First Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta aims to be the new subcompact king [w/video]

2011 Ford Fiesta - Click above for high-res image gallery

With over 750,000 Fiestas floating around Europe and a highly-successful social media campaign (if one can quantify such a thing) under its belt, the 2011 Ford Fiesta is nothing if not overexposed. And we've driven it. Thrice. So is there really anything left to learn?

As a matter of fact, yes.

The Fiestas we've sampled over the last year have all been European-spec models, which had us constantly questioning whether Ford would neuter its soon-to-be least expensive offering on its way to U.S. shores. After two days of fruitful flogging on the roads surrounding San Francisco, those concerns have largely been laid to rest. However, like any inexpensive conveyance, it's all about compromise. But Ford has managed to restore some balance to the B-segment while putting the rest of the subcompact class on notice.

    • SAN FRANCISCO, CA. April 20, 2010 - 2011 Ford Fiesta - The 2011 Ford Fiesta offers 15 class-exclusive technologies, including a 4-inch multifunctional display, SYNC with Traffic, Directions, and Information services, 7-standard airbags and projected 40 miles per gallon. It will be available this summer as a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback. Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co. (04/22/2010)

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

Party in the Front, Bore in the Back

Derrick Kuzak, Ford's Vice President of Global Product Development, calls the Fiesta the "embodiment of Kinetic Design" – the design aesthetic imbued into all of Ford's offerings in Europe. In U.S. trim, the Fiesta hasn't changed since making its trek across The Pond. The front fascia is still an attractive amalgamation of creases, strakes and chrome, with headlamps that sweep back over blistered fenders, a gaping lower grille and a set of mirrored side intakes fitted with vertical LED tubes that glow brightly even in a harsh afternoon sun.

In both four-door sedan and five-door form, some of the dynamic styling that punctuates the front has been lost in the rear. It's not unattractive by any means, it's just simply forgettable at first glance. Both models come with a standard rear spoiler and an organic pleat surrounding the taillamps, while the hatchback's massive, high-riding triangular lights are replaced on the sedan with smaller units and a subtly arched trunk. And if you're curious if we'll get a crack at the Euro-market three-door, don't hold your breath – Ford has no plans to bring the squat hatch to the U.S. However, Ford is offering vinyl exterior graphics, aping a bit from the subcompact design heroes at Mini.

An Anti-Apple Interior and a Technophobe's Nightmare

If you're at all put off by The Convergence – the conjoining of your car and your media player/smartphone/electro-crack – the Fiesta (or any of Ford's recent SYNC-equipped offerings) isn't for you. However, if you revel in your connectivity, the Fiesta is two-and-a-half steps beyond anything in its class. As per usual, the SYNC system is a voice-activated breath of fresh air once you've paired your devices, and it includes a new system developed by Airbiquity that uses your phone's voice line to transfer weather, sports and news to the infotainment system so you won't incur excessive mobile data charges.

While the center stack comes across as overwrought and complicated at first blush, the learning curve isn't as steep as you might assume. However, the ergonomics and general functionality leave a bit to be desired. Because of the steep angle of the instrument panel, the directional controller just below the CD slot is a pain to push – particularly when trying to move up through the menus – and the contextual "soft" buttons, which change their functionality depending on the mode selected, at the bottom are baffling at first, second and third use. The same goes for the push-to-reset tripometer that requires you to hold it for nearly five seconds while it plays a superfluous animation in between the two large, legible gauges. Then there's the dash-mounted doorlock button that suffered a programming error leaving us locked-out of a running Fiesta before the cavalry arrived.

Like other Ford applications, the steering wheel buttons simply work, as do the Fiesta's deceptively straightforward climate controls and... what's that? Optional heated leather seats? In a sub-$20k subcompact? Score.

Other features of note include a deeply recessed four-inch display mounted front and center on the soft-touch and nicely textured dash (too bad the trim on the doors doesn't match up in quality) and seven interior seating options. However, one place where the Fiesta falls flat is in rear seat accommodations – if either the driver or passenger are more than average in height, rear legroom goes from minimal to nonexistent.

Satisfaction, Thy Name is Solidity

If there's any overarching sensation in the new Fiesta, it's the exceptional feeling of solidity from behind the wheel – most of the competition feels like cardboard boxes left to rot in the rain by comparison. According to FoMoCo, the combination of sound deadening material and extensive acoustic tuning yields the lowest wind noise rating in the segment, and topples the best-selling Toyota Corolla (from the next class up) with its nearly nonexistent interior rumble.

That same sensation is transmitted through the front struts and 16-inch wheels to the electric power-assisted steering, which proves suitably communicative, despite a slight layer of disconnection.

