Driving Northwest: The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES

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by TOM VOELK / KING 5 Car expert

NWCN.com

Posted on July 1, 2010 at 2:09 PM

Updated Thursday, Jul 1 at 2:50 PM

Is small the new big in the auto world? The economy, guilt over the BP fiasco or maybe just a new found sense of modesty seems to be guiding more Americans to fuel efficient vehicles. Perfect timing for Ford’s 2011 Fiesta. Available in hatchback and 4-door sedan (which is 13.5 inches longer), this diminutive ride looms huge over the competition. Don’t think an American brand can make a great small car? Fiesta will change minds. It’s handily competes with Aveo, Accent, xD, Yaris, and Versa. Fit? Well, I’ll get to that one in a bit.

Fiesta is less American, more world traveler. Those lucky enough to travel Europe know that Fords here and Fords there are completely different Fords. Heard of Mondeo or Kuga? If not chances are you’d really like them. But even familiar nameplates like Focus ride on a completely different chassis and word is we Yanks have been cheated when it comes to this model.

One Ford.

When current chief Alan Mulally started at Ford he quickly realized his company was really different autonomous fiefdoms that duplicated efforts throughout the world. Figuring it makes more sense to design just one Focus, he the kibosh on that kind of waste. So from now on we get more of the fun and stylish stuff enthusiasts have admired from afar.  America’s first taste of One Ford was the utility oriented Transit Connect. Fiesta is much more mainstream. This promising development makes a car guy want to throw a fiesta in celebration (sounds like a frat house prank...).

It’s a natural that the Blue Oval folks are targeting Fiesta to young buyers. Over the past year they have teased it by loaning them to hip urbanites in a program called the Fiesta Movement. Those who were accepted blogged, Twittered and posted their experiences to Facebook. The campaign is brilliant really, building awareness and momentum months before the car appeared in Ford showrooms. OMG it’s now actually available to buy.

Both the hatch and sedan which use Ford’s “kinetic” design language are great looking vehicles. As you might imagine the bright Lime Squeeze paint got a few comments. It and the other lively colors fit this car’s personality.  Those with good memories will remember that the original Fiesta also made it to America’s shore in the late 70s, another point in history when small cars were big. My college girlfriend had a bright orange copy. Called it the Sunkist Mobile. It was pretty fun... both the car and the girlfriend.  I suppose I’m getting off topic. Cathy, if you’re reading, hope things are going well. 

Appropriately named.

American Fiestas are screwed together in Mexico, not Europe. It’s driven by a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder with 120 horsepower. Choose between two trannies-  I’m driving the 5-speed manual with average shift feel. I find the clutch pedal positioned slightly awkward underfoot when pushed to the floor but overall the light operation is smooth. $1070 will get you the automatic box. It’s a 6-speed PowerShift unit using a dual dry-clutch design with sealed internal lubrication. Hallelujah! This could have been a rubbery continuously variable transmission. Sadly, no manual shift mode.

Floor it and Fiesta feels faster than it’s 0-60 time of 9.5 seconds. Perhaps a 6-speed manual would have helped, third gear seems a bit tall and slows Fiesta’s forward momentum a skosh. That said, it’s mucho fun to chuck into a curve.  The chassis is very solid, the suspension firm without harshness and steering is athletically direct. Smaller cars often let a lot of road noise in. Not Fiesta, it’s moderately quiet.

Fiesta’s driving dynamic is a cut above the competition, especially Yaris and Aveo. The power steering is electric but still manages to provide decent road feel. This kind of power steering allows the use of Pull-Drift Compensation which assesses the road crown and crosswinds to help Fiesta track true. That keeps a driver fresh on long trips. There’s also something called “active nibble control”. Not a diet aid, it detects and compensates for tire balance irregularity. Not only are these features class exclusives, you’d be hard pressed to find them on cars costing much more. Anti-lock brakes are discs up front, drums in the rear but stop well with very good modulation.

So is fuel economy. EPA rating gets as high as 30 city/40 highway and I’m mostly achieving that in the real world. After a day of wringing Fiesta out in hard urban driving, the trip computer reads 24 MPG but few owners will push it at that level. Easier on the throttle and it’s 29.  During highway cruising at 65-70 mph, the display reads a constant 39, occasional venturing up to 41 for 10 minutes or so.  On those occasional fill ups Fiesta makes it easy, there’s no gas cap. It’s self sealing.

