First Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta 5MT
By Chris Haak
I’ve long been a fan of Honda’s subcompact Fit, which offers excellent fuel economy, a surprisingly flexible and spacious interior (at least given its footprint), an inexpensive price point, and a significant fun-to-drive on-road experience. The only knocks on the Fit from my personal standpoint has been its somewhat odd-looking design (which was improved greatly when it changed to the current generation) and a powertrain that doesn’t generate excitement.
Ford’s entrant into the US subcompact market – its first one since the unloved Aspire – is the all-new Fiesta. Based on our first drive in the Fiesta, it takes nearly everything that is good about the Fit and improves upon it further. It also adds a significant amount of technology that the small Honda doesn’t touch, at least not in its current generation, yet manages to do so for about $1,200 less when accounting for equipment differences, according to TrueDelta. Forgetting for a moment that the Fiesta includes more equipment than than the Fit does, the Fit comes in at about $500 less in terms of MSRP than does the Fiesta. The billion dollar question: is America ready for a premium subcompact?
I’d argue that there already are premium subcompact cars sold in the US market, and those with high style (such as the Mini Cooper) have done quite well in this market, easily surpassing their makers’ initial expectations. Generally, small cars in the US sell fairly well when gasoline prices are high and sell slowly when gas is less expensive. Four dollar per gallon gasoline worked wonders for small-car sales in 2008, then when the economy collapsed, and the price of oil did along with it, large SUVs came back into favor, at least to some extent. So the question of how well the Fiesta will sell may well depend on what gasoline prices do over the next few months and years.
But it’s entirely possible that the Fiesta will sell well on its own merits as well. The first Fit that I drove was a 2009 second-generation model with the optional five-speed automatic; I liked the car’s handling and interior a lot but thought the car was seriously underpowered. A year later, I sampled one with the five-speed manual and found the car to still be slow, but a much more engaging drive.
Instead of sampling an automatic Fiesta first – which comes equipped with a six-speed dual-clutch gearbox rather than a conventional torque converter automatic – I headed for the one with the clutch pedal. Unfortunately, the manual transaxle only has five forward gears rather than six, but Ford had to cut costs somewhere in the Fiesta, right?
I like the exterior design of the Fiesta; it’s a trim little package and has a fairly fun color palette – take this test car’s Lime Squeeze Metallic, for example. The rear axle is pushed toward the corners nearly as far as it could go, while the front overhang is a little on the long side. That’s something of a necessity with front wheel drive cars, and the Fiesta’s treatment looks better than does the Honda Fit or Honda CR-Z, mainly because the Fiesta’s headlights are swept back to such an extreme degree. Their trailing edges are aligned with the centerline of the front axle. Otherwise, the roof tapers downward past the front seatbacks, which aids aerodynamics but comes at the expense of rear-seat headroom. The sides have strong character lines, and the overall design – in this writer’s opinion – moves Ford’s styling direction forward in a way that’s superior to what J Mays and his team have done with the likes of the first-generation Fusion.
Upon settling into the Fiesta’s cloth-covered driver’s seat, the first thing I noticed in my mid-grade Fiesta SE model was that it has keyless pushbutton start. That’s definitely a premium feature, but not one found in every Fiesta. Lesser Fiestas (likely a most of those produced) will have the conventional turn-the-ignition-key-to-start setup. Perhaps it’s a weird obsession of mine, but one of the first things I do when I sit down in an unfamiliar car is to prod and poke its dashboard to ascertain the mix between hard plastic and soft-touch plastic. The Fiesta acquits itself surprisingly well in this department; the upper dash is constructed of polymers with a decent amount of give. The Fit and Versa can’t make that claim, nor can even several midsize cars.
At 6’4″, I was not optimistic about the chance I’d fit well into the Fiesta, but it was fine. I had adequate elbow room, and sufficient knee room so that I could actuate the clutch pedal. The clutch, by the way, is extremely easy to get used to, and would be a good one to learn to drive a manual transmission with, because it seemed to be very forgiving with a gentle learning curve. The door panels and dashboard are all nicely-styled, with large hoods over the gauges and a wing motif on the center stack buttons and switchgear. Gone are the cookie-cutter audio controls; though the Fiesta is not available with navigation, the audio system controls are integrated into the center stack, which allows for larger, easier-to-use buttons, but makes replacement of the stock head unit a difficult and expensive proposition. The Scion xD, for example, has an easily-upgradable Pioneer unit, though I personally prefer Ford’s approach to this. The Fiesta’s climate controls are actuated by three knobs, and are easy to use, but don’t have a dual-zone or automatic capability. The car does cost less than $20,000, after all.
