This fall, Ford of Europe is launching an all-new version of its popular Fiesta, a model that Ford has sold for the past 32 years. Available in both 2-door hatchback and 4-door hatchback body styles, the new Fiesta competes in what is known in most global automotive markets as the "B" segment. In America, we call cars of this size "subcompacts." Previously, Ford brought the Fiesta to America only once, in the very late 1970s, and only for a few years, but this time, the Fiesta was designed and engineered expressly to meet the needs of all of Ford's global automotive markets, including North America.
The Fiesta, then, is the first evidence of the automaker's new "One Ford" philosophy, wherein it is leveraging its worldwide resources to build a portfolio of cars that can, with minor variations, be sold anywhere that Ford sells cars. Therefore, the Fiesta is a very big deal to the Ford Motor Company.
The Fiesta could be a very big deal for American consumers, too, when it arrives here in two years as a 2011 model, because it is likely to be the first truly world-class subcompact car to come out of Detroit. Finally, here is an answer to the Honda Fit, the Toyota Yaris, and the Nissan Versa: a small car that promises to look good, drive well, and reward, rather than punish, its owners.
European High Style
The Fiesta adheres to the "kinetic" styling philosophy born and bred in Ford's European design studios and seen in such highly regarded European-market products as the Mondeo sedan, the Kuga crossover, and the Focus (a completely different beast than the aged car we still get in America). Dramatically elongated headlamps, bold trapezoidal grilles, muscular wheel flares, chunky rocker panels, and sharply drawn shoulder lines are the common characteristics of kinetic styling, and they are effectively used in the new Fiesta.
The car we'll get in America in late 2010 will look very similar to the Fiestas going on sale now in Europe, but we will get a traditional four-door notchback sedan as well as a four-door hatchback sedan. Ford has already given us a very clear indication of what our car will look like in the form of the Verve concept sedan from the 2008 Detroit auto show.
A Cell Phone-inspired Cabin
Marin Burela, executive director of small cars for Ford of Europe, says that when they conducted consumer research on the new Fiesta, potential customers "asked for style, and more style. And then when you're done," they said, "add even more style for good measure." So, the Fiesta's instrument panel sweeps and swells across the cabin, punctuated by a protruding center stack and a shrouded instrument binnacle in front of the driver. The secondary controls splayed out on the center stack were inspired by that ubiquitous accessory of modern life, the mobile phone, as a nod to the young target audience. There's a display screen above those slanted buttons, just like on your cell phone. It all works pretty well, even if the design is a bit busy. A pleasant padded plastic material covers the upper part of the instrument panel, and the plastics used in most of the center stack are decent enough, but the plastics in the inner door panels and the glove box are not much higher than Rubbermaid-grade.
The front seats of the Fiesta are quite comfortable. The Sport model gets thicker side bolsters. Legroom and foot room in the rear is a bit tight; a five-foot, ten-inch driver sitting behind himself found his knees digging into the front seat. The Fiesta lacks the Honda Fit's clever rear seat bottoms that can fold up to create a flat load floor. The hatch opens to reveal a fairly tall and spacious cargo area.
No Navigation Here
Ford at present is not offering a built-in navigation system in the Fiesta; the company says that B-segment customers in Europe are simply too price-conscious to spring for such an expensive option. This assertion flies in the face of the company's stated view that customers will increasingly migrate to the B-segment from larger cars and will expect their new B-cars to be as well equipped. Will the U.S.-spec Fiesta be offered with a navigation system? Time will tell. You can bet that Ford's U.S. product planners will watch the take rate on the newly available navigation system on the all-new 2009 Honda Fit: if a sizable number of U.S. Fit buyers purchase navigation, Ford likely will deem it worthwhile for the U.S. Fiesta, too. It's also possible that Ford will offer a feature wherein navigation devices in cell phones and PDAs could be tapped into via Bluetooth or similar technology.
Little Engines, Big Fun
Four-cylinder gasoline engines in 1.3-, 1.4-, and 1.6-liter displacement are offered in Europe, as well as turbodiesel four-cylinder engines in 1.4- and 1.6-liter displacements. We sampled two Fiesta models: a base, four-door car with the 1.6-liter diesel and a two-door Sport model with the 1.6-liter Duratec Ti-VCT. Both cars were equipped with the five-speed manual transmission.
