On The Road Review: Ford Fiesta

It’s mid-August as this is written and oil prices are starting to rise again after a momentary decline that saw values approach where oil pricing should be given the economics of the world — $50-60 a barrel — not the greedy $90-100 a barrel price that the Wall Street traders and international banks like to encourage. These prices, combined with the overall economic malaise that has overtaken the world, will mean higher gas prices — at least higher than what we have been used to.

Slowly, these higher gasoline prices will exact an even heavier toll from families that depend on automobiles and trucks for their work, their daily commute, or for their basic living. As higher fuel costs rob more dollars from household budgets constrained by higher electric costs, higher heating costs, higher food costs and higher taxes, many taxpayers will decide that it just might be a good time to purchase a more fuel-efficient vehicle. A smaller, more efficient vehicle.

Over the next three weeks we’ll give you three options from three different classes — three fuel-sippers for today’s drivers. Beginning with this week’s subcompact Ford Fiesta Hatchback, we’ll then feature the new Hyundai Elantra sedan — a compact car that is rapidly moving up the sales charts, and then we’ll offer a look at Nissan’s top-selling Altima midsize sedan.

Each of these cars has numerous virtues, not the least of which is everyday fuel economy in the 30-40-mpg range. There will be surprises, and then there will be conclusions. First up, the Fiesta.

The Fiesta is a car with definite European origins. But unlike previous Fiestas that you may or may not recall, this model is a sound engineering achievement meant to convince American drivers that subcompact cars can work in a land full of minivans, crossover wagons and pickup trucks.

The tiniest Ford sold here comes in two body styles: conventional four door sedan or a much more versatile five-door hatchback body. This review covers the latter.

Each version is equipped with a 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine that is EPA rated for 28-mpg in the city or 37-mpg on the highway regardless of which transmission you select — five-speed manual or six-speed automatic. Ford has plans to bring an Eco-Boost 1.0-liter three-cylinder onto the Fiesta’s option list, but that has not been confirmed at this date.

How close did the Fiesta come to its mileage ratings? In three fill-ups, covering 185 miles, 234 miles, and 225 miles, the small Ford returned 35.2 mpg, 35.4 mpg and 34.0 mpg. Considering that I frequently drove in third gear to achieve reasonable cruising acceleration and to conquer numerous long grades, the Fiesta appointed itself nicely. There is not much torque from the spirited engine until you get the tach needle spinning past 4,000 rpms, so you can see that my driving reflects a certain ‘hasty’ emphasis. I also discovered that the Fiesta’s air conditioner seemed to rob some power; when off, the car felt quicker. When A/C was on, the Fiesta was more lethargic that I would hope for when pressed into service in the higher gears. Row down at least two gears and the Ford’s power returned.

Key to winning over buyers who are readily reluctant to spend much time in a car this small — the Fiesta hatchback measures a scant 160 inches long, about 13 inches shorter than the sedan — is how well done the interior is and how well equipped that interior might be.

The Fiesta wins on both counts. Material choices, textures, and controls all reflect higher price points. There are still some hard surfaces that your elbow might touch, but overall, the seat works well, the ergonomics are good, and you can wash the whole windshield at the gas station while standing on one side. It would be good however to get a telescoping action added to the tilt steering wheel.

Rear seat space is more than adequate for most of the Fiesta’s intended passengers. Abe Lincoln wannabes should find another ride, but the rest of us will fit fine. That said, the flip-down seatbacks give the hatch double the packing space of the sedan’s trunk, so youth-oriented drivers will immediately find the attraction of the expandable cargo hold. Think VW Golf.

From the helm, the Fiesta handles driving chores with the quick, agile nimbleness that you would expect from a subcompact car. Steering feel is light and smooth with a tiny 34-foot turning radius. Highway path accuracy varied slightly, but I will defer to the heavy winds encountered while driving the Ford, as well as the heavily worn truck grooves in the interstate lanes traveled on. Ride stability was very good, yet the low-profile 16-inch tires on my SES trim level hatch delivered more road noise than I care for. Again, worn pavement, the bane of drivers in the Snowbelt, and Maine in general, is partially to blame for the Fiesta’s elevated road noise levels.

So far in 2011 the Fiesta is handily crushing its more established rivals, outselling the former class-leading Fit by over 10,000 units in just seven months of the year. The Fiesta is hot for Ford dealers, too, as it is outselling the Taurus sedan as well as the sporty Mustang.

I have driven a Honda Fit (the small car darling for many reviewers, a disappointment for me), and I have sampled the Mazda 2 (much too basic and too slow for my taste). Chevy enters the class with the new American-made Sonic later this fall so there will be at least six serious candidates in this segment when you add Hyundai’s remodeled Accent plus an all-new Toyota Yaris.

The Fiesta shines in this group for its clean styling and functional interior wrapped in a refined, balanced package that performs well enough to please the majority of small car drivers who have been used to expecting less. Let’s hope this trend continues in all of the cars in this class, because if we are headed to this size cars in order to meet EPA imposed mileage guidelines, cars will most definitely get a lot smaller — and probably more expensive.

For now, the Ford Fiesta promises a lot and mostly delivers on that promise.

Just the Facts: Ford Fiesta

Fiesta is a five-passenger (in a pinch) front-wheel drive subcompact car with pricing that starts at $13,995 for ‘S’ models, $14,995 for SE. Tested SES trim, with Sirius satellite radio, leather steering wheel with audio controls, driving lamps, 16-inch premium alloy wheels, Sync-voice activated system, keyless ignition and heated seats stickered for $18,890.

Fiesta hatchback measures 160 inches long on a 98-inch wheelbase. Sedan stretches out to 173.6 inches. Hatch model carries 26 cubic feet of cargo, while the sedan’s trunk swallows 12 cubic feet. Base weight starts at 2,578 pounds.

Fiesta is made in Cuautitlan, Mexico, at a former Ford truck plant.

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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.