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For nearly two years we've been teased by the latest incarnation of the Ford Fiesta, a car that's sold some 750,000 copies worldwide since its introduction last year.
Early on, we flew to Europe to drive the continental version and came back impressed and impatient for an Americanized one. Soon after, viral-marketing test samples with U.S.-specification speedometers and Michigan plates appeared in our neighborhood in the hands of Fiesta Movement "agents." Eventually, the unprecedented marketing wave crested and we finally got our hands on a loaded, Euro-spec 2009 Ford Fiesta Titanium to test on our home soil.
And it was very good.
But this was still a European car, complete with sticky summer tires, slim bumpers and a need for premium fuel. What would an Americanized Fiesta be like? Would Ford screw it up in translation? We would have to wait, fingers crossed, for the answer.
Wait No More
At the Embarcadero in San Francisco, an attendant brings a 2011 Ford Fiesta SES hatchback painted in aptly named Yellow Blaze Metallic paint to the curb and hands us the keys.
Key fob is more like it, because this one has an optional push-button entry and keyless start system that comes with heated front-seat cushions and other goodies our Euro tester never had (for $795). We open the door and settle into supportive black leather-trimmed seats with ivory piping ($715). How much does this thing cost, anyway?
According to the window sticker in the glovebox, our top-line SES hatch starts at $17,795, including $675 for destination. Standard features include Sync, Sirius Satellite Radio, an upgraded 80-watt six-speaker stereo, 195/50R16 all-season tires, cruise control and audio controls on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, bonus interior and exterior lighting and other details. The aforementioned options, plus another $300 for the Screaming Yellow Zonker paint, bring the total up to $19,605.
The price can go up further if you add a moonroof ($695) or the six-speed automatic ($1,070). The latter is desirable because in reality it's a slick-shifting dual-clutch automated manual transmission (but with manual shifting capability curiously absent), and it helps the Fiesta deliver its best fuel economy, an estimated 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.
Preparing for Liftoff
As it stands, our version of the 2011 Ford Fiesta with its five-speed manual is said to deliver 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. And, unlike the European model, our U.S.-spec Ford Fiesta is happy with 87-octane regular unleaded. We stop at a gas station near Candlestick Park (or whatever the San Francisco 49ers are calling it these days) for a top-up.
While we wait for the 12-gallon tank to fill through the Easy Fuel capless fuel filler, we pair our iPhone with Sync so we can make hand-free calls and stream Bluetooth audio. But this version of Sync includes something new called Traffic, Directions and Information (TDI).
TDI is essentially turn-by-turn navigation that's integrated into Sync's voice command structure, but it actually uses your Bluetooth-paired phone (smart or dumb) to make a toll-free call to an automated operator who asks you your destination. Once complete, the route is downloaded into the car, the call hangs up and guidance begins via voice commands and visual prompts on the in-car screen.
But we're not following the boring recommended route on the trip back home. No, the European-spec Ford Fiesta that we tested before was an engaging car in the corners, so we're headed for some twisty two-lane back roads our motorcycle buddies told us about.
The Road to Highway 25
The first hundred miles or so are basic freeway, with few turns. But even here the 2011 Ford Fiesta SES impresses with rock-solid straight stability and precise steering. It has an electric-assisted power steering system (EPS), but the clarity and weight is just about perfect.
That's due in part to two very useful programming tricks contained in this Fiesta's EPS system. Anti-drift logic counteracts the effects of crosswinds and excessive road camber, and an anti-nibble program cancels out cyclic vibrations that come from minute wheel imbalance or coarse road inputs.
On top of that, the height-adjustable seats, tilt-and-telescoping wheel and chunky leather-wrapped steering wheel combine to form a comfortable driving position (even for someone who stands 6-foot-2, like us). The ride is steady and well damped, and it's pretty quiet, too. Our 2011 Ford Fiesta is composed and steady in a way other small cars are not. Does this mean they sucked the life out of it in the corners? We'll soon see.
Hollister to Taft
Highway 25 twists, turns and dives, but few of the corners are slow. It's a momentum road, one that rewards precise line work and good rhythm behind the wheel. The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES's 195/50R16 Hankook all-season tires respond predictably to the sprightly steering ratio (14.3:1, 2.6 turns lock-to-lock) and provide dependable grip. Here in the real world, we also don't notice the lack of an "off" position for the standard electronic stability control.
Days later, at the test track, our instruments will tell us that this Fiesta can pull 0.82g on the skid pad, 0.01g more than the Euro Fiesta did on its summer tires. On the other hand, we'll also learn that our U.S. Fiesta goes through the slalom at 62.2 mph, 3.3 mph less than the Euro version.
But we don't know that yet. Here on California Highway 25 (and now CA Highway 198), all we know is that this Fiesta reminds us of our old second-generation Honda CRX, only yellower and vastly better equipped. It doesn't roll much, it deftly connects apex to apex and it allows us to maintain a good head of steam through narrow twisties.
This U.S.-spec Fiesta rides on the same basic suspension, but it weighs 114 pounds more than the '09 Titanium we tested (2,557 pounds vs. 2,443 pounds as measured by our scales). Some of the extra weight resides in the subtly extended front and rear bumpers, as the American version is 4.5 inches longer.
