Here in the U.S., very small economy cars (known as "B-segment" cars) have historically been synonymous with very small expectations. Remember the Chevy Sprint, Ford Aspire and Pontiac LeMans? Didn't think so. The term "basic transportation" doesn't begin to describe them — they were all about a low purchase price and high fuel economy. Sporty handling? A quiet ride? Refinement? Luxury features? Are you kidding?
Though a few current choices in this segment may offer one or perhaps two of those qualities, finding one that offers all four has been impossible. Such is not the case in Europe, where a number of B-segment cars provide driving kicks and all the gee-whiz features you could ask for. And now, we've got a B car to behold in the form of the 2011 Ford Fiesta.
Up to now, the Honda Fit has been the hands-down staff favorite thanks to its incredible space-efficiency and spunky driving demeanor. However a busy, noisy highway ride and some bizarre styling elements (such as the mishmash dash) kept it from getting all the love. We'd previously driven the Euro-spec Fiesta and were quite impressed with the feisty little Ford's fun-to-drive personality, upscale cabin trimmings and composed, quiet freeway ride. We also hoped that Ford wouldn't dumb down the suspension and steering (that is, make them soft and isolated) to "suit" the American market.
Well, cue the pigs to take wing, because an American carmaker has finally realized that a small economy car needn't be dull, flimsy and about as desirable as a dishwasher. Available in sedan or hatchback body styles, the 2011 Ford Fiesta essentially comes in three trim levels, which start at around $14,000 and top out, like our SES tester, at around $18,000 (without optional equipment).
As far as rivals, if you want an entertaining drive with plenty of cargo space, there is the aforementioned Fit as well as the Kia Soul. If a plush ride's more your thing, there are the Nissan Versa and Cube. There's also the Suzuki SX4, which presents a strong value proposition. But if you want the one that equals or betters them at their own games, it's the Fiesta. We've got a feeling that the Blue Oval boys will have cause for celebration with this little winner.
All versions of the 2011 Ford Fiesta are powered by a 1.6-liter inline-4 that makes 120 horsepower, which is competitive for the class. This eager mill revs smoothly to redline and delivers the power in a pleasingly linear way. Two transmissions are available — a five-speed manual and a class-exclusive six-speed dual-clutch automatic.
We drove the stick and found the shifter precise and light and the clutch easy to work thanks to its progressive action. Smooth take-offs and quick, fluid gearchanges are thus a snap and add to the Fiesta's sporty character. Around town there's enough thrust on tap to dice with traffic, and cruising on level highways at higher speeds is relatively relaxed. But there's only so much 1.6 liters can do. Trapped behind some laggard on a long uphill highway stretch, we wanted to pass but, there wasn't enough oomph to allow us to overtake him within the short passing zone. To be honest, this probably would've happened in any of the Fiesta's chief rivals, too.
Though we haven't yet track-tested the U.S.-spec Fiesta, the Euro version (the powertrain specs are similar) that we drove previously did the zero-to-60-mph sprint in 9.4 seconds — about the same as the Fit and respectable for this segment. Official EPA fuel-economy estimates haven't been released yet, but Ford's estimates — at 30 mpg city/40 mpg highway for the automatic and 29 city/38 highway for the manual — put the Fiesta at the top of this fuel-sipping class.
Adding to the Fiesta's polished on-road demeanor are the linear and strong brakes, which gave us confidence while we hustled the hatchback along a mountain back road. They were also easy to modulate when slogging through some stop-and-go traffic.
But it was in the handling department where the 2011 Ford Fiesta impressed us the most. Crisp cornering with a flat, buttoned-down attitude made for an entertaining drive and thankfully reminded us of the Euro-spec Fiesta we drove previously. The suspension engineers had to make some tweaks to accommodate the fitment of all-season tires with a taller sidewall (compared to the low-profile summer tires used in Europe) that are more compatible with our rougher roads. With the taller tires providing additional cushioning, they specified somewhat stiffer calibrations with the goal being the same responsive, confident dynamic of the Euro-spec Fiesta. Mission accomplished.
