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First Drive: 2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0-liter Ecoboost

These days, just about every auto manufacturer talks about streamlining products and downsizing engines. No one has pushed toward these goals as persistently as Ford. The Blue Oval has brought a wide range of globally developed products to the United States, from the quirky Transit Connect cargo van to the bread-and-butter Fusion (which shares its design with the European Mondeo). It has concurrently expanded its portfolio of small-displacement, "Ecoboost" engine options with near messianic fervor -- even the red-blooded F-150 has one.

In case you're not convinced Ford is serious about all this, consider the 2014 Fiesta and its optional 1.0-liter turbocharged three-cylinder. A tiny car with an even tinier engine and a not-so-tiny price -- it will cost more than the base four-cylinder -- the Fiesta 1.0-liter is the epitome of what would once have been considered a "not for America" product. Only, here it comes. Is it ready?

Good vibrations

Ford applies the full Ecoboost treatment to eke power out of three diminutive cylinders. Turbocharging, direct-injection, and variable valve timing yield 123 hp and an impressive 148 lb-ft of torque -- considerably better than the Fiesta's base 1.6-liter four-cylinder. Ford isn't yet providing fuel economy numbers, but promises they too will surpass the 1.6-liter model, along with every other non-hybrid sold in the United States. Given that the Volkswagen Passat TDI achieves 43 mpg on the highway, we can expect 44 mpg or better.

The U.S. market has started to accept the idea that a small, turbocharged engine can be as good or better than a larger, normally aspirated one. But three-cylinder engines face other hurdles, which is a nice way of saying they're awful. Inherently off-balance and out of sync, they rock violently and generally make a racket. Not surprisingly, these engines have traditionally occupied a small, unpleasant niche, serving as cheap motivating power for unloved b- and a-segment cars like the Geo Metro and smart fortwo.

Ford engineers, working mostly in Germany, developed some new tricks to address these issues. They canceled out the rocking motion by placing weights on the flywheel and the front pulley. Specially designed engine mounts, a stiff iron block, and an enclosed timing belt that constantly passes through the engine's oil reservoir further reduce the noise and vibration.

As a result, the Fiesta's new 1.0-liter is decidedly not awful. In fact, it's quite pleasant. At low rpm, there is a faint rumble, almost like a modern diesel. As it winds out, though, it lets out a mellow growl that's more interesting and more masculine sounding than the typical modern four-cylinder. It backs up the sporty noise with impressive thrust. It feels at least as strong as a comparable four-cylinder-powered car.

You would expect such a tiny turbocharged engine to suffer from low-rpm lag, and you'd be right. Widely spaced gears don't help. The first time we came out of a slow right turn in second gear, we wondered if we'd shifted into fourth. As the day wore on, we learned to work the light clutch and smooth five-speed manual gearbox to keep the engine in its happy zone. Those who cannot or do not want to deal with three pedals are out of luck, at least for now, as the 1.0-liter will not be offered at launch with an automatic. For the record, that means two out of the three engine choices for the 2014 Fiesta will come exclusively with a manual transmission (the other is the upcoming ST model).

The smaller engine has little effect on the rest of the Fiesta driving experience, which is just as well. The Fiesta feels small and light when you want it to, such as when you're slicing through traffic or pushing the pace on a narrow canyon road. Unlike many of its subcompact competitors, the Fiesta is just as happy loafing along the highway at 80 mph. The electric power steering is hyper-quick but benefits from more natural weighting and better on-center feel than most competitors (it no doubt helps that the European-spec example we drove wore seventeen-inch wheels). An upscale interior further contributes to the overall sense of substance and solidity.

Conclusion: The numbers game

Ford has not yet announced specific pricing or fuel economy figures for the 1.0-liter Fiesta. These numbers will be key to its success in the United States, where buyers face no taxes on engine displacement. Put another way, it's hard to imagine people paying a sizable premium for this powertrain unless there's a sizable payoff at the pump. What absolutely should not turn people off, however, is the cylinder count. With its refined new 1.0-liter Fiesta, Ford has once again proved that smaller -- and more global -- really is better.

On sale: Fall 2013
Engine: 1.0L turbo 3-cylinder, 123 hp, 148 lb-ft
Transmission: Five-speed manual
Drive: Front-wheel
EPA Fuel economy: N/A