When it comes to one-liter, three-cylinder engines, I consider myself something of an expert. Back in college, I worked for a rent-a-car company that had a fleet of Geo Metros with engines of this size. Despite being exceptionally light -- the Metro's sheetmetal was so thin you could see sunlight through it -- the Metros were excruciatingly slow, to the point that you had to turn of the air conditioner if you wanted to accelerate to highway speed in anything less than a week.
The one-liter, three-cylinder engine in the 2014 Ford Fiesta is a completely different creature. This is the smallest of Ford's EcoBoost engines, which use direct fuel injection and a turbocharger to produce size-up performance. The 1.0EB is designed to replace a 1.6 liter engine; the 123 horsepower figure certainly bears this out, and the torque rating of 148 lb-ft is closer to two-liter territory. But fuel economy ratings are expected to be better -- Ford has no firm figures yet, but they expect the 1.0EB with a 5-speed manual to exceed the automatic 1.6 liter Fiesta's 40 MPG highway rating.
Driving Ford's high-tech three
Ford gave me a chance to try out this new engine in a European-spec Fiesta. Aside from taller gearing -- European-market Fiestas are set up for higher speeds and better fuel economy; US-spec cars are geared for better acceleration -- the powertrain I drove is, I am told, identical to what we'll get in the States.
What's it like to drive? Even with the taller gearing, the 1-liter Fiesta is quick enough to make one forget its puny size. Acceleration, while not out-and-out fast, is comparable to 1.5 and 1.6 liter engines in competing subcompact cars, but the engine's pull is much more even -- while small fours tend to concentrate their power at higher RPMs, the 1.0 EcoBoost pulls much more evenly... at least it does once you get past the low-RPM turbo lag.
What I enjoyed most about this engine is the sound it makes. Three-cylinder engines have a unique engine note, and my test Fiesta growled like a Subaru flat four. It also had the same slow-revving feel, partly down to a heavy flywheel (necessary on a 3-banger; we'll talk about that next paragraph) and partly down to the long climb to the redline.
What really makes this engine remarkable is its refinement, because three-cylinder engines are inherently unbalanced. The easy solution is to fit a counterbalance shaft, but that adds weight, so Ford instead designed weights into the crankshaft pulley and flywheel that counteract the engine's inherent rocking motion, converting the energy into a horizontal movement that can be easily damped by the motor mounts. The result is an engine with almost no perceptible shake -- and as anyone who has as much seat time in those old Geo Metros will tell you, that's a pretty good trick. The engine stays smooth and relatively quiet throughout its rev range, to the point that it's more refined and subdued than many four-cylinder engines.
But it's not all smooth sailing...
So yes, it seems to be an exceptionally well-designed engine. Does that mean it's right for the Fiesta? Unfortunately, there are some roadblocks.
The biggest one is that the Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost will only be offered with a 5-speed manual -- an automatic isn't in the plans, at least not at launch. Ford says that Fiesta has a higher-than-average take rate for the manual -- 20% -- and that the sporty feel of the turbo three will appeal to drivers who prefer stick shifts. It's a plausible argument, but in a country where nine out of ten cars are sold with automatic transmissions, it doesn't seem to make much sense. (I don't think this was bad planning -- my bet is that the automatic either had problems in development or wasn't able to deliver better fuel economy than the 1.6. This is pure speculation, mind you.)
And then there's the second issue: How much of a fuel economy advantage is there, really? At this early date, Ford would only tell us that the engine should deliver highway fuel economy of "forty-plus". That could be 43, or it could be 41. Manual Fiestas with the 1.6 liter engine are rated for 38 MPG city, while automatic Fiestas are rated at 39 MPG or 40 MPG with the optional SFE package. Assuming Ford will charge a premium for the EcoBoost, one has to wonder how the costs will be justified.
Would I buy a Fiesta with the 1.0 EcoBoost engine? That really depends on pricing, which Ford had not announced at the time of our drive. If the price premium was reasonable, then yes I would, even if the fuel economy gains were marginal. I like high-tech engines, I like the way the 1.0 EB develops power, and I really love the noises it makes. And I can drive a stick-shift.
More new stuff
Incidentally, our drive gave us a good look at the 2014 Fiesta, which has been updated with Ford's new corporate Aston-esque grille and an improved interior. That silly number keypad is gone, replaced by a stereo that's less confusing to use (but only slightly) and a full-color screen. MyFord Touch, which uses a touch-screen and steering wheel controls, will be optional. Ford has improved the interior materials, and with options like leather upholstery and heated seats, the Fiesta is positioning itself as a premium small car. I like that -- just because a vehicle is fuel efficient and easy to park doesn't mean it should make you feel like you're back in college.)
Once Ford announces prices and fuel economy figures -- and once I've had a chance to drive a US=-spec car with the proper gearing -- I'll be in a better position to judge the new Fiesta 1.0 EcoBoost. For now, I'm intrigued... but not totally convinced. -- Aaron Gold