Leather seats are available.

So is a sunroof. There are other surprises inside this top-line SES model. A soft touch instrument panel is upscale. Seat bottoms (but not the backs) have heat.  99.9 percent of drivers can get comfortable behind the tilt/telescope steering wheel which gets a nice leather wrap. Trickling down from luxury cars is push button keyless ignition (tap the door handles to lock or unlock the car). There are the usual airbags plus a knee unit for the driver. Exclusive in class.

Real carpet is draped over the floor, not that woven material other manufacturers try to hide with the floormats. Mood lighting in the instrument panel and footwells is hue adjustable and the upgraded sound system is decent. Some passengers commented on the steeply raked windshield. Get used to it. Aerodynamics are important. Except for the glovebox there’s no covered storage in the passenger compartment so you be stashing your iPod in there to keep it from being jacked.

Sync it up.

The Microsoft Sync system is standard on SES Fiestas, optional on others. It uses voice control to make devices like MP3 players, USB jump drives and phones easy to use while driving. Sync speaks incoming text messages (reply using pre-programed responses) and can even interface with some smartphone apps like Pandora. New is a feature that downloads audible turn-by-turn directions with visual prompts in the rudimentary display. It does this via an ordinary Bluetooth connected cell phone, it doesn’t have to be a fancy Android, Blackberry or iPhone or require a data plan to work. Unfortunately I’ll have to take Ford’s word since I’m not the registered owner and can’t sign up to use the service.

That said, Sync has been temperamental in this Fiesta, drifting in and out of Bluetooth pairing mode and refusing to read texts. It could be my phone (an iPhone 3G, apparently I’m the last person on planet Earth to not upgrade) but Sync hasn't been this finicky before.

Having a Fit.

The car to beat in this segment is Honda’s Fit. Which you prefer will depend on your needs and preferences. The Ford is certainly more quiet and comfortable and comes in sedan shape for those who loath hatchbacks (there’s always therapy). Fiesta doesn’t have the interior size and versatility of the Honda’s “magic seat”. With it, Fit has an uncanny ability to swallow epic amounts of luggage. At 5’9” my knees barely clear the front seatbacks, my size 11 Nikes just fit. Taller people will get grumpy in the back seat of Fiesta and even though the sedan is 13.5 inches longer the cabin space is the same. At least there’s a power port and one seat pocket for storage. There’s no folding armrest so the one console mounted cupholder will be highly coveted by those seated rearward.

The trunk is nicely trimmed in the material some cars use for floor covering. A privacy cover keeps a trendy owner’s trendy MacBook Pro away from dishonest eyes. It can be easily removed, flipped upside down and stowed flat on the floor if you need to load this space fully. Don’t be optimistic though, Fiesta’s boot holds just 4 packs of Kirkland band bath tissue. Remember, it is a smaller car, not a magic box. At the other end of the spectrum is another Ford, the Taurus which is the TP Test champ at 10 packs. Buy what you need.

A few more gripes.

The user interface has slightly confusing soft buttons that correspond to functions on the bottom of the center display. They change depending on what page is selected. No sound system volume controls on the steering wheel (lots of other ones though). Inside plastic door releases are less than robust and the area that houses the ceiling lights up front is so pliable it’s as if they mounted the cluster on a plush toy. A little re-enforcement maybe?

Is America’s migration to smaller fuel efficient cars permanent? Now that would be big news. Those who worry that small means vulnerable can rest easier here. The structure is full of high strength steel peppered with the ultra-high stuff where needed. A Fiesta sedan with manual windows (remember those?) starts at 14 grand. The SES hatchback I’m driving that has no options is $17,800. 

Frankly, I can’t remember when a domestic brand offered Americans (and you Canadians too) a first class choice in the small car segment. This One Ford thing could work out well. Until fresh competition like the new Aveo, Accent and Mazda2 show up, Fit and Fiesta look to be the ones to shop in this segment. Practically everyone who sees Fiesta loves the kinetic design but thinks it’s the new Focus. Patience. That one is coming over too folks. For now Ford is kicking off the Euro party with a Fiesta. It’s no small celebration.

 

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