The 2011 Ford Fiesta (Ford).

For over a year, Europeans have been driving Ford's new Fiesta and falling in love with it. The car became the best-selling vehicle across the continent in the first quarter of 2010 and all signs point to it continuing that streak for the remainder of the year. This makes the Fiesta something like Europe's version of the Ford F-150, the best-selling vehicle in America.

With proven success in Europe and increasing interest in small, efficient cars in the U.S., it made sense for Ford to offer it up to American consumers, although in a slightly different body style than the 3-door hatchback sold in bulk in Europe. More appealing to buyers in the U.S. (and China, says Ford) is a newly styled four-door sedan, which will be sold here alongside a slightly pricier five-door hatchback beginning in July. The starting price for the four-door base-level sedan is $13,995, while the five-door hatchback will go for $15,795.

We've seen European cars transplated to America before, however, we've typically been disappointed. Diluted, plucked and labotomized, American versions of European cars have disappointed us, especially those sold by American car companies. Will the Fiesta be any different?

2011 Ford Fiesta (Ford).

Smaller Than Ford's F-150 (And Everything Else)

Wisely, Ford kept the handling attributes of the European Fiesta intact, and did not compromise its crisp road manners for fear of offending U.S. customers. Detroit has historically (and mistakenly) assumed the mushy ride and isolated steering of big cars should be transplanted into their small cars as well. But the American Fiesta is almost identical to the European version. Suspension tuning for the American market actually incorporates firmer anti-roll bars than the Euro model, because Americans prefer more compliant all-season tires instead of rougher-riding and stickier summer tires. (In addition to wearing black socks with white shoes and sandals, many Europeans use separate snow tires in the winter, too.) A fun-to-drive European-bred car that's actually going to drive better for the American version? This we like.

The U.S. Fiesta comes only with the largest engine available in any Fiesta: a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that produces 120 hp and 112 lb-ft of torque, yet returns spectacular fuel efficiency when matched to a sophisticated new automatic transmission that makes its debut here. The engine features the most optimal variable valve timing setup, with independent control of both intake and exhaust. A refined five-speed manual transmission is standard, but for about $1,200 the so-called "Powershift" automatic six-speed raises the car's expected EPA test cycle performance from 38 to 40 mpg on the highway. In the city, the standard manual is expected to get 29 mpg, while the automatic gets 30 mpg.

The reason the automatic is more efficient is because it is a "twin-clutch" design. In short, that means there are the equivalent of two separate three-speed manual gearboxes that take turns routing the power while electromagnetic servo motors automatically actuate the two concentric clutches (hence the twin-clutch name), as well as the shifting mechanism. This design does away with the power-robbing hydraulic torque converter that you'll find on a conventional automatic. The electric servo controls on Ford's twin-clutch transmission, a first for a subcompact in the U.S., are also lighter than the hydraulic systems used for twin-clutch transmissions in larger and more powerful cars like those from Audi, Volkswagen and Mitsubishi.

The slick automatic transmission would feel right at home on a luxury sedan or a sports car, and more refined than what you'd expect in an economy car. First, there is no slipping feeling or windup delay of a hydrualic torque converter like you get with a conventional automatic "slushbox." The automatic Fiesta accelerates in direct proportion to throttle inputs, one of the reasons that purist car nuts prefer manual transmissions in the first place. The electronic tranmission controls do an excellent job of figuring out when to shift, sensing steering inputs and throttle movements, "using even more senses than the driver has," says John Rich, Ford's powertrain manager for the Fiesta.

The Fiesta will be Ford's smallest car in the U.S. at just 160.1 inches for the five-door, or about the same length as a Honda Fit. The Fiesta sedan is about a foot longer, which makes it just an inch-and-a-half shorter than the more powerful and heavier Focus compact sedan, a car that boasts an additional eight cubic feet of interior space.

2011 Ford Fiesta (Ford).

"Reads Your Mind"

The driveline is just one of three outstanding bright spots in the new Fiesta. Next is the ride and handling of the car. On a designer's notepad, the suspension looks straightforward, with an old-tech twist-beam rear axle and front struts. However, a wealth of experience and tribal knowledge went into tuning these pieces so they work well enough you'd think they were more complex. The ride is generally supple over bumps, but there are there are no stray movements on really bad roads.

Even though the Fiesta rides softly, it doesn't roll over onto the sides of its outside wheels in tight corners. Nor do the front wheels scrub much during a turn. The feeling is accurate and precise, the way Europeans have historically preferred their small cars. However, the more forgiving all-season tires allow stiffer anti-roll bars and therefore less body roll. In fact, the steering is so precise that it seems like it's trying to read your mind.

That's because of a "drift-pull" steering enhancement made possible by the electrical steering assist system. The Fiesta has the hint of racecar alignment, feeling like it's ready to go right or left at any impulse from the driver. However, unlike a racecar's setup, the Fiesta tracks straight as a freight train crossing Kansas.

Ford's engineers made deft usage of boron steel, the strongest used in cars, as well as a high percentage of other high-strength steel in the Fiesta's body, which makes it strong, light and safe. Anchored to this structure is safety equipment such as front, side and curtain airbags, and even a unique driver knee airbag, for a total of seven separate airbags, more than any subcompact yet available. Traction control, stability control, and grippy brakes are also standard on all Fiestas. To say that Ford put a ton of content in this Fiesta would be an understatement.

Ford has chosen to incorporate more convenience goodies as standard, too. The fuel filler is capless, and the steering wheel telescopes; optional is a steering wheel with audio and entertainment controls, and colored "usher" lighting on the floor and console keep the interior visible at night. In addition to Bluetooth connectivity, Ford's Sync system connects smart phones to the car, so voice commands can control phone and entertainment functions. By entertainment functions, Ford means a new downloadable free software system called AppLink will be available by the end of the summer to operate applications such as Pandora internet radio, Stitcher internet voice programming, and OpenBeak tweeting. Updated versions of these applications will be available through the Android Market and Blackberry App World, while other application creators are being encouraged by Ford to develop their own applications to work with the Sync system. The AppLink Sync system pairs itself to a smart phone, and can be accessed by voice or dashboard controls, or those found in the optional steering wheel. The standard Sync system includes turn-by-turn voice guidance as an option, but there is no display screen for a conventional navigation system. With nav systems selling for $150 or less these days, Ford made the right choice to leave out the screen.

2011 Ford Fiesta (Ford).

Inside, the Fiesta rides quietly enough to make phone calls, as well as to allow occupants to thoroughly enjoy the extensive entertainment functions. The seats feel soft, but have Euro-inspired support bolsters. In the rear, where European adults regularly ride, the seats are extended far enough to keep big people comfortable, either on the plush cloth seating or the optional leather with exposed stitching. The instrument panel and door panels are covered in quality-feeling soft-touch material, similar to the larger Focus'.

Overall, the new Fiesta is comfortable inside with no shortage of safety equipment. The nimble, responsive chassis gives the driver confidence on crowded freeways and twisty backroads. The smoothness of the driveline makes the Fiesta feel more refined than its low price suggests, too. Ford successfully ported the Fiesta to America without losing any of its charm. While we don't expect it to outsell the F-150 any time soon, buyers who opt for the smallest Ford will figure out in quick order what the Europeans have been talking about for years.

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