Even though alternative energy cars (electrics, hybrids, diesels, etc.) get most of the notoriety these days, they’re still only a pretty narrow niche in the overall new vehicle market. In reality, conventional internal combustion cars and trucks still rule, and will for many years to come.
But even with that, most people want to save fuel if they can these days, so small cars are on the minds of car shoppers more than any time since the 1970s. So long as people can get features and comfort, many are willing to give compacts and sub-compacts a try, or perhaps a re-try if they’ve been a car buyer for awhile.
With that, Ford’s in the cat-bird seat right now with a couple of good choices. The compact Focus is available as either a 4-door sedan or 5-door hatchback. Its sales are very strong in the wake of its recent total redesign, just as small cars are on an upsurge.
And if you’d like to spend less and go a bit smaller, there’s also the Ford Fiesta, classified as a subcompact, and also available as a 4-door or 5-door. Like the Focus, the Fiesta is part of the company’s “One Ford” plan, where one model of car is sold in essentially the same design throughout the world.
There was a time where Europe got all the cool small cars from Ford, but we got stodgier, less interesting ones. Nowadays, the Focus or Fiesta you can get across the Atlantic is very close to the one sold here, save for some regulatory differences. The Fiesta, brought back to the U.S. several years ago, was the first example of the plan.
For 2014, a mild refresh has been given to the Fiesta’s interior and exterior. Most notably on the outside, with Ford’s now-signature grill design (sometimes pointedly called a copy of Aston Martin’s) announcing the car’s arrival.
Look under the hood, however, and the real updates become more apparent. While the base engine in the car carries over (a smooth 1.6 liter four making 120 horsepower), two other choices can satisfy a need for either superior fuel economy or superior performance.
The most talked about engine on the Fiesta’s mechanical buffet table is a three cylinder EcoBoost. Yes, three cylinders displacing just one liter. We haven’t seen an engine that small in a subcompact car sold here for a long, long time. (The old Geo Metro had one, and of course the Smart car has a little three cylinder, but that’s considered a micro car, not a subcompact.)
For many Americans, the thought of something so small trying to move a decent-sized car around is laughable, especially when the weight of accessories and the drag of things like air conditioning are added to the equation. But rest assured, we’re living in a different time, and the auto industry is able to use different technologies.
First up on the 1.0 EcoBoost’s spec sheet is a turbocharger, which shoots horsepower up past the regular Fiesta four cylinder. The rating is 123, with a torque figure of 148, both impressive numbers given the engine’s displacement. Sure, you can make a motor of this size look good on a spec sheet, but drivability is something else.
That’s where electronic engine management and direct fuel injection come in, along with other tricks. Variable cam timing helps too, and everyone who’s driven the Fiesta with this engine swears you’d never know it was so small. (Admittedly, I’m not one of them, but I trust those who have.) Ford has even put the 1.0 into some mid-size Fusion sedans as engineering exercises with impressive test results.
Speaking of test results, the mileage ones for the 1.0 aren’t in yet, but Ford’s expecting the highway figure to surpass the 39 mpg of the 1.6, perhaps by quite a bit. And speaking of the 1.6, they’re throwing a turbo on that one too and putting it in the Fiesta ST, creating a 197 horsepower pocket rocket that can still hit a figure of 35 mpg highway.
Fiestas with the 1.0 three cylinder will be hitting showrooms soon. If you get a chance, go drive one. And see what the future of saving fuel feels like, even without something like an electric motor moving you around.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave