Proponents of the subcompact car will tell you that its low purchase price and handy dimensions deliver a combination that can't be matched for efficiency and practicality. Its detractors turn up their noses because they don't want to drive a slow, cramped tin box.
Taking up the ground between these camps are two modern examples of the subcompact car that demonstrate that driving enjoyment and frugality don't have to be mutually exclusive: the 2009 Honda Fit and 2009 Ford Fiesta. The former is one of the best small cars you can buy. So is the latter, with one crucial caveat for those of us here in the land of baseball and apple pie — you can't yet buy one here.
A New Challenger Faces the Best of the Establishment
The 2009 Ford Fiesta serves as Ford's entry in the so-called B-segment, positioned just below the Focus in terms of size and price. Though a sales darling in Europe, the Fiesta has been absent in the subcompact-averse U.S. market. Then the world went to hell, and Ford reconsidered.
Only the Blue Oval knows the gory details of how the Fiesta will be equipped when it's finally sold Stateside as a 2011 model. And it's not talking.
As such, we've take some liberties in this comparison test. The Squeeze Lime green Fiesta you see here is a Euro-spec four-door hatchback in range-topping Titanium trim, equipped with leather upholstery, keyless entry, rain-sensing wipers and automatic climate control. There's no guarantee that you'll be able to buy a Fiesta outfitted exactly like this one when the model finally appears on the floor at dealerships in the U.S. Also, its $19,358 as-tested price tag is an estimate we conjured up based on the Fiesta's positioning overseas.
The 2009 Ford Fiesta has been developed as a true world car, so differences in specification across global markets are minimized in an effort to reduce development costs and time-to-market. Although details are thin on the ground, we do know that the 2011 Ford Fiesta for the U.S. will be a tweaked version of today's Fiesta and will be powered by a 1.6-liter engine similar to the one in our Kermit green car.
From the size of its shadow to its low-impact $18,820 blow to the wallet, the 2009 Honda Fit matches up very well to the Fiesta. Although our Fit is equipped with no options per se, Honda crafts its model lineup such that options are bundled together and offered as trim levels. Hence the navigation system and upsized 16-inch wheels found on our top-of-the-line Fit Sport.
If you're a regular visitor to Inside Line, you'll recognize the blazing metallic orange 2009 Honda Fit Sport as a resident of our long-term test fleet. Don't cry foul over the 11,000 miles on our Fit's clock, as neither of these cars is exactly brand-spanking new. The Fiesta in this test is a refugee from Ford's Fiesta Movement program and its odometer reads more than 17,000 miles.
Delivering on the Small-Car Promise
Although the handling numbers we extracted from these cars don't reveal a huge chasm in performance between them, there's an asterisk — the Fiesta's stability control can't be disengaged, and this puts an artificial cap on its ultimate capabilities. As such, the Fiesta's modest 0.81g grip on our skid pad and 65.5-mph slalom speed could otherwise have been grippier and quicker yet. (Dear Ford: Include a button to switch off ESP for the U.S.-spec Fiesta.)
Still, the 2,443-pound Fiesta is the more rewarding drive here. Its steering is a benchmark in this class, from the weighting of its effort to the immediate and linear response of the chassis. Paired with firm-yet-compliant suspenders, the Fiesta feels at once substantial and lithe. You're reminded of a more expensive car in the way this car takes to the road.
Keep in mind our 2009 Ford Fiesta tester is on summer tires, which do more than simply increase outright grip at the expense of tire life; they also contribute to the Fiesta's superior steering feel and short braking distances (118 feet from 60 mph). (Dear Ford: The Fiesta's steering and handling are key factors underpinning its appeal. Don't neuter the U.S.-spec car's spunkiness by specifying crappy tires or stuffing marshmallows in its suspension.)
The 2,511-pound 2009 Honda Fit is a similarly nimble little thing. Its steering is quick around center and the little bugger can even be coaxed into a neutral cornering stance if you get rowdy and abrupt with it when the stability control has been switched off. Threading our slalom cones at 64.4 mph and generating 0.82g on our skid pad, the Fit makes the most of its 185/55R16 all-season tires. Its braking performance is mediocre, consuming 138 feet to reach a standstill from 60 mph.
Performance numbers don't tell you much about the way these cars drive in day-to-day use, though. The Fit's comically low-effort shift linkage could have come straight out of an arcade, and its steering needs constant subtle corrections to keep the car traveling in a straight line. It's nervous where the Fiesta is confident. The bottom line is that the Fiesta has moved the needle of small-car dynamics and in doing so has made the Fit feel more toylike by comparison.
Not Terribly Quick by the Clock
Similarly, the Fiesta's acceleration also suffers from its non-defeatable traction control. It reached 60 mph in 9.4 seconds (9.1 seconds with 1 foot of rollout like on a drag strip) and the quarter-mile in 16.9 at 82.1 mph in our testing, results which aren't far off the Honda's sprints of 9.5 seconds (9.4 seconds with rollout) and 16.9 seconds at 81.1 mph. This performance by the 2009 Honda Fit is a few tenths off the pace we measured when it was new, suggesting that perhaps the launch surface at our testing facility had more bite back then.
Nobody's going to be launching these things drag-strip-style, so the dead-heat acceleration numbers are a bit misleading. In the real world of stop-and-go traffic and squirting around trucks on the freeway, the 2009 Ford Fiesta is much more eager than the Honda Fit. Low-end torque is surprisingly ample in the Fiesta's 1.6-liter mill, an engine of uncanny smoothness with a deliciously fruity intake note. Keeping up in the Fit isn't as rewarding, whether it's in terms of these abstractions or actual velocity.