The diesel-engined car was equipped with keyless, push-button start. The diesel is not super-quiet on start-up, but it quickly settles into a virtually unnoticeable thrum. You have to work the gearbox pretty hard to extract the available 89 hp and 150 lb-ft of torque, but once you learn to keep the revs between about 2500 and 4500 rpm, you've got more than sufficient oomph for passing and dashing in and out of traffic. Most notably, Ford estimates that the diesel will deliver 76 mpg in the European combined cycle, but the company has not yet decided whether to offer that engine here.
We also drove a 2-door Sport model equipped with the most powerful of the gasoline engines, the 1.6-liter Ti-VCT, which is what we'll definitely get in our 2011 Fiesta in America. With 118 hp and 112 lb-ft of torque, it also requires an active hand on the shifter, but your reward is surprisingly sprightly acceleration. This engine is rated at 48 mpg in the European combined cycle, which is still an impressive figure.
By the time the Fiesta arrives in America, it will likely be offered with a five-speed automatic rather than its current four-speed. Time will tell whether the five-speed manual gets upgraded to a six-speed.
Chassis: Simply Ingredients, Exemplary Results
The Fiesta has a simple strut-type suspension setup in front and a relatively rudimentary beam axle in the rear. Chassis tuning is exemplary, easily beating the car's Japanese competitors. The Sport model features the usual stiffer springs and dampers, a 10-millimeter-lower ride height (less than one-half inch), and more torque feedback for the steering, for better feel. The brakes are vented discs at the front, drums at the rear. ABS and stability control are standard. Wheel sizes range from 14 inches in diameter to 15, 16, and 17 inches.
The Best-Driving Car in the B-Segment
In base form, the Fiesta provides a very compliant ride and quite good body control, especially side-to-side. The brakes are responsive, with good pedal modulation, but there is some minor pitch and dive under braking. The steering is among the best of any small car's; very communicative and accurate and full of feel, such that we always felt confident tossing the car into a corner on the hilly two-lane roads that we drove between Grossetto and Sienna, Italy. The thin-rimmed steering wheel is also nice, as it feels good running through your hands.
As impressive as the base car is, the Fiesta with the Sport package is a revelation. The car is incredibly tied down, the steering has even more feel, and body control is remarkable. We had a blast in a two-door, gasoline-engined Fiesta Sport on an early-morning run along a road that twists its way up and down a mountain near Sienna. The car was completely composed, never put a foot wrong, and was downright fun to drive. With a curb weight of approximately 2553 pounds, the Fiesta reminded us of the rewards of driving a modestly powered but properly tuned, lightweight car. While we were blasting along that road, it occurred to us that we were having more fun than we would be in a high-powered sports car or grand tourer. The Fiesta, of course, is front-wheel drive, not rear-wheel drive, but understeer is minimal and it's easy to push the car through long sweeping curves and to make minor corrections to the steering wheel without upsetting your intended path.
Ford's North American engineering team is still pondering whether to bring the Sport package to America, but if they don't offer it as an option, they are fools. It shouldn't be standard spec, of course, because most Americans will be happier with the base suspension calibrations, but it should certainly be available to those who want it.
It Cannot Come Soon Enough
The biggest problem with the all-new Ford Fiesta is that it won't arrive at U.S. Ford dealerships for another two years. But when it does, its combination of good looks, handling, utility, comfort, and fuel economy ought to make it a standout in the burgeoning subcompact, or B-class, segment.
Ford Fiesta Sport 2-door hatch
Base Price (Great Britain, estimated): $18,000
Engine: 1.6-liter DOHC 16-valve inline-4
Horsepower: 118 hp @ 6000 rpm
Torque: 112 lb-ft @ 4052 rpm
Transmission: 5-speed manual
L x W x H: 155.5 x 77.7 x 58.3 in
Legroom F/R: 43.7/32.4 in
Headroom F/R: 39.0/37.5 in
Cargo capacity (seats up/down): 10.4/34.1 cu ft
Curb Weight: 2553 lb
European-cycle combined fuel economy (estimated) 48 mpg