For those on a budget one of the most eagerly awaited 2011 models has been the Ford Fiesta. It is new, smaller-than-Focus and based on a European car generally admired for its spunk and handling. And, Ford's promise of 40 mpg highway looked terrific. But it turns out all Fiestas are not created equal.
The Fiesta is available in either a sedan or a four-door hatchback. Prices start at $13,320 (excluding the destination charge) for the "S" sedan with the least expensive hatchback starting at $15,120. The most expensive model is the SES hatchback at $17,120.
The second was a hatchback SE with a base price of $15,120 and the manual transmission. Options such as a fancier stereo, satellite radio, special paint and a sport appearance package brought the total to $16,055, excluding the destination charge.
The interior of the sedan and hatch are almost identical with an appearance slightly better than most economy cars. While the sedan is 13.5 inches longer than the hatch, the interior dimensions are the same. That includes only 31 inches of rear legroom, which is significantly less than the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris. That means the only way four six-foot adults will fit is with everyone being seriously scrunched.
The sedan trunk is rated at a reasonable 12.8 cubic feet while the hatchback offers 15.4 cubic feet.
The Fiesta, which is assembled in Mexico, has all the important safety gear, including standard electronic stability control. Honda and Nissan do not offer that on all their models.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gave the Fiesta (sedan and hatchback) its best rating of "Top Safety Pick" in the "minicar" category. But the Fiesta is still a small car and when big things hit little things it usually doesn't turn out well for the little thing.
Ford has made much of the Fiesta's EPA rating of 40 mpg highway, but that is only for the Super Fuel Economy (SFE) version, which requires the automatic transmission for $1,070 plus the SFE package ($395, hatchback and $695, sedan) and includes low-rolling resistance tires.
Unless you already want the automatic that's a lot of money without much gain in fuel economy. The regular automatic is rated at 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway. The SFE gets the same in the city and only two miles per gallon more on the highway.
Ford spokeswoman Angie Kozleski said some buyers want vehicles with the best fuel economy just as in years past consumers insisted on vehicles with the most horsepower.
The only engine is a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder rated at 120 horsepower.
Ford deserves credit (and gets improved fuel economy) by going with a sophisticated 6-speed automatic while its major competitors are using 5-speeds. The alternative is a 5-speed manual.
The acceleration with either transmission is acceptable, but not quick. On the manual transmission it is incredibly important to be in the correct gear because the 4-cylinder has so little reserve power. Try climbing a modest hill in fourth, for example, and the Fiesta will go slower and slower and eventually become immobile unless you downshift to third.
Whether you get sporty handling depends on the model. The sedan with SFE responds nicely and offers a controlled and comfortable ride but the steering lacks feel and the SFE falls far short of being fun. I suspect the low-rolling resistance tires play a big role in the disappointment.
For fun you need the hatchback without the SFE. What it shares with the sedan is a structure that feels incredibly strong and a ride that, for a small car, is comfortable. But the steering has more feel and overall it seems more eager to respond, thriving on challenging roads and fulfilling the promise of European-style fun on American shores.
Test Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta review