First Drive: 2009 Ford Fiesta (Euro-spec)

2009 Ford Fiesta – Click above for high-res image gallery

Twenty-five year-old females in Milan. According to global product development chief Derrick Kuzak, that's who Ford is hoping to satisfy with the new Fiesta. Well honestly now, who isn't? But that's some ambitious target, to attract the attention of the most trend-savvy (make that trend-setting) demographic in the world capital of fashion.

We didn't pass through Milan while driving the new Fiesta through the Italian countryside, and so, to our dismay, didn't have a chance to test out that particular target. But we did pass by a local road works crew on the winding mountain passes of Tuscany, dutifully working to keep that legendary tarmac silky smooth. They reacted to the Fiesta as if the car were the twenty-five year-old Milanese fashion model, taking notice as we approached and turning to ogle as we passed by. (They may have been shouting cat calls too, but we wouldn't have heard them from inside the Fiesta's whisper-quiet cabin.) That may be an even greater testimony to the new Fiesta's styling than the Blue Oval crew had hoped for. As for our impressions, and why readers in America and around the world alike should take note, just follow the jump to read on.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

The debut of a new Fiesta may not seem as exciting as a new Mustang or SVT performance model, but the sharply-styled supermini is a vitally important new model for Ford, marking a change in direction for the global automotive giant. Actually, make that two changes in direction.

It's been well over a decade since we've seen a Fiesta - or anything smaller than a Focus, for that matter – in the North American market. But this new iteration is earmarked to herald its return to the States. Not some version thereof, and not a different vehicle entirely targeted towards the American market. This one, with few tweaks, our hosts at Ford (both from Dearborn and Cologne) assured us. It's part of a new way of thinking for the world's fourth largest automaker that they call "One Ford".

Whereas Ford's previous course of action was to diversify its products around the world and cater them towards specific markets, the new logic sees the company streamlining its research and development, buying power, production and just about everything else to produce an integrated range of vehicles suited towards buyers in every market around the world, from Europe to Australia and from Asia to America. The Fiesta is the first new vehicle brought to market under the One Ford plan.

The launch of the new Fiesta also marks a shift in focus (so to speak) away from larger vehicles and towards smaller ones. Whereas small cars accounted for just 22 percent of Ford's output last year, with larger vehicles accounting for half, by 2013 Ford anticipates that small cars will amount to 31% at the expense of large vehicles that will fall to just 39%. The Crown Victorias and Excursions of the range will be a thing of the past (as if they weren't already), with this new Fiesta signaling a new future for the Blue Oval.

So if this marks the way forward for Ford, how does the future look? That's exactly the answer we sought as we boarded our flight for Europe. Upon landing at Grosetto Airport near the Adriatic coast – more of a military air base with a civilian terminal than a proper international air traffic hub – we got our first look at the production Fiesta (a parking lot full of them, in fact) away from the bright lights of the motor show circuit.

Although the Fiesta is not the first vehicle to incorporate Ford's "Kinetic Design" language, it arguably incorporates the theme most convincingly and brings it to market the most un-distilled. The original Iosis concept certainly caught our attention when it was unveiled at the 2005 Frankfurt Motor Show, but while the new Mondeo adopted many of the show car's styling cues, the end result looks quite different from the concept. Ditto the Iosis X and the Kuga, as you'll be able to see in an upcoming first drive report. The Fiesta takes it up a notch, and that's no mean feat for a budget hatch.

Ford unveiled the first Verve concept that heralded the new Fiesta to critical acclaim at the 2007 Frankfurt show, followed by four-door versions in China later that year and in Detroit earlier this year. The Verve cut a sharp silhouette as a show car, and we were pleasantly surprised that, when Ford lifted the covers off the production Fiesta in Geneva this past March, much of the Verve's dramatic styling was carried over from fantasy to reality.

The results are the work of Ford's affable European design director Martin Smith, the architect of Kinetic design, and his team. Ford wisely poached Martin from arch-rival GM's Opel division in 2004 after he spent the bulk of his career at Audi giving us such landmark designs as the legendary Audi Quattro and the fashion-forward interior on the original Audi TT. But while Smith's Verve concept got the world's attention, he made the implementation of the Fiesta look easy. The biggest difference between the Verve and the Fiesta, Martin says with fatherly pride, is a roofline 25 mm higher. Clearly a lot more went into translating the concept to production, but minimizing the differences between the two is a remarkable accomplishment traditionally reserved for supercars.