Our Fiesta tester's 1.6-liter four produces 118 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque on the U.S. equivalent of about 90-octane fuel. (Dear Ford: Honda found 117 hp and 106 lb-ft from its 1.5-liter engine on 87 octane. Find a way to retain the sauce's spice on 87-octane fuel.)
The Fiesta's five-speed manual shifts somewhat more like a real gearbox than the Fit's, though the linkage is a bit more vague and there's a shorter-ratio 5th gear that results in more revs at freeway speeds than U.S. consumers will be accustomed to. A slightly taller gear would also deliver better fuel economy during those long trips for which the sophisticated Fiesta is well-suited.
If the 2009 Ford Fiesta has the Fit beat in terms of dynamics, the tables turn when it comes to utility. The Honda Fit is simply a small miracle of packaging. This is a small car that doesn't fall victim to the usual small-car compromises. Its unusually large door apertures and low floor ease ingress, practically presenting the driver seat to your bum.
Once you're inside, the Fit's breezier cabin has noticeably more elbow room and slightly better sight lines than in the high-waisted Fiesta. Both headroom and legroom are noticeably more crowded in the Fiesta's backseat than in the Fit.
The cargo area of the 2009 Honda Fit also edges the Fiesta. When the backseat is up, there's little difference in volume between the two cars, but the Fit flat-out embarrasses the Fiesta when the seat is stowed. Honda's articulating backseat transforms the space behind the front seats into a flat, low loading floor, while the Fiesta's thick rear seatbacks simply flop forward, forming a cargo volume shaped more like a pinched wedge.
Cabin material quality is generally better in the Ford and the layout presents more gracefully than the Fit's polarizing design aesthetic. Save for the Fiesta center stack's chintzy silver plastic, you're surrounded mostly by textured black surfaces that appear richer than those in the Honda.
However, the Honda's secondary controls — window switches, wiper interface, center stack controls — are more consistently located right where you expect them and operate more intuitively. (Dear Ford: Rethink the Fiesta's secondary controls for the U.S market.)
A New Phenomenon
In a way, this comparison is a matter of horses for courses, as each car has distinct strengths that will appeal to different buyers — the Fit for its practicality and the Fiesta for its superior driving experience.
The 2009 Ford Fiesta emerges victorious because it sweats the small stuff. Steering feel isn't something its buyer would expect, yet the Fiesta delivers. Same goes for its soothing engine note. Or the way the steering wheel feels custom-made for your hands, or the mechanical sound of the door latch. In the Fiesta, Ford has elevated the subcompact concept to something that's a bit more special than even the very accomplished 2009 Honda Fit.
True, factoring in the pivotal issues of equipment and cost here has involved some hocus-pocus. Yet the Fiesta's lead in our scoring is such that Ford will have to comprehensively botch things up on the value front for the 2011 Ford Fiesta to fail in the U.S. If Ford could rejigger the Fiesta's backseat to perform the shenanigans of the one in the Fit, it would really be onto something. (Dear Ford...)
The manufacturers provided Edmunds these vehicles for the purposes of evaluation.
We're keeping it simple with the top features in this comparison test. The way we see it, if you have enough money to fritter away on extravagances, you'd just go ahead and get a more expensive car. With that said, the standard equipment levels are very high for these two entry-level subcompact cars, and the features that distinguish them are rather high-zoot items. Check it out:
||2009 Ford Fiesta
||2009 Honda Fit
|Automatic climate control
O*: Optional but not equipped on test vehicle
N/A: Not Available
Automatic climate control: Once you set the temperature, the car adjusts the fan speed, direction and heat (or A/C) to achieve it. The Fiesta offers it; the Fit does not.
Keyless entry/ignition: No key is required; a special fob in your pocket alerts the car to your presence. The doors unlock and then you simply press a button to start the engine. Our Fiesta tester has it, and it's optional on the Fit, though ours is not so equipped.
Leather upholstery: Spills are easy to wipe up when the seats are covered in cowhide.
Navigation system: Navigation is a handy tool that constitutes a proportionally larger chunk of an entry-level car's price tag. Only the Honda offers it.
Rain-sensing wipers: Usually found in luxury vehicles, this feature found only in the Fiesta removes the burden of turning on the wipers when it rains.
||2009 Ford Fiesta
||2009 Honda Fit
Personal Rating (2.5%): Purely subjective. After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the two cars in order of preference based on which he or she would buy if money were no object.
Recommended Rating (2.5%): After the test, each participating editor was asked to rank the two cars in order of preference based on which he or she thought would be best for the average consumer shopping in this segment.
28-Point Evaluation (30%): Each participating editor ranked the cars based on a comprehensive 28-point evaluation. The evaluation covered everything from exterior design to cupholders. Scoring was calculated on a point system, and the scores listed are averages based on all test participants' evaluations.
Feature Content (15%): For this category, the editors picked the top five features they thought would be most beneficial to the consumer shopping in this segment. For each vehicle, the score was based on the number of actual features it had versus the total possible. Standard and optional equipment were taken into consideration.
Performance Testing (20%): Both cars underwent our full complement of performance tests, including 0-60-mph and quarter-mile acceleration and 60-0-mph braking as well as standardized slalom and skid pad handling tests. All tests were performed by the same driver using the same equipment on the same day.
Price (30%): The numbers listed were the result of a simple percentage calculation based on the less expensive car in the comparison test. Using the "as tested" prices of the actual evaluation vehicles, the less expensive car received a score of 100, with the remaining car receiving a lesser score based on how much the other one costs.