The tectonic plates have shifted. The U.S. Automotive Order, little changed for the last two decades, has suddenly been upended. No longer insulated from the high fuel prices that afflict so much of the world, America needs a drastically different national motor pool, and we need it now. luckily, the fun, frugal, small cars that we crave already exist overseas, and they’re headed our way. But we couldn’t wait for them to arrive before sliding behind the wheel, So we’ve brought you early reports on nine of the most promising cars coming to America. The news is good. To their makers, we say, “Step On It!”
At the 2008 Detroit auto show, Ford gave us a first glimpse of the four-door Fiesta sedan it will start selling in the United States in 2010. Badged Verve and painted hot magenta, the stylish five-seater was purportedly only a concept car, but the Fiesta’s previous transition from 2007 Frankfurt auto show vehicle to 2009 production model confirms that we’ve actually seen the real thing.
Developed in conjunction with the Mazda 2, the new Fiesta is going on sale in Europe this fall as a two- or four-door hatchback. In 2010 or 2011, Ford likely will follow it up with a Fiesta-based compact crossover tailored to meet the needs of the American, Chinese, and Indian markets. A small coupe inspired by the discontinued, European-market Puma and a two-seat roadster modeled after the Streetka are enticing additional Fiesta body-style options, but such niche offerings will get the nod only if Ford returns to solid global profitability. The sporty Fiesta RS, which may well receive the first turbocharged, direct-injection, four-cylinder EcoBoost engine, is more likely for production.
Is the Fiesta worth waiting for? To find out, we drove several different versions of the new subcompact. First impression: this Ford is fit to fight for the small-car crown, just as the Ford Kuga can challenge the Volkswagen Tiguan for the compact-SUV trophy and the Ford Mondeo is capable of holding off the VW Passat, the Opel Insignia, and the Honda Accord, among others. The 2009 Fiesta weighs almost 90 pounds less than the car it replaces. That’s not bad at all, especially when you consider its more generous equipment, dramatically improved torsional stiffness, and enhanced safety measures, which include up to seven air bags. Although it has not grown in size, the Fiesta’s cabin is commendably roomy, and at 10.4 cubic feet, the luggage compartment will swallow a few more souvenirs than such European-market rivals as the VW Polo, the Opel Corsa, the Peugeot 207, and the Fiat Grande Punto.
The “kinetic design” that Ford currently applies to all its products is more flamboyant than functional, but apparently that’s exactly what the young target audience is looking for. The price you pay for maximum style includes a steeply raked windshield (heat intrusion, glare, reflections), a swooshy roofline (only modest rear headroom, poor three-quarter visibility), and a dashboard gone wild (debatable ergonomics, low-mounted climate controls, confusing instrumentation). There are two separate LCD screens fighting for the driver’s attention, and the multimedia interface controls require an advanced degree in joystick & keyboard sciences. At this point, you can specify neither a factory-fitted navigation system nor a sunroof in the European-market Fiesta-exactly what consumer group did Ford of Europe’s marketing people listen to? Presumably, Ford will amend equipment levels for the U.S. version.
Although the Fiesta’s engine lineup is by and large in sync with the competition, one cannot help noticing the absence of a six-speed manual transmission that would cut revs, noise, fuel consumption, and emissions. It’s also hard to understand why a brand-new model like this is let down by a four-speed automatic gearbox conceived in the dark ages of motoring. Out of the four gasoline engines rated at 60, 82, 96, and 120 hp, we drove the top-of-the-range 1.6-liter engine, which musters 112 lb-ft of torque at a high 4050 rpm. For more grunt, there’s a 90-hp, 1.6-liter diesel, which offers 150 lb-ft of torque along with excellent fuel economy (56 mpg combined in European tests). The Fiesta gasoline-fueled 1.6 Ti-VCT can accelerate from 0 to 62 mph in 9.9 seconds and reach a maximum speed of 120 mph. Sadly, the four-banger is neither particularly quiet nor smooth-running, and if the air-conditioning compressor cuts in at the wrong time, it feels as though 25 horses momentarily have given up the ghost. On the credit side, we noticed a slick and well-spaced manual transmission, brisk throttle response, and a perfectly intuitive clutch that is both smooth and progressive.
While the Zetec S version is a touch on the stiff side for most tastes, the high-end Titanium model has road manners worthy of a bigger and more expensive car. Traction and stability are rarely an issue, the ride is as good as it gets in this segment (easily bettering the Mazda 2’s), the strong roadholding benefits from the optional 195/45VR-16 tires, and the handling is both safe and quite entertaining. Devoid of such classic vices as excessive body roll and early understeer, the new Fiesta turns in with reasonable sharpness, steers with due precision, and keeps torque steer at bay. The strong grip also enhances braking performance, which is prompt, easy to modulate, and never short of staying power.
The 2009 Fiesta doesn’t reinvent the small car, but despite certain idiosyncrasies, it is good enough to compete with the leaders of the small-car pack both in Europe and America, especially in terms of styling, where the Fiesta is a class leader. If all Ford offerings were as solid as this one, the company would have probably never faced the dilemma it is currently in.
Why We Want It:
Because the European Focus isn’t here yet-this is the next best thing.
Why We Need It:
It’s a no-excuses Ford for Joe Everyman.