New Fiesta is no siesta: Ford's new runabout

CNET Car Tech gets a first drive in the new 2011 Ford Fiesta.

2011 Ford Fiesta
Ford sat us down for a presentation about the new Fiesta, extolling its attributes. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

On a rainy afternoon, we hurled the 2011 Ford Fiesta over winding mountain roads to tests Ford's claim at a presentation that morning that its new Fiesta has sporty handling. While it's far from a dedicated sports car, the Fiesta proved to be  surprisingly competent under the shaky control of a group of wild-eyed automotive journalists.

We say "surprisingly competent" because, having driven many subcompact cars, we didn't get behind the wheel with high expectations. However, Ford's new Fiesta rode into the corners with little understeer, stayed as flat as its sway bars could keep it, and came through to the ensuing straight showing no drama, all while maintaining a smooth and well-damped ride.

Powering out of turns with it isn't really on the menu as the Fiesta's front wheels are driven by a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine cranking out 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque. As we flogged the car around, we could hear this little engine cranking hard, trying to give us everything we asked of it. While the car didn't feel slow going up hills, it didn't have much of a power reserve.

Ford equipped the car we were driving with its new six-speed Powershift transmission;  essentially it's a dual-clutch automated-manual gearbox. A five-speed-manual transmission is also available. This transmission would have been more exciting if it had a manual model; it merely had a low range and a descent control mode. That said, it delivered the engine's power well, and we suspect Ford programmed softness into the gear changes so it would feel more like a traditional automatic transmission.

Ford Fiesta transmission
The dual clutch transmission lacks sport or manual modes. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

With the Powershift transmission, Ford estimates the Fiesta will get EPA fuel economy of 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway. A quick check of the our trip computer after putting the car through plenty of full throttle hill climbs and hard cornering showed 27.4 mpg, which isn't bad. Ford projects that its  manual transmission version is projected to get 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.

This wild ride through the mountains was our first chance to drive the U.S. version of the 2011 Ford Fiesta, Ford's bid to offer a popular world car and increase its share of the small car market in the U.S. Ford's Fiesta is the bestselling car in Europe during the first quarter of 2010. Since the small car segment is growing fast in the U.S., Ford's timing for bringing the Fiesta to the States looks good.

The Fiesta looks pretty good, too. We drove a hatchback version, which definitely has the edge on the Fiesta sedan in styling. A base Fiesta hatchback cost $15,795, while the sedan will start at $13,995.  Our test car was the top trim SES model, coming in at just more than $20,000.

As for its interior, the seats may have only been manually adjustable, but Ford covered them in burgundy-colored leather. It also stretched a soft plastic surface across the dashboard, neatly molding over the protruding front air vents. Soft materials also line the inner door handles, as well as just about all other high-touch areas in the cabin. All of these touches Ford added make the Fiesta's interior a  far cry from plasticky econoboxes of the past.

European roots
For the past decade, the conventional wisdom among automotive journalists is that Ford should bring its European cars to the U.S. The new Fiesta, designed in Germany, shows that Ford has bought into that wisdom as well.

Ford Fiesta center display
A monochrome center display tops the dashboard. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

The Fiesta has a  few features that can be traced to its European roots, such as the small monochrome display in the center of the dashboard, which is much bigger than a traditional U.S. radio display. The display not only shows audio information, but it also is used it for turn-by-turn route guidance.

Ford's Sync is a standard feature in the SES trim Fiesta. To show us how well route guidance works with Sync's Traffic, Directions, and Information service, Ford programmed in our driving route for the afternoon.

Normally, you can get route guidance through Sync by specifying a destination to the voice command system. Unlike onboard navigation systems, Sync relies on a server- or cloud-based system, meaning the system needs to have a Bluetooth cell phone paired with it and be within range of a cell tower. However, this system also means that you can only enter destinations through voice; there is no graphical input option.

When the server calculates your route, it sends it back into Sync over the cell phone connection, and it will look for the most efficient route. For our drive, Ford was able to specify a more scenic route by joining a series of save points. The problem with this type of navigation is that, if you get off your route, Sync has to contact the server again and download new directions, as opposed to the much quicker recalculation accomplished by an onboard GPS device.

Ford Sync Services display
In Sync Services, you can get navigation, traffic, and news. Wayne Cunningham/CNET

As for following the navigation directions in the Fiesta, the result was very good. For each upcoming turn, Sync paused the music playing from our connected iPod and read out the name of the street and which direction we should turn. Likewise, the center display also showed the street name and the turn. The only hitch was that, as we were driving in a forest, Sync occasionally lost its GPS fix, and thought we were off route.

We also used Sync to play music off of an iPod. The system  showed the same excellent voice recognition capability we've seen in other Ford vehicles, letting us request music by artist and album name, and recognizing very obscure and complex names. You can also browse the iPod library, see a list of albums, artists, and tracks, on the car's center display, so you can make selections graphically.

Ford included a six-speaker audio system in the car that delivered a very clean sound. It wasn't the kind of rich and well-staged sound that you get from a system with more speakers, but it seemed that Ford concentrated on clarity, making each frequency distinct so that individual instruments stand out.

In summary
Past generations equate quality small cars with Asian manufacturers, but the 2011 Fiesta may change some  perceptions as a new generation of buyers test drive cars. Although we drove a preproduction vehicle, the cabin felt like a comfortable place, with a quality beyond what you would usually expect from a small car.

The Fiesta's handling was tight and responsive, and its engine motivated the car reasonably well, given its size. The engine uses variable-valve timing on both intake and exhaust, but not direct injection. The dual-clutch transmission was used more for fuel economy and convenience than quick shift sport driving.

Ford's development of Sync over the past five years pays off big with the Fiesta, allowing the company to fit it with advanced and convenient electronics that still surpass the competition for very little money. Even down to the non-name brand stereo, which produced clean, even sound, Ford paid attention to all the details in the Fiesta.

 

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