Front-seat interior gripes are few. I didn’t have enough seat time to comment on how well the seats would maintain driver and front-passenger comfort on a long trip, but I did quickly encounter one of the most famous oddities of the Fiesta’s interior without consciously thinking about it. There is no center armrest and no center storage console in the Fiesta, no matter what trim level. I had read complaints about this for some time, and when I tried to rest my elbow there, sure enough – nothing. As usual, the aftermarket has stepped in with a solution: a company called Boomerang offers a custom-designed armrest for the Fiesta with an aluminum frame. The Boomerang armrest is capable of supporting 300 pounds, so you could even step on it on the way to the back seat if you had to, and not damage it. If I was going to spend extended seat time in the Fiesta for a long trip, I’d give serious consideration to this upgrade.
Other than the nicely-padded upper dash and attractive design, some materials do fall a bit short of the standards that the Fiesta sets elsewhere. The hard, coarse plastic on the lower dash and on the glove box door, for example, are mostly par for the class, but never something I’ll just accept without complaining.
The back seat can fit me, even if my biometric twin was driving the car. I wasn’t sure that the Fiesta would be able to do that, based on quantitative measures as well as anecdotal stories about how small the rear seat is. The front seat couldn’t be at the extreme of its rearward travel, but it is possible to haul four six-plus footers in the Fiesta five-door for trips of reasonable duration. My head was close to the ceiling, but I fit better there than I did in an MKT’s third row, for example. Speaking of fitting, the arch-rival Fit offers about three inches more back seat legroom than does the Fiesta.
Something else the Fit offers aside from more plastic on the dash and more rear seat legroom is interior configurability. Actually, the Fit tops every car in its class, and in many other classes, with the flexibility of its interior. The Fit’s seats can fold flat, stand up, and the front passenger seat lies down. The Fiesta’s seats fold, but not flat into the floor (there is a giant lip the thickness of the seatback), and they do not do as many tricks as the Honda’s do. The Honda also tops the Fiesta in all cargo-carrying dimensions.
In terms of its fun-to-drive quotient, however, the Fiesta is at least the equal of the Fit, and possibly tops it. It’s a bit lower than the Fit, so the Fiesta has a slightly lower center of gravity. Coupled with suspension derived from the European Fiesta (though tuned for American tastes and all season tires), it’s an engaging little car to drive. The Fiesta’s 1.6 liter, 120-horsepower four cylinder feels slightly stronger than the Fit’s 1.5 liter, 117-horsepower unit, which may be due to the Fiesta’s torque advantage, 112 lb-ft in the Ford and 106 lb-ft in the Honda. Five horsepower and six pound-feet may not sound like much, but when you’re barely cracking the 100-horsepower barrier, that’s proportionately the same as adding 15 horsepower to a 300-horsepower car.
The Fiesta’s electric power steering is nicely weighted and accurate. Ford has done a credible job of tuning its EPS systems in recent models, so that there’s not much of a penalty in terms of feel, yet there are fuel economy and performance benefits to using the EPS system. The brakes had decent pedal feel, but are puny, so likely wouldn’t hold up to much aggressive driving without significant fade. The rear brakes are drums rather than discs, too – which at first glance is unusual to see, but upon checking the spec sheets, the Fit, Versa, Yaris, xD, and Aveo also have rear drums.
I found the ride/handling balance to be oriented more in favor of handling, but the ride was not harsh at all. Though the Fiesta I drove had just 16 inch alloy wheels, keep in mind that this is a small car, so they are fairly low-profile 50-series rubber. The Fiesta doesn’t have enough power to spin its front tires from acceleration unless you drop the clutch, which I didn’t want to do in my test car, as it had about 110 miles on its odometer (not its trip odometer – this was a fresh car not yet broken in).
Ford has a great fuel economy story to tell with the Fiesta. With the optional six-speed dual clutch gearbox, it’s rated at 29 miles per gallon in the city and the magic 40 mpg number on the highway; with the five speed manual that my test car was equipped with, it is rated at a lower 27 miles per gallon in the city and 37 miles per gallon on the highway. Most – if not all – of the three-pedal’s fuel economy penalty is likely due to less-optimal gear ratios in the manual.
Pricing for the Fiesta starts at $13,995 (including destination) for an S sedan. The five-door does not have an S trim package (the lineup is S – SE – SES (five door) or SEL (four door)), and the SE five-door model that I tested starts at $15,795 with the five-speed manual. My test car also included Rapid Spec 203A, which costs $755 and adds SYNC, steering wheel audio controls, cruise control, and a decklid spoiler. The final tab comes in at $16,550 when equipped in this way, and that’s leaving little on the options table other than a power moonroof and leather seats. Even a top-spec SES comes in at under $20,000. That’s a decent chunk of money for a subcompact car, but it’s also an all-new design on a new platform with lots of equipment. Yes, you can get a midsize sedan for that kind of money, but not one that gets 40 miles per gallon on the highway.
Ford should do well with the Fiesta. There’s little that I’d change about the car, other than perhaps making the seat-folding operation more flexible – “magic,” if you will – and making the car a bit more accommodating to taller drivers. Adding a sixth gear ratio to the manual transmission and bumping engine power – without sacrificing fuel economy – would also be nice additions. But Ford did its homework when creating the Fiesta, and it shows.