Ford is getting back into the small-car business with the Fiesta -- a European-developed subcompact designed to take on competent rivals like the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris, Nissan Versa and Scion xD (and not-so-competent rivals like the Chevrolet Aveo). The Fiesta's European flair is an integral part of the way it looks and the way it drives. It definitely stands out from the crowd -- but is it the best? Read on. $13,995 base, $19,575 as tested, EPA fuel economy estimates 29-30 MPG city, 38-40 MPG highway.
First Glance: A sucker for a good drive
Before I begin my review of the 2011 Ford Fiesta, you should know that I'm a sucker for cars that are fun to drive, and the Fiesta is about as good as a small car can get. For our press preview of the Fiesta, Ford flew my fellow scribes and I to San Francisco and turned us loose on some fantastic curvy roads. The ruse worked: I careened around with reckless journalistic abandon, assuring myself that I was being objective and detached -- my objective was to go as fast as possible and try to detach the tires from the pavement.
Eventually, common sense took over, and I spent some time searching out the Fiestas flaws... but then I came to another curve, and, well, that was the end of that. My point is that I'm in love with the Fiesta -- and being in love makes it hard to be impartial.
So before I embark on my love-fest of dubious credibility, let's start with a little background. The Fiesta is a true "world car" -- designed by Ford's European division, based on a platform from Japanese automaker Mazda, and assembled in Mexico. (Producing the Fiesta Stateside would have made it a money-losing proposition.) Before giving the Fiesta its green card, Ford beefed up the structure to comply with stricter US safety standards, added a 4-door sedan body style, and developed an innovative automatic transmission. And since many Americans think small cars should be cheap, they priced the well-equipped base model at $13,995. But that viewpoint is changing, so the Fiesta offers a long list of options, and a top-of-the-line Fiesta lists for $21,405.
In the Driver's Seat: A cut above
The Fiesta's interior was designed by Ford of Europe, and both aesthetics and quality are much better than I'm used to seeing in Ford cars. The dash is covered in expensive-looking soft-touch plastic with a Braille-like pattern (link goes to photo); my guess is that it spells out "Screw Honda". It looks great, but as this photo shows, glare is a major problem on sunny days.
I drove a nicely-equipped Fiesta SEL sedan with posh features like a push-button ignition and leather seats -- though fortunately not in this shade of maroon. Speaking of the seats, they're comfortable, supportive, and height-adjustable. Visibility is great, although the side mirrors are too small. But the Fiesta sets the example for small-car safety -- standard features include electronic stability control (ESC) and a driver's knee airbag, both rare finds in such an inexpensive car. Bravo, Ford!
I like the simple three-dial controls on the Fiesta's standard air conditioning system; too bad the stereo controls aren't that simple. Controlling an iPod through the joystick-like interface is a pain; best to let a passenger do it, or better yet use the SYNC system's voice commands.
The back seat is comfy and roomy provided the folks up front aren't too tall -- with the front seats adjusted fully aft, there's almost no rear legroom. The sedan's trunk space is a decent 12.8 cubic feet, although the small opening limits what will go inside. The hatchback doesn't have that problem; its 15.8 cubic feet of space is more than most of its rivals, though it trails the Honda Fit by 5 cubic feet.
On the Road: Frugal and fun
The Fiesta is powered by a 120 horsepower 1.6 liter engine that's enthusiastic, if a bit noisy. It's available with a 5-speed stick, but I was eager to try out the 6-speed automatic -- a special type of gearbox called a twin-clutch. Twin-clutch automatics (explained in detail here) are used in sports cars like the Nissan GT-R, VW GTI, and Porsche 911 because they provide excellent power delivery and near-instant shifts. But they also provide outstanding fuel economy, which is why Ford chose a twin-clutch for the Fiesta. EPA estimates for the automatic Fiesta are 30 MPG city/40 MPG highway, numbers that put the Honda Fit's 28 city/35 highway to shame. And real-world mileage really is that good: During the first part of our test drive, my co-driver and I attacked the route like wannabe racers and still averaged 29.5 MPG. We drove the second half like normal human beings and averaged 40.9 MPG. That's hybrid and diesel territory!
As you've no doubt surmised, the Fiesta is huge fun to drive. I hate to sound like a Euro-car snob, but there's no mistaking which side of the Atlantic the Fiesta comes from (though the American engineers deserve credit for preserving the European feel despite a safety-related weight gain). Grip is excellent, the steering is responsive and has a nice sporty heft, and the ride is firm but never harsh. Even if you're not a car enthusiast, you'll have good reason to appreciate the Fiesta's handling: Ford set up an emergency lane-change test for us to try, and the Fiesta kept its grip on the road at speeds where the Toyota Yaris and Honda Fit lost theirs.
Journey's End: Is love blind?
I'm in love with the Ford Fiesta. I love the way it drives, I love its price, I love its fuel economy, and I love its commitment to safety. I love the fact that it's American, sort of. I love it enough to overlook flaws like the dashboard glare and lack of rear-seat legroom. But just because I love it, does that mean it's the best?
The car to beat in this class is the Honda Fit. The Fiesta can't match the Fit's versatility; the Honda has more cargo space and a bigger back seat that flips and folds like a yoga teacher. But the Fit trails the Fiesta on safety (ESC only comes on the priciest version), it's nowhere near as good to drive, and -- I never thought I'd say this about a Honda -- it's not as fuel-efficient. Unless you need every last cubic inch of back-seat and trunk space, I'd choose the Fiesta.
The Fiesta's most obvious rival is the Mazda2, also new for 2011; though the two cars are distantly related, they have very different characters. The Mazda has a more grown-up feel, but I prefer the Fiesta for its cheeky character. The Toyota Yaris is cute and cheap, with standard A/C and ESC, but like the Mazda2 it lacks the Fiesta's personality. The Nissan Versa is exceptionally roomy, and if I was buying a small car for family duty, I'd seriously think about it -- but considering the Versa's frumpy looks and lack of ESC on cheaper models, I might just tell my kids to suck it up and deal with the Fiesta's small back seat.
Bottom line: Ford Fiesta is my favorite small car. Maybe I'm not being 100% objective, so I suggest you take your own Fiesta test drive. I bet your impartiality goes out the window, too. -- Aaron Gold