases that dress up the package, too.
For power, the Fiesta has a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine equipped with some modern engine technology: twin independent variable camshaft timing. In a nutshell, the Fiesta's engine breathes well, which means it produces good power (120 horsepower) while getting very good fuel economy (estimated at 6.8 litres/100 km in the city, 5.1 on the highway). At 1,179 kg, the Fiesta is not heavy, so this is a lively ride.
Lively but quiet. The design is pretty slick and aerodynamic, so wind noise even around the dreaded side mirrors is not so loud it prevents a back-seat passenger from joining the conversation up front. The seats are pretty good for this class of car, though after a few hours I felt the need for better lumbar and thigh support.
What is spot on are the soft-touch materials on all the items where your hand might land - the armrest on the door and the dash. The gauges are clear and details such as the push-button start are pretty fancy for this price range.
And then there is Ford's Sync system. This voice-operated infotainment system is the best of its type in the car business. Sync allows for hands-free operation of a driver's phone and music player. It works without fuss, too.
"Fiesta really gives us an opportunity to go directly after the Japanese," says Frank Davis, Ford's executive director of product development. "Small cars have been the stronghold for them ... This is an opportunity for us to pick up some share."
In the end, pricing is the wild card here. Is the Fiesta priced too high for the segment and for the Ford nameplate? After all, this summer a fully loaded Fiesta will cost about as much as a fully loaded Focus - if not more.
Ford, then, is asking buyers to take a leap into uncharted pricing territory.
2011 Ford Fiesta
Type: Subcompact sedan/five-door hatchback
Price range: $12,999-$18,899
Engine: 1.6-litre, four-cylinder
Horsepower/torque: 120 hp/112 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual/six-speed automatic
Drive: Front-wheel drive
Fuel economy (litres/100 km): 6.8 city/5.1 highway; regular gas
Alternatives: Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Hyundai Accent, Kia Rio, Chevrolet Aveo, Nissan Versa, Mazda2 (coming summer 2010)
- Superb (for this class and price) dual-clutch automatic transmission
- The design, which has some real personality
- Ride and handling of a more expensive car
- Best-in-class fuel economy
- Lack of a good armrest between front seats
- Front seats that need more lumbar and thigh support
- Passenger-side windshield wiper that hangs over the A-pillar