Fuel-sipping Fords, Part II: Fiesta SFE

How many cars are for sale in the U.S. market with three-cylinder engines? Can you name any?

A rare engine offering, even for motorcycles these days, the in-line three-cylinder engine has not been a strategic rendering for very many auto manufacturers. Ford’s new turbocharged EcoBoost 1.0-liter three-cylinder is designed to change perceptions.

Spinning a robust 123 hp and a healthy 148 pound/feet of peak torque at only 1,800 rpms, the EcoBoost three makes a strong case for supplanting the larger, heavier four-cylinder engines often used in today’s subcompact cars —like the diminutive Fiesta. Teamed with a five-speed manual gearbox, with loopy shift action, the Fiesta Super Fuel Efficient earns an EPA rating of 32-mpg city, 45-mpg highway with a combined average of 37 mpg.

{gallery}sfe{/gallery} In real world use, the Fiesta SFE handily exceeded those estimates while providing erstwhile power and acceleration when necessary that masked the tiny motor’s size. The first tank covered more than 200 miles of mixed driving and returned a calculated 45.5 mpg. Tank number two, of slightly less than 200 miles returned over 50 mpg, with a hyper-miling stint producing up to 60 mpg on the trip computer for a 30-mile section of rural roadway. Clearly, the SFE Fiesta proves that the internal combustion engine can remain competitive against today’s hybrid powertrains — for far less money.

Incredibly, the EcoBoost three displayed none of the characteristics that I feared; it did not vibrate, quake, or shake (at all) and when the proper gear was selected, acceleration was more than adequate for today’s driving needs. Ford has equipped the SFE with a five-speed manual — rather than the six-speed manual available in other Fiesta models — and the spacing between gear shifts as well as the vague interaction between the shifter, clutch, and gear engagement leaves a lot to be desired from the perspective of other recent manual shift cars that apparently placed a greater emphasis on this driving step.

Last week, the midsize Fusion Energi offered a non-expandable trunk for cargo room, a space compromised by the battery pack. The Fiesta SFE, available in sedan or five-door hatchback — as shown here — offers far greater cargo versatility. Tug on the liftgate’s handle and a voluminous hold is revealed — deep, wide and tall. The Fiesta can swallow a lot of gear even before you flip the rear seatbacks forward to triple space. Rear seat space also is reasonable for real adults; headroom is comparable to the Fusion, while leg space is tighter for those in the 6-foot arena.

Up front, the Fiesta offers excellent visibility outward as well as decent seating that included heating elements ($290). There are a couple of ergonomic situations that could be better, right shift elbow striking the console cover, the power ports deep in the console next to the beverage slots and the power door lock button on the instrument panel rather than the doors, but generally, the Fiesta’s controls and physical layout are comfortable, intuitive and class competitive.

Other virtues, composed ride dynamics, reasonable sound suppression, great slow-speed turning radius, plus the ability to fly by countless fuel stations as you travel. Cons include the absence of a rear view camera (coming for 2015 editions) a slightly contorted rear window view, and what is up with those plastic hubcaps?

The Fiesta measures 156.3 inches long on a 98-inch wheelbase. It weighs only 2,600 pounds, putting it squarely into the four-door/five-door subcompact class against the hot-selling Chevy Sonic, Honda’s redesigned Fit, Kia’s popular Rio5, Mazda’s tiny 2-series, plus Toyota’s Yaris. Each of these cars has its own merits while this whole class is incredibly improved over the subcompact cars of just a generation ago. Electronics, safety components, plus greater attention to subtle details make these cars fun, frugal and thrifty.

Fiesta pricing starts at $15,680. SFE components — the turbo 1.0-liter, low rolling resistance tires, manual gearbox, plastic hubcaps, etc. — add $995 to the Fiesta. With some minor additional options plus freight, our refrigerator white Fiesta SFE stickered for $18,190. The Fiesta is built in Mexico.

Ford is going to add more Fusion-like (Aston-Martin-ish) styling to the Fiesta for 2015, while increasing content. It would be hard to argue with changing the 1.0-liter EcoBoost, as this engine seems to be a great match for the Fiesta’s size and target market.

Hybrids, pull over. The EcoBoost is coming through.

Tim Plouff

Tim Plouff

Columnist at The Ellsworth American
Tim Plouff has been reviewing automobiles in the pages of The Ellsworth American weekly for nearly two decades.