Responsive controls; rewarding handling; engaging styling; stout and economical engine.
Expensive automatic transmission has quirks; marginal rear-seat legroom; 40 mpg comes in sedan-only body.
The almost supernatural growth of the subcompact segment proves car buyers in America are becoming more than off-handedly interested in better fuel economy. It's now almost mandatory for full-line automakers to offer at least one or two cars (and soon, crossovers?) sporting the 40 mpg rating on the EPA highway cycle, which has emerged as today's fuel-sipper benchmark.
The stylish 2012 Ford Fiesta — an all-new car introduced in 2011 — churns out the requisite 40-mpg rating, but you have to plump for the extra-cost Super Fuel Economy (SFE) package to get it. And going SFE does impose some limitations on how you can equip the Fiesta.
The $695 SFE package can be specified only for the Fiesta four-door sedan — less stylistically expressive than the oh-so-Euro Fiesta hatchback — and you must choose the sedan's midlevel SE trim. Moreover, choosing the Fiesta's SFE package also demands the optional $1,070 "Powershift" automatic transmission. Most buyers insist on an automatic anyway, but the traditional path to optimum fuel economy has been with a manual transmission. So if you want a Fiesta that delivers 40 mpg on the highway (as opposed to the 39-mpg rating for the standard automatic-transmission Fiesta), you must get the four-door SE sedan with an automatic transmission to purchase the SFE package.
Aside from the transmission, the SFE package includes cruise control, low-rolling-resistance tires and a number of aerodynamic trim pieces, including shutters that block drag-inducing air from backing up within the engine compartment.
Meanwhile, Hyundai never tires of saying that each and every variant of its all-new 2012 Hyundai Accent achieves the 40-mpg highway rating, as does the brand's larger Hyundai Elantra sedan, too. And other newer rivals for the Fiesta SFE, such as the turbocharged 2012 Chevrolet Sonic hatchback also boast 40 mpg on the sticker. How quickly has 40 mpg become the new standard? The Honda Fit, long reputed as one of the snazzier choices in the subcompact market but way overdue for a refresh as the 2012 calendar year begins, manages a highway fuel economy rating of just 33 mpg.
The 2012 Ford Fiesta SE with Super Fuel Economy package uses the same 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine as all Fiestas, and its 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque make for performance that's likely to exceed the expectations of drivers that can remember the wheezy subcompacts of the past. The Fiesta compares well to newer models such as the 2012 Mazda 2 and its 100 hp, not to mention the 117 hp Honda's Fit brings to the party. The Fiesta is outpunched, however, by the 138-hp four-cylinder engines of the 2012 Kia Rio, Hyundai Accent and Chevy Sonic, with the Sonic adding the enjoyment of turbocharged shove if you choose its optional 1.4-liter engine.
The Fiesta's easy-revving and nice-sounding inline-4 engine is more than competitive in its class when it comes to power, but if you want the Super Fuel Economy package, you have to back the 1.6-liter with Ford's dual-clutch six-speed automated manual transmission. Just as with all these automated manuals, the Powershift is, in effect, a six-speed manual transmission with an automated clutch, meaning it can be driven just like the conventional automatic, and there is no clutch pedal. But because it doesn't have the torque converter that makes a conventional automatic's gearshifts so imperceptible, pulling away from a standstill and certain other transitional maneuvers can be, well, not entirely smooth.
The different way in which the Powershift transmission goes about its work definitely requires an acclimation period, but it certainly achieves the goal of shifting gears automatically. When the Fiesta was introduced, some drivers reported frustration with the transmission's reluctance to let the car creep forward at engine idle, while take-offs were less than seamless and the shift logic seemed a little off. Ford engineers have worked on recalibrating the transmission's performance, and apparently it's a better match with the Fiesta's 1.6-liter engine than it initially proved to be with the larger 2.0-liter engine of the Ford Focus.
The Powershift isn't perfect, but its mechanical efficiency makes a crucial contribution in helping the Fiesta SFE achieve its high fuel economy rating. This transmission certainly wouldn't prevent us from purchasing an automatic-transmission Fiesta, and there are times when the Powershift's automated gearchanges are a delight.
The 2012 Ford Fiesta SFE is no different from other Fiesta models in that it's going to impress front-seat passengers with ample legroom, unexpectedly supportive seats, an easy reach to all the controls and just a couple of steps to find a purposeful driving position. Engine noise isn't a problem unless you're wringing out the four-cylinder to its utmost, while wind rush and road noise are acceptable but not outstanding at interstate cruising speeds.
Rear-seat occupants aren't as fortunate, with most likely to find legroom scarce and the seatback flimsy. But the Fiesta is a subcompact, after all, so a certain amount of awareness of the tight quarters isn't unusual in the second row. Older children or those in safety seats won't feel pinched, though, and the Fiesta's large-ish rear windows help, although the rising beltline might leave some shorter rear-seat passengers with the feeling of sitting too low to see out.
The Fiesta's dashboard and gauge cluster are mostly straightforward and effective, though the center stack's multiple buttons — particularly the over-the-top phone-style keypad on the right of the upper console — don't seem the easiest to use. And we find the large, multifunction main dial that controls several infotainment functions to be fiddly and nonintuitive. Best to go for one of the Fiesta's rapid-spec packages that include the always-improving Sync voice-activation technology that helps mitigate the need to use the buttons.
The four-door Fiesta body style does offer what some see as an advantage of a fully enclosed trunk, though its 12.8 cubic feet of capacity is down markedly compared to the 15.4 cubic feet available from the hatchback. The rear seat can fold in a 60/40 split, though, a boon for carrying extra-large cargo while still using the backseat for a passenger.
Design/Fit and Finish
The Fiesta impresses with several interior materials that are visibly of a higher quality than you might expect from an entry-level car. The large, soft dash top is unexpectedly nice, while most plastics employed throughout the interior avoid the über-cheap look and feel many cars in this class don't bother to hide. Controls such as the shift lever and the stalks for the turn signals and windshield wipers have a quality feel, too, and the fit and alignment of panels is good.
The Fiesta SE offers other helpful amenities such as a one-touch up-and-down function for the driver's window and USB and audio input jacks sensibly placed in the center console just forward of the cupholders.
Who should consider this vehicle
The 2012 Ford Fiesta SFE is one of the higher-style, higher-quality choices in a market segment that is being joined by surprisingly sophisticated cars every day. It has recently added excellent new entries such as the Chevrolet Sonic, Kia Rio and Toyota Yaris. The Fiesta stands out in this crowd because of its high-quality appearance and excellent driving dynamics, two things that make this car a pleasure to drive every time you're behind the wheel.
We doubt we'd put up the $695 for the Super Fuel Economy package, however. The SFE equipment delivers just a 1 mpg improvement over the 39 mpg highway rating of the everyday Fiesta, while the SFE's combined rating of 33 mpg is identical to every other Fiesta with an automatic transmission. In addition, many of the segment's newer models offer a 40 mpg highway rating throughout the model range without the need for an extra-cost package like the Fiesta SFE, which requires the expensive automatic transmission.
The 2012 Ford Fiesta is a great car that gets great gas mileage, but the price for the last mile per gallon might make you think twice.