Under the "you could've fooled me" category is the steering. Most times, electric power assist steering (EPAS) tends to feel artificial compared to a conventional hydraulic setup. But the Fiesta's system felt natural, sporty even with its quick response and well-weighted effort. Tracking on the freeway is precise and relaxed, as the EPAS uses what Ford calls "Drift-Pull" compensation to automatically counteract stiff side winds and severely crowned roads, which would normally have you slightly countersteering to maintain course. We never noticed it, which is the highest compliment we could give it.
Though this is undeniably a small car, the seats are amply sized to provide comfort and proper support. The side bolsters in particular are firm enough to hold you in while you explore the little bugger's cornering capabilities. There is also a standard tilt-telescoping steering wheel that allows drivers of all sizes to get comfortable. The backseat is well-shaped and its cushion is high enough to provide under-thigh support. Though taller folks will still find more legroom in a Fit, the Fiesta will accommodate a quartet of 6-footers.
The 2011 Ford Fiesta's ride quality is European in feel, meaning somewhat firm but not harsh. Road impacts are dealt with in a compliant fashion that allows the bump or pothole to be absorbed, yet there's no excess body motion upsetting the car. Running through a bumpy corner, for example, the Fiesta feels refined and controlled as it tracks confidently around the bend, while some cars in this class can either feel a bit skittish (looking at you, Fit) or like they're riding on marshmallows (this goes for you, Mr. Versa, and your Cube brother).
Ford claims the Fiesta has the quietest cabin in its segment, and we don't doubt it. While running 75 mph on the concrete superslab, the Fiesta's cabin remained refreshingly free of wind noise, tire roar and engine buzz.
The Fiesta has a number of features (some optional) that make everyday driving easier. The standard capless fuel filler makes gassing up a breeze, and the available keyless ignition/entry likewise makes getting in and taking off a snap. Inside the cabin, simple knobs work the climate control and up high on the center stack is the cell phone-inspired control layout for the audio and phone functions. There are also intuitive steering wheel controls.
Should you not want to press any buttons, you can just tell Sync, Ford's excellent voice-control system, what you want the audio system or your phone to do. And this year, Sync also provides directions and traffic information without you having to pony up for a full-blown navigation system. It gives vocal turn-by-turn directions that are also shown on the small display screen atop the dash. There is no traditional map display, which some folks may not like, but there's also no extra $1,500 to $2,000 to pay.
When it comes to lugging stuff around, the 2011 Ford Fiesta comes up a bit short compared to some competitors. The hatchback provides a maximum of 26 cubic feet, which is quite a bit more than a Ford Crown Victoria's trunk, but still less than half of what the Fit or Soul have. The sedan's trunk offers a respectable 12.8 cubic feet of capacity, which is equal to or even greater than some cars that are up one segment size, such as the Honda Civic.
Design/Fit and Finish
Though there's only so much you can do with a vehicle that has a short wheelbase and a tall profile in terms of styling, there's enough sheet metal sculpting to give the Fiesta a sporty persona without it looking overwrought or discordant. Some of us didn't care for the mail-slot mouth of the hatchback or the stubby trunk of the sedan, but overall we felt the Fiesta had a classy look.
Inside, there is an impressive amount of quality, soft-touch materials, such as on the dash and door panels. It's obvious that Ford made an effort to give the Fiesta's cabin a relatively upscale feel that's rare in this segment, where hard plastic everywhere (even on the door armrests) is more the norm. Our test car's optional leather seating with its contrasting piping added to the luxury feel, and build quality on our test car was excellent, with quality materials and precise panel gaps evident.
Who should consider this vehicle
Ford claims that two quite disparate demographics will find the Fiesta appealing — young professionals getting their first new car and baby boomers looking for a more sensible vehicle than what they may have been driving (such as a gas-guzzling SUV whose capabilities go unused). Though shy on ultimate cargo capacity, the 2011 Ford Fiesta should be on the short list of anyone looking for a space-efficient, easy-to-park gas sipper that also happens to be enjoyable to drive.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.
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