First Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta

The Fiesta is no less fun around town, where its point-and-squirt dimensions make zipping past bloated Priuses a piece of cake. And on the highway, where small cars are often loud and rough, and small four-cylinders droning and annoying, the Fiesta is a revelation. Wind noise is extraordinarily well muted, even at triple-digit speeds, and its engine, though audible when it's working hard, is never boomy or harsh.

Fiesta buyers can choose between two transmissions. The base five-speed manual has a light, slightly ropy shifter, but a light and progressive clutch that makes shifting easy. The engine computer even monitors the position of the clutch and accelerator pedal and will adjust throttle opening to help you shift more smoothly. This is a pretty surprising feature in an entry-level car.

The optional automatic is Ford's first dual-clutch automated manual, a six-speed called PowerShift. Ford did no wrong here, either -- it does a better imitation of a conventional automatic than any almost any other dual-clutch. A hill-holder function prevents unwanted rollback on hills, and clutch engagement off the line is nearly as smooth and linear as a torque-converter automatic. Helping solidify your impression that this is a conventional automatic is the unfortunate lack of any manual controls -- neither as steering-wheel paddles or a manual gate in the gear selector.

With an additional gear, the automatic has not only more closely spaced gears, but also a wider ratio spread -- and as a result, it's not only quicker around town, but also more efficient. It sounds a little optimistic to us, but Ford expects formal EPA tests to come in at 29/38 mpg with the manual, 30/40 mpg with the automatic. Those are well ahead of all of the competition, especially the Fit, which manages 28/35 at best.

As mentioned before, the Fit is still the king of space utilization. The Honda is 1.5 inches longer, but has 3.3 inches of extra legroom in the back. And in this size category, that makes the difference between a genuinely usable rear bench and one suitable only for occasional use. (Even the Toyota Yaris, which is ten inches shorter, has more rear legroom.) And the Fiesta offers no additional cargo room as a consolation prize -- in fact, the Honda Fit's trunk is about 50 percent bigger. And its seats perform an origami flip-and-fold that the Fiesta's don't.

The front seat of the Fiesta isn't perfect, either. The seats are surprisingly supportive given how soft they feel, but the seatback rake adjuster is almost completely hidden out of reach. And the steeply raked windshield is plagued with reflections from the dashboard in nearly any light. Luckily, those distractions are eliminated with polarized sunglasses, which don't blank out any of the Fiesta's LCD displays.

And the Fiesta really impresses with a multitude of available electronic features you wouldn't expect in this class. Things like SYNC, heated seats, and steering wheel audio controls. Unfortunately, SYNC isn't seamlessly integrated into the Fiesta, a car originally designed without it. As a result, the most commonly used steering-wheel control -- audio volume -- was replaced with SYNC buttons. And even though SYNC now supports apps like Pandora music streaming for your Blackberry, no full navigation system is available -- only a turn-by-turn system.

The biggest blunder in the SYNC integration is the USB and auxiliary audio input jacks by the shifter. They're out in the open, and leaving your audio device hooked up invites theft. And let's face it, the little Fiesta will be drawing a lot of attention to itself parked on the road.

A four-door sedan version of the Fiesta is being launched simultaneously, but its styling is nowhere near as successful as the hatchback's. Formal sedans look best when they're long, and like most teensy notchbacks, the Fiesta sedan's proportions are a bit awkward -- at least compared to the hatch. Moreover, the four-door's front styling is different, replacing the hatch's European grille with the three-bar grille from other North American Fords. It doesn't work.

And when you look at the Fiesta sedan amongst its competitors, its diminutive interior room really starts to be an issue. It has almost seven inches less legroom than the Nissan Versa sedan (!), and its trunk is far smaller than either the Versa, the Suzuki SX4, or the Toyota Yaris four-door.

The Suzuki is the hotrod of this bunch, with a 150-hp 2.0-liter four-cylinder that easily out-guns the rest of the pack. And even though it's a fun car to drive, it can't match the Fiesta in the fun-to-drive category. Or the fuel economy category. Or the "look at me" styling department.

Looks like the cynics can relax.

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