Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ford Fiesta shows fun can come in really small packages

Even without the sparkly green paint we took to calling metallic Kermit, the Ford Fiesta would have turned heads. Its shape jolts a conservative American sensibility, which, for the most part, equates tiny vehicles with cheap, bland and throwaway. Recently, cars such as the Mini Cooper have done much to chip away at that perception, but eons of crap are hard to overcome. Think infamous, such as the Yugo, or utterly forgettable, such as Ford's own Aspire--if you can remember it.

The Fiesta instead celebrates the possible in the B-segment, without succumbing to lowest-common-denominator assumptions. Europeans have long understood that small doesn't have to mean bad; they bank on it, in fact, many paying a premium for tiny cars packed to the gills with goodness and fun. And style.

The Fiesta is such a car, sourced from Ford's European arm and to be built in Mexico when the production version lands in the States next year. And our own Euro-spec test example came loaded with equipment only recently making its way into the smallest segments, such as electronic stability control, curtain and side airbags, rain-sensing wipers and auto headlamps, leather seats, keyless ignition, Bluetooth and USB connectivity, power-folding mirrors and Ford's proprietary capless refueling system. It also sports 15-inch alloy wheels, which add to the car's sharp looks.

And it is a looker, the surfaces of its tiny beanlike silhouette rendered with plenty of verve. Or, better, Verve, as in the aptly named concept car that foretold the Fiesta, which Ford first rolled out at Frankfurt in 2007.

Even sitting at the curb, the Fiesta looks fun to drive, from its sculpted hood and flamelike headlamps, to its wheels-at-the-corner stance, to that look-at-me paint job. It might be small, but the Fiesta wants to be noticed.

It drives that way, too, its MacPherson-strut front and torsion-beam rear suspension holding tight to the road even during sportier maneuvers.

Steering is sharp and responsive, if a little artificial-feeling at times, mostly because of its electrically assisted setup. Its peppy little 1.6-liter Duratec four-banger delivers an acceptable 118 hp and 112 lb-ft of torque in surprisingly smooth fashion for such a small engine, but getting at that power is made all the more fun by a lively five-speed manual with gears spaced just right to keep you in the fat of the power band without constant rowing.

If the Honda Fit comes to mind when looking at the Fiesta, it's not surprising. The two cars share almost identical dimensions. The Fiesta gives up just a bit in all directions, with a roughly 155-inch overall length and 98-inch wheelbase. Inside, even the tallest riders should find adequate clearance, with 39.0 inches of headroom in front and 37.5 inches in back. Rear passengers will find themselves a tad more squished than those in the Fit, however, with the Fiesta giving up a full two inches of legroom, at 32.4 inches, to the Japanese car.

But the Ford ultimately wins the battle of the bodies, as its longer hoodline gives the Fiesta a less stubby-nosed front-end appearance, while in back, the higher-placed tail lamps and more sloping roofline give it a less blocky feel. Inside, the Fit is no match, either, holding more closely to a small-car-as-basic-transport concept. Materials in our test Fiesta were of top-notch quality, and the funky styling on the dash and center stack--all controls laid out in a big V-like arrangement, ringed by a brushed-aluminum-like surround--injected the car with a healthy dose of fun.

Pricing is yet to be set for U.S. sales, which are scheduled to begin early next year, but assumptions place the starting point at about $15,000--or right about where Ford's larger Focus starts. Getting Americans to buy a smaller car for the same or more money will require an even bigger shift in our perception of small cars. But if any car can get us to start appreciating the possibilities, it should be the Fiesta.

2009 Ford Fiesta
ON SALE: Now in Europe; early 2010 in U.S. as 2011 model
BASE PRICE: $15,000 (est)
DRIVETRAIN: 1.6-liter, 118-hp, 112-lb-ft I4; FWD, five-speed manual
CURB WEIGHT: 2,300 lb (est)
0-60 MPH: 9.8 sec (est)


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