Underpowered, Underdelivered

The 1.6-liter, Ti-VCT-equipped Duratec four-cylinder engine, standard on all Fiestas, is easily class-competitive, churning out 120 horsepower at 6,350 RPM and 112 pound-feet of torque at a lofty five-grand. Even with an additional 100 pounds weighing it down compared to its European counterpart (curb weights range from 2,537 pounds in five-door, manual guise to 2,628 pounds for the auto-equipped sedan), it easily matches up to the segment stalwart Honda Fit (2,489 to 2,615 pounds, depending on spec). But if there were ever a vehicle in need of an EcoBoost injection, the Fiesta is it.

It's not so slow and underpowered as to be rendered unsafe, but there were more than a few moments when an extra 20 horsepower would've evolved the Fiesta from barely adequate to merely motive. And the extra grunt would've surely been a better match for Ford's Powershift six-speed transmission.

With the Fiesta's five-speed manual gearbox, the throws are long and defined, with a mid-point clutch take-up that's clear, if not crisp. But in this segment (and in this country), the twin clutch is likely to be the gearbox of choice.

Ford's first application of its all-new Powershift six-speed delivers those headline grabbing fuel economy figures of 30 miles-per-gallon in the city and 40 on the highway. Amazingly, based on what we experienced, those EPA estimates aren't far off. Over the course of our drive, including some hairbrained back-road bombing, we averaged well over 30 MPG. One colleague managed similar numbers with three passengers and a hundred pounds of camera gear in tow. Impressive, to say the least.

What's not so hot is the DCT's hunt-and-peck ratio delivery and its lack of any manual settings beyond Drive or Low. With six-speeds available in theoretical lightning-quick order, the absence of paddle shifters (or, at the very least, some kind of sport-shift setup on the transmission stalk) seems like a massive oversight. We're well aware that keeping costs low was of paramount importance, and Ford has delivered with a starting price of $13,995 for the four-door sedan and $15,795 for the hatch, but we wonder how much the MSRP would've been boosted with the addition of some kind of shift-your-own mechanism for the auto 'box. Our lasting impression was to stick with the stick, but we won't entirely dismiss the Powershift until we've lived with it for more than 100 miles and possibly adapted our driving style to suit.

Detroit does Euro-tuned... or something

Making our way outside the city, where the Fiesta's compact dimensions, quick steering and solid ride were a welcome departure from other soft subcompacts, we dare tread into the hills to see if the Fiesta's handling had been mangled on the boat ride over.

With a twist-beam rear suspension – par for the class – and slightly stiffer springs, front bushings and retuned dampers, the Fiesta leaves little to be desired through the twisties. A taut suspension that – combined with the aforementioned solid sensation – delivers above-average handling and minimal body roll. Chucking the Fiesta through the bends is surprisingly rewarding and equally forgiving, predictably giving up front grip before the tires chatter towards understeer. Your average subcompact shopper isn't going to find those limits too quickly, but when they arrive – even with a few daft mid-corner throttle lifts – the Fiesta responds as expected. And while the lack of grunt might be an issue merging onto the freeway or slogging up a hill, the Fiesta remains true to its roots – a momentum car that behaves accordingly.

Betting on the B-Segment

Ford's taking the long view with America's subcompact class, projecting that small car sales will make up 42 percent of the U.S. market in the next two years. The company's tack is to offer consumers everything they've grown accustomed to in larger cars – from class-leading entertainment systems to advanced safety features – and distill them into a smaller package. Downsizers are one market the Blue Oval is after, but twenty-somethings lacking small car prejudice are key to the segment's growth.

The relentless multimedia run-up to the Fiesta's on sale date this summer might have left the Fiesta overexposed, but judging by our encounters, the attention seems warranted. As the opening salvo in the Blue Oval's "One Ford" initiative – developing vehicles for global consumption and finally giving U.S. consumers the good stuff we've been craving from afar – the Fiesta stands in stark contrast to subcompacts of yore, and comes with a feature count and driving experience that's sure to send some of its competitors back to the drawing board. If this is the future of Ford, then the sun shines bright on Dearborn, and if an EcoBoost Fiesta is on the horizon, Ford stands a chance to sit atop the B-segment mountain until the rest of the pack catches up.

The video meant to be presented here is no longer available. Sorry for the inconvenience.

    • SAN FRANCISCO, CA. April 20, 2010 - 2011 Ford Fiesta - The 2011 Ford Fiesta offers 15 class-exclusive technologies, including a 4-inch multifunctional display, SYNC with Traffic, Directions, and Information services, 7-standard airbags and projected 40 miles per gallon. It will be available this summer as a 4-door sedan and 5-door hatchback. Photo by: Sam VarnHagen/Ford Motor Co. (04/22/2010)

Photos by Damon Lavrinc / Copyright ©2010 Weblogs, Inc.

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