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I was reminded of these differences while driving the 2012 Ford Fiesta SES, a subcompact designed in Europe. We Americans would look at the cabin and think three could fit, as long as it was a short trip. Europeans will see room for a family of five on a summer vacation.
Americans are unlikely to drive the hatchback version of the Fiesta, the model delivered to CNET, as hatchbacks make up less than 20 percent of compacts solid in the U.S. Hatchbacks are much more popular in Europe. Personally, I do not understand that difference, as hatchbacks have more practical space and are just so much cooler-looking than a small sedan.
The Fiesta's European influence makes itself felt in the ride quality, which comes across as a bit hard. There is little in the Fiesta that shields the passengers from the outside world. Although the front suspension uses Macpherson struts, the rear is a simple torsion beam. Similarly, the Fiesta sports rear drum brakes instead of the discs it uses up front.
Along with the hard ride, the Fiesta shows another, more positive aspect of its European heritage. Roads in Europe were mostly designed for a single horse pulling a cart, and were not much expanded with the advent of the automobile. As such, European cars need to be very maneuverable, and the Fiesta exhibits this characteristic in its quick response to driver input.
Its electric power-steering system always feels connected, and that hard suspension feels taut when making turns. In fact, the whole car moves as if it is a single piece when driving down the road, with no squeaking panels or loose parts, imparting a sense of quality construction. I have driven a few rental cars in Europe that displayed a similar tautness, but American and Japanese economy cars just do not behave with this kind of responsiveness.
The controls on the Fiesta's dashboard also follow an arrangement that showed a non-American influence. Having driven a number of Ford cars equipped with the excellent Sync voice command system, I was surprised to find the voice activation button not on the steering wheel, but hidden away on the turn-signal stalk. Ford keeps the steering wheel buttons limited to two small sets, one on each spoke. There is also no volume control on the steering wheel, but it is not exactly difficult to reach the volume dial on the center dashboard.
Ford Sync, based on technology from Microsoft, does have American origins, and blends perfectly well into the Fiesta's cabin. A USB port sits on the center console, and connects to USB drives, iPhones, and MP3 players. The really impressive feature of this audio source is that it treats any music storage devices plugged into it in exactly the same manner. The Fiesta performs the same indexing on a USB drive as on an iPhone. That means I can look up music on a USB drive by album, artist, and genre using the car's stereo interface.
However, using the buttons in the car to select music is not all that straightforward. After tugging the quad-directional button on the center dashboard around to no avail, I started pushing other buttons, finally digging into a series of menu items, and finding I had to be in the Play menu before I could drill down into categories. The buttons are not particularly intuitive, and despite the index-card-size of the monochrome display, it only shows one line at a time from a music library.
Voice command is the easier way to choose music, and it works extremely well. Whether with an iPhone or USB drive plugged into the car, I could always request music by album or artist name. I only had to remember what I had in my music libraries. Likewise, the voice command system worked great for controlling a paired phone. I could make calls just by saying the name of someone in my phone's contact list. That feature is one many automakers have copied.
More interesting is Ford's effort at app integration through its AppLink feature. The Fiesta currently supports about 10 apps, all audio-oriented. Music apps include Pandora, Slacker, MOG, and iHeartRadio. Drivers can also get news through Stitcher and NPR News apps. Openbeak will read out a user's Twitter feed, but this app is only available for BlackBerry.
In its current state, the iPhone does not work very well with AppLink. To use mine, it had to be plugged into the car's USB port and I had to launch the app I wanted on the phone before I could control it through the car. I found it safest to start AppLink on my iPhone while parked, and I did not switch apps while driving. A Ford executive told me that iOS6 might work more smoothly.
With an Android phone, AppLink works a lot more seamlessly. First, I did not have to cable it to the car, as it worked over Bluetooth. I was also able to use voice command to launch new apps while driving.
Each app includes its own set of voice commands, which can be a little confusing. However, I assume that most people will have just a few favorite apps, and end up learning the voice commands for those. These commands can get pretty deep. For example, with NPR News, I was able to say "Car Talk" and have it start playing that program.
One navigation app coming soon to Sync is Telenav's Scout, which should prove very useful. But Ford offers its own navigation for the Fiesta through its Sync Services. This turn-by-turn navigation, along with a variety of other data features, such as traffic conditions, comes through an offboard telematics system. Rather than a full-color map on an LCD, Sync Services navigation offers voice prompts and a visual on the monochrome screen for each turn. I would prefer a full, onboard navigation system, but those are rare in the Fiesta's class.
The cabin's audio system, with only six speakers and an 80-watt amp, is also what I would expect from a car in the subcompact class. However, this system sounds better than its specs would suggest. It does not have much bass, but the highs show a lot of detail and crisp reproduction. It made acoustic guitars sound particularly good.
The Fiesta comes standard with a five-speed manual transmission, but CNET's car was optioned up to a six-speed dual clutch automated manual. This type of automatic transmission behaves very differently than the more common torque converter automatics. When I took my foot off the brake with the transmission in drive, it was not prone to creep, as a traditional automatic transmission would. I had to give it some gas for it to move forward.
Most earlier dual-clutch transmissions have been sport-oriented, but Ford's is focused on attaining superior fuel economy. As such, it does not include a manual gear selection mode, merely a single low range and a hill mode, the latter being activated by a button on the side of the shifter. The low range is very aggressive, letting the tachometer run up to red line, while the hill mode button feels milder.
Both modes pull more satisfying power from the engine, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that peaks at 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, than the drive mode. In drive, the car pushes along decently under normal circumstances, but feels anemic when trying to pass. With the gas pedal mashed, the engine makes tortured noises and it can take a while for the acceleration to kick in.
The low range and hill mode do a good job of getting more prompt acceleration, but at the expense of fuel economy. The EPA rates the Fiesta at 29 mpg city and 39 mpg highway. In a mix of city and freeway driving, I found an average in the low 30s was reasonable.
As a subcompact car, the 2012 Ford Fiesta faces pretty fierce competition from the Chevy Sonic and Honda Fit, to name just a couple. Sync remains one of the best voice command systems for controlling devices brought into the car, giving the Fiesta a slight edge. AppLink shows promise, but its usefulness depends largely on the driver's phone. A full-fledged navigation option would be nice, and Ford could really do a better job making the cabin tech interface more usable.
For performance tech, the Fiesta shows promise with its electric power steering system and dual clutch transmission. The engine manages good fuel economy and power, fitting the Fiesta well, but I would really be interested in seeing Ford's 999cc EcoBoost engine here, which might give a big fuel economy boost.
|Model||2012 Ford Fiesta|
|Power train||1.6-liter four-cylinder engine, six-speed dual-clutch transmission|
|EPA fuel economy||29 mpg city/39 mpg highway|
|Observed fuel economy||31.9 mpg|
|Navigation||Offboard with Sync Traffic, Directions, and Information|
|Bluetooth phone support||Standard|
|Disc player||MP3-compatible single CD|
|MP3 player support||iPod, Zune, many others|
|Other digital audio||USB drive, Bluetooth streaming, auxiliary input, satellite radio|
|Audio system||80-watt six-speaker system|
|Price as tested||$20,210|