Review: 2011 Ford Fiesta SES promises the democratization of fun

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

Remember when economy cars offered few concessions beyond roll-your-own windows, rear window defrosters and AM radios? It was only a handful of years ago that features on our 2011 Ford Fiesta SES tester would've qualified it for premium car status – if indeed items like Bluetooth, SYNC, a capless fuel fill and knee airbags were even available.

There's no denying the steady trickledown of luxury goods into workaday iron, and the Fiesta is rolling proof.
As you might also recall, back about 10 years ago, Ford executives and those charged with its British outpost, Jaguar, worked themselves into a froth over the possibilities offered by 'The Democratization of Luxury' – boldly and conveniently overlooking that when a premium feature becomes affordable to everyone, it ceases to be a luxury at all. And while this sort of marketing doublespeak was the undoing of the ill-conceived Jaguar X-Type – and perhaps the undoing of Ford's ownership of Coventry's favorite feline altogether – there's no denying the steady trickledown of luxury goods into workaday iron, and the Fiesta is rolling proof.

Of course, any automaker can lash a bunch of features onto a car and call it a day, but it's not a real value unless all of those baubles and braze-ons are bungeed to a platform and drivetrain whose creators have that whole engineering 'special sauce' thing figured out. In other words, the democratization of luxury is one thing – but does the Fiesta deliver the democratization of fun? Click through to the jump to find out.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

Being shallow creatures, we want our candy confections to look tasty, and on that front, the 2011 Fiesta handily delivers a solid first impression. For one thing, Ford has seen fit to offer all sorts of eye-popping paint colors that really only work on designs that don't take themselves too seriously. Bold greens, purples and the Yellow Blaze Metallic Tri-coat (a $300 option) of our SES flatter the brash visuals. Big, expressive headlamps appear costly, air inlets look purposeful and the hatch design (a four-door sedan is also available) terminates in a high-set rump with pillar-mounted rear brakelights that lend the hatch a crisp, continental look. With 16-inch alloy wheels mounted at its very corners, the Fiesta offers both a stable and pugnacious stance, and the angled backlight makes it clear that the emphasis is on style rather than outright utility.

That's a theme that carries over to the Fiesta's cabin as well. It's a pleasant place to be, with clear analog gauges jostling for eyeball time alongside flashy features like variable-illumination cupholders and feel-good squishy plastics. There's a satisfying, leather-wrapped three-spoke wheel, a well-placed five-speed manual gearbox and a binnacle on the dashboard's top, dead center with the stereo and car information readout. (A PowerShift dual-clutch gearbox is also available, but without any paddles or a +/- detent on the gearlever, it's more of a curiosity than a performance-enhancing device).

What there isn't, however, is an abundance of space. Most front seat occupants won't feel claustrophobic or even cheated of space (although visibility isn't particularly great), but there's no denying that competitors offer far superior second-row accommodations and greater cargo capacity. Unlike, say, the Honda Fit or Nissan Versa, the Blue Oval has chosen to prioritize aesthetics over interior space and flexibility, and that's a trade-off you'll have to decide if you can live with. If this is meant as a small family car, substantial demerits like limited rear legroom and modest cargo space (about 15 cubic feet) will likely have you shopping elsewhere, but we suspect that at this modest price point, if you're looking for a bona fide kin hauler, you're better off poking your nose in the used car classifieds anyhow.

With that said, the Fiesta's cozily proportioned 160-inch bodyshell does offer an inherent advantage – superior rigidity. It only takes a few miles to realize that this is among the stiffest architectures on the small car block, a development that pays immense dividends in the form of first-class ride and handling. Whether you're bouncing along on a chuckholed surface that has you fearing for your alloys or piling into a corner with an unexpected decreasing radius at inadvisable speeds, this chassis is your friend. In fact, it's so accomplished that it makes you feel like it could handle twice the Fiesta's modest power. That's good news, because we're expecting a burlier variant with EcoBoost power in the not-too-distant future.

About the power situation – there's not much wrong with the 1.6-liter, 16-valve four-cylinder and its 120 horsepower (at 6,350 rpm) and 112 pound-feet of torque (at 5,000 rpm). It's class competitive stuff in terms of cheek, flexibility and refinement, but it's not going to push you hard into the seat foams, either. Interestingly, we didn't actually want for a sixth gear on the freeway – gearing and sound deadening is such that one isn't missed. It's a good thing that the clutch is as progressive as it is, however, because the ratios are widely spaced enough that you'll make frequent use of the third pedal.

Of course, the fun in driving a car like this Fiesta is not in its radial-roasting potency – we're talking zero to 60 mph in the mid-to-upper nine-second range here – it's in how everything works in concert to help maintain inertia. The chassis offers a rigid platform off of which to hang the MacPherson strut front and twist beam with coil spring rear suspensions, and the quick electric-power steering paired with Hankook Optimo tires makes for a surprisingly feelsome and confidence-inspiring arrangement. With only around 2,500 pounds to arrest, the 10.2-inch front disc, 7.9-inch rear drum brake setup has an easy job and offers good feel and modulation.

Just as importantly, that school-marm rigid architecture allows for a tremendously quiet interior. In fact, it's shockingly calm inside from idle on up, with limited road and wind noise, and engine roar and exhaust burble are similarly muted. We're counting on the aftermarket boy-racer scene to quickly populate its catalogs with more vocal muffler and intake options, but we actually appreciate the Fiesta's unexpected maturity on this front – it's surprising to find this sort of big car comportment in a B-segment runabout.

The Fiesta may not have a particularly boisterous soundtrack, but it's still a hoot to drive hard if you're a fan of the Momentum School of Motoring. The Fiesta seeks out corners with the sort of ebullience normally reserved for kittens pursuing open boxes. Low-mass cars like this one may have modest limits, but they can be approached more often, and it's endlessly entertaining to see how quickly one can negotiate a twisty stretch of road without shaving digits on the speedometer.

Fuel economy is similarly compelling, with our manual transmission model generating EPA estimated ratings of 29 miles per gallon in the city and 38 on the highway (the six-speed PowerShift does slightly better at 30/40). Over our time with the car, we averaged a tick over 32 mpg in spirited mixed driving.

If you can accept the Fiesta's spunk-for-space trade-off, we only have one real sticking point, and it's that none of this entertainment comes cheaply – particularly with the five-door. While the Fiesta sedan starts at $13,320, the higher-content hatchback commands $15,120. Splash out for SES specification like our tester (SYNC, Sirius, 16-inch wheels, etc.), and you're staring at $17,120, a price that's already well into the wheelhouse of larger, more powerful C-Segment stalwarts like the Mazda3 (to say nothing of Ford's own Focus). Our tester was further equipped with $715 worth of handsome leather seats and a $795 upgrade package that included seat warmers, keyless entry/start, alarm and chrome trim. Topped off with the aforementioned $300 worth of Yellow Blaze Metallic paint and $695 in delivery charges, and our tester rung up at a cool $19,605. That's a lot of dosh for a car this small, and yet when we drove it, the Fiesta never struck us as a bad value.

Despite being from two totally different vehicular genres and price brackets, in an odd way, Ford has succeeded with the Fiesta in a manner that it never managed with the Jaguar X-Type a decade ago. The Blue Oval has created an excellent smaller car that delivers European ride and handling characteristics, a hushed interior, class-above tech and truly aspirational design at a modest premium. If that's not a 21st century recipe for the democratization of luxury and fun, well, we don't know what is.

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Photos copyright ©2010 Drew Phillips / AOL

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