2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

At long last, the U.S.-spec Ford Fiesta is here. It is slightly heavier than its European counterpart, but it's still the best small car you can buy in this country. Welcome to the party, America.

Full Disclosure: Ford flew a host of journalists to San Francisco and put them up in a nice hotel on the Embarcadero for the launch of the 2011 Fiesta. Since we live in the Bay Area, we simply drove downtown. We were offered a room anyway, which we accepted for the purposes of storing our gear and taking a late-afternoon nap. It was a nice room. It was a nice nap. And now we kind of want a Fiesta.

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Let's recap: The car you see here is the American-market version of the 2011 Ford Fiesta. It's similar to the Ford Fiesta that was launched two years ago in Europe, but there are a few significant differences. This car will hit American dealers in a few short months. If you are possessed of a driver's license and a functional brain, you will get yourself to your local Ford shop and arrange a test drive as soon as cars become available. You will not regret it.

In short, here's the take-home: The Fiesta is flawed. But it is also fantastic.

Last year, Ford brought 100 Fiestas across the Atlantic and loaned them to "influential" social-media types for six months. The program was called the Fiesta Movement (one of the drivers was ex-Jalop Davey G. Johnson, a man we have never met in person but like nonetheless); it was the beginning of a substantial marketing push designed to convey the message that Ford is not the company it once was, and that the Fiesta is not the type of car that the company once sold.

For the most part, this message was true. The Fiesta is a compact car the likes of which we have rarely seen in America — it is small on the outside, relatively roomy on the inside, good-looking, fashionable, and economical. It is not fast, but it can be made to do fast-car things. It's nimble as hell, tossable as the day is long, and it makes you giggle when you spank it down a winding road. Also, it can hold four adults in comfort. If you wanted a new car that fit this definition in the past, you had to buy a Volkswagen Golf or move to Europe and buy an Escort/Fiesta/Renault Clio/Insert Excellent Continental Cheap Car Here.

In other words, Ford is this kind of company and has always made cars like this, but we haven't always been able to buy them.

2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

The '11 Fiesta, then, is as close as we are likely to get. Its 1.6-liter, twin-cam, 120-hp four-cylinder is the same engine sold in Fiestas around the world; the spring and damper tuning on the independent/MacPherson-strut front suspension and beam-axle rear suspension are essentially the same as what you get elsewhere. Ditto for the electronically assisted power steering; the car's exterior measurements; the basic styling; the five-speed manual; and the Ford/Getrag six-speed, twin-clutch automatic. The only significant differences relate to curb weight — up roughly 100 pounds, to 2500-ish, a number that varies with specification and comes thanks to U.S. safety regulations — and interior packaging. (For a more detailed look at the American model's differences, check here.)

2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

The Fun Part: What We Like

Enough with the dull bit. Read me now and understand me later: The Fiesta is a damn good car. It is an excellent car. It is the type of car you should buy if you enjoy driving but do not have a lot of money; it is the type of car you should buy if you enjoy driving and do have a lot of money. We are not easily impressed, and this is the sort of thing that impresses us. By way of illustration, consider the following:

The Chassis is Fantastic: MacPherson struts up front, a coil-sprung beam axle in rear, a 98-inch wheelbase, and a 57.7-inch track. Long-travel suspension, big anti-roll bars, and relatively soft springs and dampers. This is chassis tuning from the British school, the kind of roll-with-the-punches, take-anything, long-travel compliance that you can throw down a lumping, heaving back road with your foot on the floor. The Fiesta is fast, it's fun, and if you maintain momentum — cornering speeds up, foot down, no brakes — it'll hang with much quicker machinery. The electrically assisted power steering can feel a little dead and elastic under load, but it also paints a damn decent picture of what the front tires are doing.

Oddly, the standard electronic stability control cannot be disabled, but we never reached a point where its corrections became intrusive. (We were given a chance to go autocrossing on the second day of the launch, but we woke up with a migraine the size of Kansas and, in lieu of puking inside a helmet, elected to pass.)

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The Interior Feels Expensive: Soft-touch materials where your hands fall, cost-cutting harsher stuff where they don't. The seats are all-day-long supportive; thanks to specially treated glass and extensive sound deadening, the interior is quiet quiet spooky quiet.

