Editor's note: Ford revised its EPA fuel economy numbers for the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE EcoBoost. The new numbers show 31 mpg in the city and 43 mpg on the highway. This review has been updated to reflect the new numbers.
Small-displacement engines are familiar in Europe, but something of a novelty in the US. And three-cylinder engines are about as rare as a rude Canadian. Up until now, three-cylinder cars in the US came from overseas, but now Ford is getting into the game, with the 2014 Fiesta EcoBoost.
This version of the Fiesta is identical to the standard Fiesta in form and cabin appointments, with a few option limitations. However, the standard 1.6-liter four-cylinder makes way for Ford's mighty 1-liter EcoBoost engine.
This engine illustrates two interesting points about drivetrain tech. First of all, it highlights the effectiveness of direct injection and turbocharging, the two main elements of Ford's EcoBoost engines. Where the 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine makes 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, the 1-liter EcoBoost posts numbers of 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet, an astounding gain.
As the second point, it also shows how output numbers don't tell the whole story. Driving the Fiesta EcoBoost requires a close attention to the engine speed. At initial throttle tip-in, it felt like those peak horsepower and torque numbers were far, far away. Each start proved a lesson in getting the revs up, while hills and crawling traffic added to the challenge.
More than simply lopping off a cylinder, Ford applied some unique engineering to make this new engine run smoothly in the Fiesta, designing a unified exhaust manifold and head to keep the exhaust gasses from overheating the engine. Ford had to compensate for the unbalanced nature of three cylinders partially by timing the piston firing, and also by incorporating a flywheel and front pulley system that counterbalances vibration from the engine.
Ford offers the 1-liter EcoBoost engine as a $995 option in its 2014 Fiesta SE model. The Fiesta SE comes standard with remote locking with the key fob, and this model also had the bargain-priced $290 Comfort package, adding automatic climate control and heated seats. The car can also be had in sedan or hatchback body styles.
However, there are some limitations. A big one is that the 1-liter engine is only available with the five-speed manual transmission, no automatics allowed. While three-pedal fans may rejoice, mainstream buyers will shy away, as take rate percentages on manual transmissions are in the single digits.
While the automatic transmission option available in other Fiesta models may not be a good match for the 1-liter engine's output, the second limitation is more difficult to understand. Navigation and the MyFord Touch interface are not available in the Fiesta EcoBoost.
Of course, the Fiesta EcoBoost is designed for fuel economy, with Ford posting EPA numbers of 31 mpg city and 43 mpg highway. During my course of driving, which involved a majority amount of highway travel broken up by some bad stop-and-go traffic, I achieved over 40 mpg, almost what you would expect from a small hybrid like the Toyota Prius C.
Behind the wheel, I found the same comfortable electric-power-steering tuning that Ford uses in its standard Fiesta models. The turning radius runs a bit wide for such a small car, but at speed the wheel assumes a comfortable heft. When stopped, I could turn the wheel with the palm of my hand.
Steering response in the Fiesta EcoBoost is responsive without being twitchy.
Likewise, the ride dynamics are similar in the Fiesta EcoBoost to those of a standard Fiesta model. The car proved reasonably comfortable on the freeway, although its light weight made it susceptible to wind buffeting.
The tiny EcoBoost engine starts up so quietly I always found myself double-checking the tachometer to see that it had caught. The clutch didn't require much effort to engage and the five-speed shifter had a comfortable looseness about the linkage. Shifting lacks some precision, but the Fiesta EcoBoost isn't a sports car.