After a couple of years of teasing that included a fleet of cars being handed out to young bloggers and aspiring YouTube producers, the European-rooted Ford Fiesta is finally among us in full US-spec form. Right about the time you’re reading this, Ford showrooms will be displaying the new compact front and center.
The hoopla surrounding the Fiesta has had many facets. The new sensibility of smaller cars in the aftermath of 2008’s $4 gas prices is one, and whether Americans are really ready for small premium cars is another. Ford has gone to great lengths in recent years to nearly apologize for its long stretch of pushing trucks but ignoring the car market, feeling the time is right for many buyers to rediscover cars.
There’s an old line about public transportation. Everyone always seems to be in favor of it, but what they’re really in favor of is other people using it so that they’ll have less traffic for their own driving. It could be the same case with smaller cars. Do people really want to give up their big plush cars and SUVs for the smaller vehicles that folks in other parts of the world drive? Maybe.
A big part of answering that question may be finding out what people actually want in a car, which presumably Ford has already done through market research. Nobody’s going to answer a survey with something like “I want a vehicle that’s wasteful, a challenge to park, fuels my ego and costs a lot to operate” when asked what their automotive needs are. More likely, they’ll say they want a smooth and quiet ride, comfortable seats, the latest technology, safety, and so on.
In recent years, that often meant stepping up to a fairly large vehicle. But Ford and some other car companies have decided that they can make a profitable small car if the right amenities are either standard or optional. The case in point is the 2011 Fiesta. It might be small on the outside, but it comes across as at least medium size in feel and function.
Starting with the design, you might first notice that the wheels are all set out near the corners of the car. That equals maximum wheelbase and track, which help smooth out the ride. The longer the wheelbase, the less jumpy the car will fell over road undulations. The stretched out chassis also makes it easier to get in and out of the car, as the wheel wells don’t intrude into the door openings.
With the Fiesta, this effort has paid off. I recently took the U.S. spec five-door hatchback version on a long freeway drive to the southernmost reaches of Orange County and back, and the ride was very comfortable and relaxing, with none of the “small car stress” I might have experienced in some other compacts.
As for amenities, here too Ford is aiming for people’s wants and needs. Options include the Sync system for integrating entertainment and communications, leather seats, keyless entry and pushbutton start, and other things to make the car fun and comfortable to be in. Curiously, there’s no navigation option at this point, though the Sync does offer some navigation assistance as well as a new way to send a Google map right to the car for point-to-point readout of directions.
One issue many people have with smaller cars is the safety aspect. But Ford highlights several key features to that regard, including a structure made up of high-strength steel (which also makes for a tighter, more rattle-free car). There are also the usual assortment of airbags, including the first application of a driver’s knee airbag in this segment. Stability control is also standard, which combined with the car’s nimble handling could help avoid a crash in the first place.
The one downside that may turn some buyers off is a relatively small engine, making only 120 horsepower. Its size is an upgrade from its European version, at 1.6 liters versus 1.4, but it is a little weak at low rpm. On my jaunt to OC, passing meant dropping the 5-speed manual’s gearshift into fourth. I’m eager to try the automatic version, a new twin-clutch design with six speeds instead of five. The automatic also helps fuel economy numbers a bit, with a highway rating of 42 mpg (I got just under 37 on my 120 mile round trip.)
My test car was a 5-door SES version that carried a base price of $17,120 and had no options. To load up that car with everything including automatic, you’d have a bottom line of just over $21,000. The 4-door has a wider range of prices, with a base S model starting at $13,320. (I have a feeling this will be a scarce commodity at dealerships with not a lot of profit to be made from it. More likely you’ll see the S sedan at car rental lots.)
The bottom line is that the Fiesta we’re getting is every bit as good as the folks in Europe drive. Nothing in the car was downgraded for us, and compared to other compact cars available here, it’s a bit of an upgrade. The question is whether American buyers can take the leap of faith that this small car can meet their transportation needs.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He can also be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. You can reach Dave at TVCarz@pacbell.net