2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

The Engine is Adequate Without Being Thrilling, But So What? 1.6 liters, four cylinders, two cams, 120 hp at 6350 rpm, 112 lb-ft of torque at 5000 rpm. It drones, it doesn't inspire, it feels like every other workaday Ford powerplant. You find yourself not caring, largely because it revs willingly and sips fuel. (Estimated fuel economy, per Ford: 29/38 mpg for the five-speed, 30/40 for the automatic.) This is a perfect example of how great cars can get by with engines that are in no way spectacular.

The Twin-Clutch Automatic is Excellent: Six speeds, two dry clutches. The Fiesta's optional two-pedal 'box offers one more gear ratio than the standard manual transmission, and it's tuned so well that, if you drive it normally, you tend to forget it's not a conventional torque-converter-equipped automatic. There is no sport mode, but the "hill" program, engaged by a button on the side of the shift lever, works in a pinch. Manual shift control isn't available, but shifts are quick and intuitive enough in faux-sport/hill mode that you don't really miss it. When you factor in price and intended audience, this may be the most appropriately designed gearbox on the planet.

The Tech is Both Cool and Useful: Ford's excellent, voice-activated SYNC communication/entertainment system is available on the Fiesta, as are heated seats, a USB plug in the center console, and an aux-in jack. You can order an 80-watt, six-speaker stereo that actually sounds decent. Six — six! — airbags are standard, as is a tire-pressure monitoring system, electronic stability control, a capless fuel filler. On top of this, we were given a chance to test a beta version of a cloud-based, phone-driven navigation system that displays and reads turn-by-turn directions via SYNC; it's slated for late release once the Fiesta arrives in dealers. Based on what we played with, the final iteration should be pretty cool.

2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

The Un-Fun Part: What We Don't Like

Big People May Not Fit in the Back: The Fiesta's rear seats are relatively comfortable, and there's an amazing amount of space given the car's low roofline. But at five-foot-ten, we were a little cramped — both the Honda Fit and Nissan Versa offer more usable space. This is likely irrelevant, as few people who buy a Fiesta will do so in order to haul around a football team. Still, it's something to consider.

The Five-Speed Manual is Good, But Not Great: Front-wheel-drive Ford manuals have a history of ropey linkages, and the Fiesta's five-speed is no exception: The cable-operated linkage feels a little slapdash and long in throw. Compounding matters, the ratio spread is a bit wide for our taste — unlike with the six-speed, high-rpm shifts tend to drop the engine out of its relatively narrow powerband.

The Expensive-Feeling Interior is an Ergonomic Mess: Yes, the climate-control system — a handful of knobs and clear icons — is brainlessly simple. Yes, the steering-wheel controls are handily located. And yes, the gauges look cool. But if you're trying to actually, you know, accomplish something with the dash's artfully arranged buttons, the scattershot approach becomes a problem. This is what you call Too Much Alien Dash, Too Much Whiz-Bang Styling, Not Enough Real-Person Input.

Option it Well, and it Gets Expensive: This is not an isolated complaint; the average transaction price for most new cars usually far exceeds MSRP. Still, the Fiesta that we spent the most time in, a five-door SES model, was pricey: It boasted SYNC, heated leather seats, and an automatic, and it clocked in at $20,375.

2011 Ford Fiesta: First DriveS

The Summary: The Best Tiny Car In America

"Hyperbole," a friend of ours once said, "is where you go when you run out of intelligence." If that's the case, color us both pretty damn impressed and hundred kinds of stupid: Dollar for dollar, this is probably the single most giggle-worthy new car you can buy in this country. Let's review your options here: Honda Fit? Too utilitarian, too dowdy. Toyota Yaris? Appliancelike, roly-poly, and about as sexy as a broken refrigerator. Chevrolet Aveo? Numb, cheap-feeling, and way too small. This is the European small car done right, tuned the way we want, sold under a friendly badge, and offered at a price that makes sense. If Dearborn sells less than a blue million of these things, something is very wrong with America.

That's it. What more do you need to know? We love it. We're thinking about buying one and cutting parts off of it until it's light enough to blow away in a stiff breeze. Is that wrong? If it is, don't tell us. We don't want to know.

MSRP: $13,995 (four-door, manual transmission); $15,795 (five-door, manual transmission).



UPDATE: Weights adjusted; initially quoted 2200-pound figure was for the European three-door, not the five-door. The difference between U.S. and Euro five-doors is actually around 100 pounds.