Driven: 2011 Ford Fiesta

No offense to CNBC junkies, but the people who love cars - and most car buyers - don't really care about exploiting synergies, maximizing verticals, or any of the other corporate jargon that comes from the business side of the car business. At best, all consumers want to know is: Is it well-engineered? Is it screwed together tightly? And is it wrapped in some I-gotta-have-it sheetmetal?

Oh, and does it have Bluetooth?

The business people now have their proof that Ford wasn't full of beans when it promised we'd be getting the hot Fords that are winning awards - and buyers - in Europe. The Transit Connect got here first and won the North American Truck of the Year award before anyone could even say "what the . . . ?" But a small commercial van can only carry so much enthusiasm. The Fiesta's appeal is far broader: it's a little car with big style, a big smiles-per-mile factor, and big mpg numbers. And yes, it has Bluetooth plus the kitchen Sync, too.

About 750,000 Fiestas have found homes around the world since the sixth generation of the hatchback went on sale in late 2008. This Fiesta rides on Ford's global B-segment platform, which is shared with the upcoming Mazda 2. And it's entering a growing segment of our market - one that, only five years ago, was defined by dreadful little things called Reno, Rio, and Aveo. Today, we have the fun Suzuki SX4 and the comfortable Nissan Versa, and, of course, the king of the subcompacts, the versatile Honda Fit.

Right out of the box, though, you can see that the Fiesta has something that the dorky Fit doesn't - with headlights that nearly touch the base of the A-pillars and taillights that practically are the D-pillars, the Fiesta's ultramodern styling screams "let's go play."

And - this is a revelation in this class of cars - that sentiment actually carries through to the driving experience. Forget what you know about entry-level economy cars, the Fiesta drives like a grown-up hot hatch. Well, let's call it a "warm hatch," because 120 hp is barely enough power to spin the front tires. But the new 1.6-liter four-cylinder does love to rev, with its torque peak only 1000 rpm before the tachometer turns red. Curiously, peak power doesn't occur until 350 rpm past the 6000-rpm redline, but that just seems like permission to keep gunning for the 6500-rpm rev limiter.

The chassis is up for the challenge, too. Suspension calibration is essentially unchanged from the European version, and body control is, in a word, brilliant. Drive the Fiesta aggressively, and you'll know why the rest of the world considers this Ford to be the small-car-handling benchmark. It makes the Honda Fit feel like a cargo van.

When the road relaxes, there's nothing econobox about the Fiesta, either. The interior is hushed, with no offensive wind noise even at triple-digit speeds, and the engine's thrum is smooth and distant. The standard five-speed manual transmission has a light, although slightly ropy, linkage and a clutch that encourages smooth shifting. The engine computer deserves some credit, too - it monitors the position of the clutch and accelerator pedals and will adjust the throttle opening to help you be more graceful. Cool stuff, but you'll probably never beat the optional two-pedal tranny in shift smoothness.

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