But other safety and noise enhancements are in place, too. The U.S. Fiesta has a driver's knee airbag, plus front, side and side curtain airbags -- seven in all. To compensate for the additional mass, the front springs are 10 percent firmer, the front stabilizer links are more direct and the rear shocks are reworked, but otherwise it's the same stuff in these fenders.
Up and Over the Mountain
At Taft, we refill the tank and discover we've averaged 39.1 mpg since we started. On the straights, we never went faster than 75 mph, but the Fiesta didn't need to slow down a whole lot for the corners, either. If this is hypermiling, sign us up.
Next comes another great motorcycle road, Cerro Noroeste, but this one climbs over a 6,000-foot mountain pass before it rejoins Interstate 5. Here the biggest change to the U.S. version of the 2011 Ford Fiesta, the one that helps achieve its impressive fuel economy, becomes apparent.
Where the European five-speed manual transmission feels like a close-ratio gearbox, the U.S. Fiesta is geared to run at lower rpm at highway speeds, about 2,600 rpm at 60 mph versus the Euro car's 3,000 rpm at 60 mph. At 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, the U.S. version of the Ford 1.6-liter Ti-VCT inline-4 doesn't make any less power, but the more widely spaced gears make it feel a bit less playful when you come to a tight corner and gear down to accelerate.
On the other hand, we refill once more at home after going up and down the mountain (and cruising on the freeway a bit), and this time 41.4 mpg comes up on our calculator. Remarkable.
Seesawing at the Track
Later at the test track we discover the U.S. 2011 Ford Fiesta accelerates willingly from a standstill because 1st and 2nd gears are actually shorter than those of its overseas counterpart. To 45 mph, the two versions are neck and neck.
But on the way to 60 mph, the U.S. car needs to shift to a tallish 3rd gear, and its 0-60 time sags to 10.0 seconds (or 9.7 seconds with1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip). Meanwhile the Euro edition gets there in 9.4 seconds (9.0 seconds with rollout), under full power at the top of 2nd gear.
Nevertheless, our 2011 Ford Fiesta claws half of that gap back at the quarter-mile, as it can hold 3rd gear to finish in 17.2 seconds at 80.4 mph, while the European car must grab 3rd gear and then 4th before crossing in 16.9 seconds at 81.6 mph.
Sigh. A six-speed manual would be nice.
But we have no qualms about the brakes. They're firm, effective and easy to modulate. Here at the track, the 2011 Ford Fiesta does the panic stop trick in 119 feet on its all-season rubber, just 1 foot shy of the mark laid down by its European cousin on summer rubber.
What It All Means
It's clear that Ford has tried to make sure the Americanized version of the new Ford Fiesta didn't go all soft. This car brakes, steers and handles every bit as well as the European Fiesta we tested last year. It rides with the steadiness of a bigger car, yet it doesn't feel heavy.
A bit of performance has been traded for fuel economy, but even here the U.S.-spec Ford Fiesta is about as quick as a Honda Fit (with stability control similarly enabled) while achieving about 3 or 4 mpg more. The gains are meaningful and we think it has been a worthwhile trade.
On top of that, the 2011 Ford Fiesta range has a longer list of standard and optional equipment than most, if not all, subcompacts. One could easily spend $2,000 or $3,000 less than our test car by starting with an SE or avoiding premium paint, push-button start and leather.
We're relieved to say that the 2011 Ford Fiesta SES is a compelling subcompact that retains much of what drew us to the new Fiesta in the first place. They didn't screw it up. Time to uncross those fingers. Ford just hit another home run.
The manufacturer provided Edmunds this vehicle for the purposes of evaluation.
Executive Editor Michael Jordan says:
This is such a great car to drive. Just like the best of the Euro-designed Fords, it has the same instinct for the road you find in rally cars. It's small but tough. Light, but not flimsy. Affordable but not cheap. The Fiesta is so utterly honest and predictable that you hardly realize just how fast you're going until you see all the traffic growing smaller in your mirrors. It has the very thing that makes the Volkswagen GTI such a spectacular piece: plenty of everything you want, yet no more than you need.
Ever since Scion made small, cheap cars respectable, we've all been paying a lot more attention to these auto-troglodytes, basic cars not far from the bottom of the evolutionary ladder. The Honda Fit and the first-generation Scion xB became incredibly popular because they are such miracles of packaging in the Japanese style, offering cubic yards of multifunctional interior space in an exterior package that has a small footprint. The Ford Fiesta is a bit more the European interpretation of the same thing, which emphasizes cross-country speed and comfort to go along with a utility package that is a step down from the Honda Fit. For me, this is the cheap car for drivers (although we'll have to drive a $15,000 version to say something definitive on that score).
Ford has bet the farm on small, cheap cars, and it's great to see that it's probably going to work out. Best of all, the things that are so essential in a cheap and cheerful car -- maneuverability, fuel economy, safety, durability and, oddly enough, comfort -- are also the very design guidelines from which every car benefits. Personally I get what cheap cars are about and this is one that I look forward to driving every time I see it.
The Edmunds TCO® estimated monthly insurance payment for a 2011 Ford Fiesta in WA is: