Last week Subcompact Culture was in San Francisco for the U.S. launch of the 2011 Ford Fiesta, the company's entry in the ever-growing U.S. subcompact/b-segment. It's also the most hyped Ford vehicle in a long time. So does the car live up to the hype?
First some basics:
- Sedan trim levels will be S, SE, and SEL. Hatch trim levels will be SE and SES
- The S sedan will start at $13,320; the SE hatch will start at $15,120 (no S hatch)
- All cars are offered with the 120 hp, 1.6-liter Ti-VTC engine
- Transmission choices are either a five-speed manual or a six-speed "PowerShift" dual-clutch automatic
- Fuel economy is projected to be 30 city and 40 highway for the auto; slightly less for the manual.
BACKROADS: FROM THE PASSENGER'S SEAT
Kicking off the event was a scenic, twisty, turny drive up to Byington Vineyard & Winery in Los Gatos. I navigated the first half of the drive while Ron Myers, who runs Focaljet.com and FiestaFaction.com, piloted our Blue Flame Metallic Fiesta SES five door (with a five speed manual) through the hills south of San Francisco.
It became apparent very quickly that the Fiesta is nimble and tossable. It darted and dodged through the corners without hesitation, and Ron wasn't pussyfooting it, either. Our Fiesta the 16" alloy wheels and Hankook Optimo tires. While hustling through the corners I noticed there weren't any grab handles (aka "oh sh*t! handles") above the doors—a feature I could've used as a passenger during our spirited driving session. The Fiesta SES's optional leather seats, however, felt very substantial and had very good side bolstering which did help me stay put. Overall, the Fiesta's interior—especially in SES trim with leather—is very nice; the best in the segment. Hell, I've been in cars that cost thousands more that aren't as nice.
Whilst in an extremely curvy section of HWY 35, we ended up behind some guy in a flat-lavender 240SX with a crazy bosozoku-style tailpipe emitting a lots of "braaaaap." We had no problem keeping up with the RWD 240SX as it porpoised up and down on its cut springs, license plate dangling from zip ties. In fact, we kinda wish he would've gotten out of the way ...
BACKROADS: FROM THE DRIVER'S SEAT
After logging more than 50 miles, we arrived at Byington Winery where we swapped drivers and cars. It was my turn to drive, this time in a Fiesta SEL sedan, also (thankfully) equipped with the five-speed, the leather interior, and the 16" wheels and tires.
The Fiesta is very entertaining to drive. The suspension tuning is a great compromise between good ride and sporty handling. There's minimal body roll and the chassis feels neutral. Its steering is quick and responsive (love the fat, chunky, leather-wrapped steering wheel, too) and its grip was substantial, even on the all-season Hankooks. The front disc/rear drum brakes with ABS did a good job of slowing down. Good thing: There were lots of trees and drop offs in the area. The AdvanceTrac stability control kicked in a few times, but it never felt intrusive.
On the power end of things, the 1.6-liter engine with variable valve timing has better-than-average scoot. Driving the hills required rowing the gearbox, but the car never felt anemic compared to other cars in the b-segment. The engine revved well and had a very usable powerband, too.
I'm a sticker for slick-shifting gearboxes, and the Fiesta's was on par with the competition. Better than Hyundai or Kia; not quite Honda/Toyota.
Make no mistake: This is not an econobox. There's a lot of good with this car, especially it's very substantial feel, despite the sedan starting at under $14,000.
A FEW GRIPES
My right leg was constantly being pushed up against the center dash section (if you've ever driven a Honda CRX or 5th-gen Prelude, you'll know what I mean). Also, on the highway, there did seem to be a bit more engine noise than I expected. Although not annoying, it was enough for me to notice. Finally, the seating position doesn't allow me to hand my elbow out the window to work on my trucker's tan. The doors are just a bit too tall. I guess I'll just keep my hands inside the vehicle at all times.
After a day of driving the hills and highways of the San Francisco area, we headed back towards downtown to our hotel. We checked in, got our press materials on a sweet Fiesta-shaped flash drive, and headed for drinks and dinner. Attendees of particular note included rally driver Ken Block, and Pandora Radio founder
Tim Westergren. After dinner it was over to a club to check out the reveal of the new Ken Block Gymkhana 3 car, which does look pretty darn sweet!
AUTOCROSSING THE FIESTA ... AND THE COMPETITIONFord wanted to showcase the Fiesta's handling, so they let us flog it on an autocross course at Candlestick Park. They also let us pilot two of Fiesta's main competitors: the Toyota Yaris five door and Honda Fit Sport on the course.
RUN 1: Fiesta SES (Manual Trans)
This tight, technical form of motorsport well suited to small cars, and the Fiesta was no exception. It felt surefooted and quick through the entire course. Of note was its performance in the slalom, where the car felt very composed. Understeer was minimal for a FWD car, and you could get a slight bit of of lift-off oversteer and trail braking, too. You could tell when the AdvancTrac kicked in, although it didn't feel intrusive. Lots-o-fun. My first run, was also lots-o-slow.
RUN 2: Toyota Yaris (Auto Trans)
Next, it was into the Yaris five-door equipped with an automatic. Since I own a Yaris (albeit it's not stock), I was quite familiar with its handling characteristics. Equipped with the non-stick 185/60/15 tires and steel wheels, I knew the car would immediately be at a disadvantage. The Yaris' quick, although overboosted, steering made for fast reactions, but the narrow tires didn't do the car any favors. Although nimble, it wasn't as sure-footed as the Fiesta. On course, the Yaris' traction control was beeping at me as if it were sending me a Morse code to stop driving it so hard. Since this was my second run and I was more familiar with the course, it felt faster than my run in the Fiesta, and it probably was. I decided to hop back into the five-speed Fiestas SES for a second outing.
RUN 3: Fiesta SES (Manual Trans) ...again
With a couple of runs under my belt I was able to much more successfully navigate the course in the Fiesta, and it definitely felt faster than both runs. It also showed the vast difference between the Fiesta's sporty feel and the stock Yaris' grip ... or lack thereof.
RUN 4: Fiesta SES (Automatic Trans)
Next up was an automatic Fiesta SES. FYI, the automatic in the Fiesta is a six-speed "PowerShift" dual-clutch unit. Unfortunately at this time, there is not manual gear selection available. Regardless, the chassis felt the same through the course, but I was unable to hold the gear I wanted, making my time slower than the manual-equipped Fiesta. I did hear from others that on public roads, this was a great transmission.
RUN 5: Honda Fit (Automatic Trans)
Last was the Honda Fit Sport. The Fit felt like it had the fastest turn-in, but also exuded the most noticeable understeer, oversteer, and body roll. Mid way through the course, I thought the Fit might nab the fastest time of the four vehicles. But due to a very significant amount of understeer going into a sharp corner which resulted in me taking out an entire family of cones, the automatic-equipped Fit Sport took a backseat to the Fiesta time wise.
When all was said and done, my fastest time of the four cars came in the manual version of the Fiesta. Granted, if I had a manual Fit or Yaris, perhaps it would've been closer. But Ford made its point: The Fiesta is no slouch in the handling department, and it easily joins the upper echelon of nimble small cars on the U.S. market. This car will undoubtedly be ripping up autocross courses nation wide, especially with some added aftermarket suspension bits.
THE AVOIDANCE MANEUVER
My final time behind the wheel was at an avoidance maneuver test. Bring the car up to about 50 mph then make a quick left turn, then a quick right to bring the car back on track. Again we had a Yaris five door for competition. There was also a base-model Fit, but they were not allowing people do drive it since it didn't have stability control. (We could've had professional driver take us through.)
First up was the Yaris. Up to speed and a quick left, then a fast correction to the right. The Yaris understeered heavily; so much so that I hit several pylons. Again, I blame the narrow-ass tires for the lack of grip (and the tall 60-series sidewalls), since it couldn't possibly have anything to do with my driving ability.
Next was the Fiestas SES. Again, up to 50, left, right: The Fiesta's AdvancTrac stability program easily kept the car flat and composed. The difference between the Yaris and the Fiesta was actually quite amazing. And I don't think that the Yaris' handling is necessarily bad per se; I just think the Fiesta's combination of better tires, sportier suspension, and AdvancTrac makes it exceptionally good. Below is an in-car video of the avoidance maneuver:
I was told that like most cars, you cannot turn the stability control off. I was also told you cannot turn the traction control off, either.
FORD BRINGS ITS A-GAME TO THE B-SEGMENT
My first impressions of Fiesta are definitely good. It's got class-leading power; great handling; the best fuel economy in the segment (up to 40 MPG); and a top-notch interior. Plus, with the wide array of available features, new technology (such as SYNC AppLink), and its European good looks, Ford should not only have a winner on its hands, it should have a segment leader. Of course, success will be determined on how well Ford can persuade shoppers to step away from the Nissan/Honda/Toyota/Hyundai/Kia dealership and step into a Ford store instead.
Let's face it folks: Ford has brought its A game to the B-segment. This is the best subcompact to ever be sold by an American company in America. And assuming the quality on the production Fiesta is as good as the latest crop of Ford products, the company might have one of the best subcompacts ever sold in America by any manufacturer.
I look forward to spending more real-world time with the car in a future review.