COLORFUL AND FUN, THE FIESTA LIVES UP TO ITS NAME
For years now, I have scratched my big balding head in bewilderment at Ford’s refusal to bring its impressive world-class European models to the United States. There were attempts, mind you, in the form of the ill-fated Merkur brand in mid 80s, or the poor Ford Contour and Mercury Mystique, so watered down to meet American tastes that they became mere shells of their former Continental selves. So you’ll have to forgive my skepticism when Ford invited me to test drive the 2011 Fiesta, the much-lauded European minicar scheduled to make its U.S. debut this summer. Would the suspensions be dialed back so far as to resemble riding atop marshmallow fluff in a tube? Would the interior be stripped of any semblance of original thought, replaced by generic Ford plastics and idiot lights? Would I even want to spend the week driving this thing? The answers to my questions were soon revealed in a quick test drive through the winding hills outside San Francisco, California, and the answers surprised even me..
My first inkling that something at Ford had gone horribly right occurred upon my arrival at the hotel. There, parked along the entrance, were three Fiestas. The first car, a SEL Sedan slathered in electric lime green paint, immediately caught my eye. But, as I drew closer, it was not the car’s sleek body, but the interior that made my processed cheese-laden American heart beat faster (or so says Jeremy Clarkson). Not only was the original European dashboard completely intact, the interior itself was replete with–wait for it–color! On this car it was a lovely cashmere leather and vinyl combo with contrasting piping; and the color wasn’t just on the seat surface as is the case with so many cars. No, the materials covered the entire seat from front to back and top to bottom. I then cast my gaze toward the second car, a stunning little magenta number in hatchback form; it too had matching magenta (Ford calls it “plum red” but I know better) leather seats. I mean, is it me, or do the top-of-the-line Fiestas now seem more opulent than a Lincoln MKS? I grant you it’s a bit of a stretch, but to those of us who consider individuality and unique styling cues — not endless hordes of technology — to be the true hallmark of a refined motor car, it’s not much of a stretch.
After a brief walkaround, I grabbed my keys and headed toward my ride for the day. Climbing inside the Fiesta revealed a set of terrifically comfortable bucket seats, a thick-grip steering wheel, a proper dead pedal on which to rest one’s left foot and an instrument cluster and dash design that could easily have come from the best Italian design studios. While I found most of the controls simple to view and operate, my old man eyes did have a bit of problem with the smallish monitor used to display the audio and SYNC features; its all-red LCD readouts are rather diminutive, making them sometimes hard to read, especially in strong sunlight. One other gripe of note is the absence of a volume regulator on the steering-wheel mounted controls. Not a deal killer by any means, but worthy of mention nonetheless.
As impressive as the Fiesta is to behold, it’s even more amazing in motion. Powered by a feisty 120-horsepower, 1.6-liter engine, the Fiesta’s ability to dart in and out of traffic, as well as quickly merge from freeway onramps, is truly impressive. The five speed manual not only provides clean, precise shifts, but its clutch is so light and easy to engage that even first-time manual drivers will feel comfortable behind the wheel. For those who don’t care to shift their own gears, Ford’s new PowerShift six-speed automatic employs a twin-clutch setup that allows for rapid shifts and excellent fuel economy, an estimated 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. Complimenting the Fiesta’s efficient powertrain is an equally capable suspension. With go-kart like handling, a smooth ride and cabin so quiet you’ll swear you’re driving a mid-size sedan, the Fiesta trumps everything in its class. And, despite its bargain basement price, the Fiesta employs a fair bit of high tech wizardry, such as an electric power steering system that includes Pull-Drift compensation to help keep the car moving in a straight line even when the road surface is crowning or the wind is pushing the vehicle from the side..
Ford offers the Fiesta in two body styles, sedan and hatchback, covered in a dizzying array of color choices including Lime Squeeze, Yellow Blaze and Blue Flame. The base S sedan features a tilt/telescopic steering wheel, AM/FM stereo with auxiliary audio and USB jacks, a rear defroster, 60/40 spilt folding rear seat, power side mirrors and 15-inch steel wheels with covers. The five-door trims start with the SE, which adds single CD player, message center, power door locks and windows and a rear decklid spoiler. The premium SEL sedan and SES hatchback include 16-inch alloy wheels, 80-watt six-speaker audio and LED driving lamps with chrome bezels; these upper end models can be equipped with heated leather seating, SIRIUS satellite radio, a power sunroof, adjustable color ambient lighting and push button start. Also available is Ford’s widely acclaimed SYNC voice-activated communication and entertainment system that includes Bluetooth connectivity, 911 Assist, Directions and Information services, and steering-wheel mounted controls. Unique features include the Easy Fuel Capless Fuel Filler (just open the fuel door and fill ‘er up) and the external locking/unlocking keypad, a great add-on to have when you can’t take your remote fob with you.
For the record, leather trim is an option, as are many of the Fiesta’s upscale trappings. But, even the base car comes nicely equipped with such helpful features as seven airbags including side-curtain and a driver’s side knee airbag, quad headlamps, electronic stability control, and a set of integrated blind spot side mirrors. With the sedan starting around $13,000 and the five-door hatch just hair over $15,000, the Fiesta is real steal. Even after tossing in some of the more exotic options, such as heated leather seats, the SYNC audio system, and the Intelligent Access with push button start, the Fiesta barely pushes past the $22,000 mark. But while the Fiesta’s long list of cool features puts it well ahead of such competitors as the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris, it’s the car’s willing engine, slick shifting five-speed manual transmission, and incredibly responsive suspension that makes this the sweetheart of the subcompact set.