First Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta

This little Ford Fiesta is big news, especially for the cynics in the room. Not because cynics prefer small cars -- although perhaps they do -- but because the Fiesta's arrival in the U.S. puts to rest any lingering suspicion that Alan Mulally was full of beans when he promised his company would quit slapping new styling on the same old sleds and marketing them as all-new cars.

Hello, Taurus? Yeah, buddy, we're talking to you. And Focus? Wipe that smirk off your face; you're no better.

Mulally told us to expect hot new products from the other side of the Atlantic, where Ford's cars are winning both awards and buyers. First up was the Transit Connect, which won the North American Truck of the Year award before anyone here even knew what it was. No disrespect, but the Transit is basically a commercial vehicle, so its appeal, though legit, is still limited in scope.

Not so the straight-from-Europe Fiesta, which is about to land in a segment that's probably bigger than you thought. According to Ford, one in five new cars sold in the U.S. is a small car -- and that number is growing. The subcompact hatchback market practically didn't exist five years ago, and certainly didn't contain anything you'd actually want to drive: any of you happily own a Reno? A Rio? An Aveo?

Didn't think so.

The Honda Fit changed all of that because it was the first subcompact hatch you didn't have to hide from your friends. The Fiesta goes one step further: it's the first car in this segment you'll want to show off to your friends. Deny it all you like, but humans are a shallow bunch, and you can be sure some Fiestas will find homes based on their looks alone.

On the other hand, the success of the dorky Fit proves that looks aren't everything. The Honda's trump card is packaging, which the Fiesta doesn't do so well. What the Ford does, however, is something none of its competitors -- including the Fit -- does: it drives like a grown-up hot hatch.

Okay, a warm-hatch -- the 1.6-liter under the hood isn't even powerful enough to spin the front tires. But despite being devoid of exhilarating acceleration, the Fiesta is remarkably fun to drive. In fact, it's a full-on back road party, coming alive on roads where the Fit would be no fun at all. Ford's electrically assisted steering rack is light on the feedback, but its ratio is quick and its accuracy flawless.

Ditto the suspension, which provides a sports-sedan ride with perfect body control. Big bumps don't faze the Fiesta, and it remains delightfully neutral through corners. Like every other car in the class, the Fiesta uses a cost-saving torsion beam suspension in the rear, but Volkswagen proved decades ago that small cars can be big fun with well-sorted non-independent rears.

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