Unfortunately justice wasn't best served to Mr. Smith's work by the eggplant paintjob on the diesel test vehicle we drove first, but later on we'd be switching to an electric-blue gasoline-burning Sport model. As you can see from our gallery, we enjoyed photographing that version for your enjoyment.

With Smith's interior design background, it should come as no surprise to learn that the execution of the exterior styling is continued to the same standard inside, as well. The design of the interior space made for an enjoyable environment from which to take in the panoramic vistas of rural Tuscany, and the ergonomics proved both functional and pleasing to the touch. For the European market, Ford is offering five trim levels: Ambiente, Trend, Sport, Ghia and Titanium. The cabin on our top-of-the-line Titanium trim model was highlighted by a burgundy color scheme that may be a matter of personal taste, but the quality of the interior exceeded our expectations for a budget hatchback and will likely surprise customers coming from Toyota or Honda, whose products Ford wisely looked to as the benchmark.

Thumbing the starter button with the key in pocket, the diesel Fiesta pulls away with a solid feel and a quality ride. All new Fiestas will come equipped with Ford's Electric Power Assist Steering (EPAS), which provides a well-weighted, solid feel and is almost indiscernible from a more traditional hydraulic unit in its on-demand operation.

Most customers around the world will likely opt for one of the two diesel powertrains: the 1.4-liter Duratorq TDCi with two valves per cylinder providing 68 horsepower and 118 lb-ft of torque or the larger 1.6-liter unit with four-valve cylinder heads producing 90 hp and 150 lb-ft. Ours was equipped with the latter and provided smooth power delivery along our journey. But while the diesel power proved perfectly adequate, we were looking forward to sampling the gasoline-burning Sport model.

Alongside the two turbodiesels, Ford is offering three Duratec four-cylinder engines: a 1.2-liter unit with 60 horsepower and 80 lb-ft of torque, a 1.4-liter version with 96 hp and 94 lb-ft, and the range-topping 1.6-liter Ti-VCT engine corralling a more substantial 120 horses and twisting out 112 lb-ft of torque. As with the diesel power options, each can be mated to a four-speed automatic or 5-speed manual, the latter of which we found had a positive gearchange and well-optimized clutch.

Any great driving road will invariably make a driving enthusiast long for a great driving car. Now the Fiesta Sport won't replace the much-loved Fiesta ST hot hatch. For that, customers will have to wait a bit. But for a budget hatchback, the 120-hp Fiesta provided a pleasurable drive. It tackled the corners with panache, the sweeping uphills with authority and glided across the smooth tarmac our roadside admirers prepared for us with ease. Before long we inadvertently found ourselves doubling the speed limit before dabbing the reassuringly grippy brakes to bring things back down to reason. The sportier orientation gave us a hint at what the chassis is capable of and what a more performance-oriented Fiesta be like when Ford is ready to unleash a new compact hot hatch on the market.

It'll be a little while longer before we know for sure which variants Ford will bring Stateside for North American buyers, and the 120-hp Sport model may not be part of the initial package. Ford says its market research shows that American buyers are growing more open to the idea of paying more for small cars, and that North American customers showed as much favor towards five-door hatchbacks as they did four-door sedans. The marketing and product development staff we spoke to in Europe say that certain changes will be necessary to accommodate American tastes, including fine-tuning the suspension towards North American roads and catering the seats towards American buyers.

With the new Fiesta, Ford has clearly listened to what customers want, and in bringing the Fiesta to the North American market we hope they change as little as possible. If Ford can carry that off with the same level of commitment it has displayed in developing the Fiesta, American customers – from the 20-something fashionista to the middle-aged road worker – may stand up and take notice at what their homegrown automaker can do when it brings the vast resources of its global capacity to bear.

Photos Copyright ©2008 Noah Joseph / Weblogs, Inc.

Travel and lodging for this event were provided by the manufacturer.

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