SAN FRANCISCO, CA-
They didn't do it! They resisted the temptation to follow the path they've always taken. Ford didn't "Americanize" the 2011 Fiesta.
They didn't soften it up, dumb it down or otherwise destroy the inherent goodness in the new sub-compact that has taken the rest of the world by storm. After driving a European model last summer, I was impressed with the level of refinement, the precise steering and leech-like handling of the little wonder. At the time I commented that it would be a shame if Ford messed this one up when developing the version to be sold in North America.
Not that my view held any weight; it was just one in a sea of similar sentiments voiced by everyone who drove those European-spec Fiestas shipped to the Fairview Cove container Terminal in Nova Scotia for a cross-country tour of journalists and dealers.
Since that time development has continued and very little was changed in preparing the Fiesta that will roll off a Mexican assembly line and into Ford stores in late May.
The biggest changes were to accommodate different safety regulations and tires. Additional stiffening was necessary to meet tougher crash-impact regulations and the chassis was left pretty much alone with exception of different spring, damping and steering calibration to accommodate the different handling and response characteristics of the all-season tires fitted here as standard equipment.
The Fiesta was originally developed for the summer-only rubber, common in Europe. "We worked very hard to maintain the excellent ride/handling balance the Fiesta is known for," chief engineer Greg Burgess told me during the unveiling here.
His team accomplished that feat. The Fiesta feels like a much bigger car with none of the busy ride qualities associated with a small, light vehicle. The ride is firm but not unpleasantly so. The behaviour when the road develops the bends is exemplary with little sway or lean and excellent transient response. The electric steering is precise and devoid of the unnecessary lightness many such systems are saddled with.
While the ride/handling relationship is a highlight of this newcomer, the favourable impressions begin the minute you get in and sit down. The design is modern and the ergonomics excellent. The quality of materials and controls and the manner in which they have been assembled is worthy of a much bigger bottom line. The twin-analog dials informing you of engine and road speed flank a square digital readout that can be set to display a variety of information. Below this is an analog fuel gauge.
The centre stack is topped by a 10-cm square digital display that, depending on trim and option package, can display audio and Sync functions. Our neighbours to the south can also order turn-by-turn navigation.
The audio system controls lie below and further down, but not out of reach, are the HVAC controls, all this arrayed in an interesting splayed layout. Soft touch materials across the entire dash surface add to the upscale feel.
Turn the key, or push a button in top trim levels, and another series of surprises awaits. This little car never got the memo that it was small, light and inexpensive. That big car quiet in such a small car is even more impressive as speeds increase to and beyond legal limits. In addition to a rock-solid structure, thanks go to an acoustic-laminated windshield, aerodynamic detail work and enhanced seals and sound absorbent materials.
The seats are wide and supportive, height adjustable for the driver. There is even a decent amount of room for two big folks in the second row. The split folding rear seats allow the trunk space to be enlarged, significantly so in the hatchback, which becomes almost cavernous.
A new aluminum 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with variable valve timing is standard as is a five-speed manual transmission. A six-speed automatic is a $1,250 option across the board.
The engine is a delight, smooth, quiet, responsive and capable of propelling the little car with reasonable haste when asked. The stats show 120 horsepower and a rather meagre 112 -lb-ft of torque. But the other important statistic is weight. The Fiesta tips the scales at a light 1140-1200 kg (2,500 · 2,650 lb), depending on model and trim. That helps not only performance, but economy.
The manual transmission has a well-sorted linkage, easy-to-find gates and a smooth, progressive clutch take-up. Excellent!
But the big news is the six-speed automatic. This is the first application of this twin-shaft, dry clutch transmission and it livens up this car. Usually you have to get a manual transmission to wring some enjoyment out of small economy-minded cars, hobbled with only four-speed automatic transmissions.
The six-speed auto in the Fiesta not only feels better, improving performance measurably, but it actually results in better fuel economy in both city and highway operation · not something you see often.
The Fiesta with a manual transmission is rated to deliver 7.1 litres/100 in the city and 5.3 on the highway. Equipped with the automatic transmission that drops to 6.9 and 5.1!
One glaring omission is the lack of steering-wheel-mounted paddle shifters for this slick transmission. Maybe later.
The most obvious competitors are the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, both of which Ford had on hand for back-to-back driving impressions. Their faith is well-placed as neither could come close to the level of refinement, extremely low noise levels and sharp handling displayed by the Fiesta. Similarly equipped they also fall short in terms of value.
Standard equipment on the $12,999 base (SE) Fiesta four-door sedan includes: tilt and telescope steering wheel, ABS, electronic stability control, seven air bags (two each: front, side, side curtain and a driver side knee bag) auxiliary audio input jack, satellite radio with six-month subscription and an ambient lighting system that allows the owner to chose from among seven different interior accent colours.
Move up to the $16,099 SE four door or the base (SE) $16,799 five-door and you get automatic locks, remote keyless entry, air conditioning, an audio upgrade, power windows and various minor trim upgrades.
The line-topping $18,199 SEL (four-door) and $18,899 SES (five-door) come with cruise control, heated mirrors and seats, 16-inch alloy wheels, premium audio system, a bunch of trim upgrades and Ford·s Sync, voice-activated communication and entertainment system.
This embodiment of Ford·s new Global product strategy is a game changer. For the first time one of the traditional domestic manufacturers has a compelling small car, one that can not only go head to head with the best from the rest of the world, but do so with its head held high.
If Ford can persuade consumers to give it a look, success here is inevitable. Europeans, who know small cars, have already voted with their pocketbooks. The Fiesta has overtaken the VW Golf as Europe·s best-selling car this year-to-date.