The Ford Fiesta is among the best of an impressive choice of recently redesigned subcompacts. Completely redesigned for 2011, Fiesta carries over with no significant changes for 2012. Some believe the second year of production is the sweet spot: All the bugs have been worked out yet the design is still new enough to offer the latest advances in safety engineering and fuel efficiency. If that's true, the 2012 Ford Fiesta is in the sweet spot.
The 2012 Fiesta comes in hatchback and sedan versions and the two body styles make distinct statements.
The Fiesta sedan is an interesting combination of an American style econobox with softened edges and a high rear deck (trunk lid). The Fiesta hatchback presents a more satisfying, Euro like profile, with nicely wedged side character lines and an almost sensuously rounded posterior. Choice is in the eye of the beholder, but both are pleasant and more than competitive in today's design conscious new car market. We prefer the hatch.
Inside, Fiesta features a voice activated infotainment system that augments the traditional AM/FM/CD/MP3 stereo with audio and podcasts streamed into the sound system via a Bluetooth link to a smart phone. Non voice audio controls and creature comfort settings revert to basic knobs and buttons that are sized and arrayed for ease of use with minimal distraction from the driving task.
Comfortable seats have enough side and bottom bolsters to keep occupants properly positioned, but gingerly, without obstructing ingress and egress. Quality of interior materials is either on a par with or a tick or two above the expected standard for cars in the Fiesta's class. Ford wants to boost this even further, too, with something not commonly found on cars in this size and price class: Leather seating surfaces and heated front seats are optional on the top of the line sedan and hatchback.
We found the Fiesta feels right at home running around town and on weekend errands. It slips conveniently into fleeting gaps in stop and go urban traffic and into space limited parking slots.
The Fiesta is powered by a 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine. We found its 120 horsepower sufficient to tackle the daily commute in stride. The ride quality is smooth, important in the daily grind. Wind and road noise is decently muted. Steering feel is certain, the Fiesta goes where you point it, and it doesn't lean much in corners at responsible speeds. It handles long weekend drives well, also.
Fiesta is available with a 6 speed transmission that works like an automatic but gets the fuel economy of a manual transmission. This twin clutch, automated manual is the best of both worlds for people who like driving but live in the big city: there's no clutch pedal to have to work repeatedly yet the driver can engage in authentic manual transmission gear changes. There's also the traditionally better fuel economy of a manual gearbox. Fuel economy is an EPA estimated City/Highway rating of 29/38 miles per gallon for the 6 speed against 28/37 mpg for the standard 5 speed manual. Normally, an automatic would come up two or more mpg short of a manual.
2012 Ford Fiesta buyers can individualize their cars further, with two new interior packages featuring two-tone leather upholstery in black and red or black and white. A new Premium Sport Appearance package for the 2012 Fiesta adds polished wheels, blacked-out trim and, on manual-shift versions, a numerically higher final drive ratio (4.25:1 vs. 4.07) for snappier acceleration performance.
Ford stylists describe the lower grille opening as a reverse trapezoid. Bottom-feeding catfish fits, too. The body colored treatment of the hatchback's upper grille is a better fit for the car's proportions, and market position, than the Ford Fusion themed horizontal chrome strips on the sedan. The geometrical exercises that frame the LED driving lights on the uplevel models conflict with the otherwise, flowing round shapes of the front fascia and the double creased fender arches. Eyed head on, the stance is solid, with the front tires visible outside of the leading edges of the fenders.
Viewed from the side, what's forward of the sedan's C-pillar (the vertical frame behind the rear side door's window) looks right. The front wheelwell arch may overwhelm the tire and the parallel character lines on the upper and lower door panels a little too sharply creased, but the silhouette shows a relatively fast windshield, wraparound headlights that minimize the front overhang and a good balance between body and window. From the C-pillar aft, however, something's out of line or alignment. Either the backlight (the rear glass) is too round or too fast or the deck lid is too short (which also means a small trunk opening). It's as if that part of the sedan belongs on a larger car.
The side hindquarters of the hatchback, on the other hand, share none of this uncertainty, with all the lines, even the brazen character slashes on the doors, coming together in a shapely collection of complementary facets. Perchance this is because the hatchback is some 13 inches shorter overall than the sedan. Whatever, it's a tauter package and a better fit for the wheelbase, which is the same on both models. (The wheelbase is the distance between the wheels, front to rear.)
The posterior of the sedan is econo car generic and wouldn't look out of place on any number of Pacific rim import brands. The chrome strip topping the license plate recess gives the trunk lid a touch of class. The black valance panel across the bottom of the rear bumper helpfully reduces the visual mass. The hatchback's vertically arrayed taillights brace the liftgate, which is hinged far enough forward that opening demands minimal space behind the car. The spoiler perches atop the rear window like an eyelid. The lip running the full width of the liftgate ties into the upper side character line and gives some heft to the lower portion of the liftgate, contrasting well with a black lower valance slightly more prominent than the sedan's.
For 2012, the new premium sport appearance group for the SES hatch blacks out the headlight buckets and the ersatz brake scoops beneath them, plus the outside mirrors and the rear spoiler. The familiar five-hole wheels are polished to a chrome-like finish. Ford claims the look contrasts with the vibrant colors in the Fiesta palette. It does pull the car together a little better, and eliminates those seemingly misplaced bright baking dishes in the lower fascia. Still, we suspect the package will look better with some paint colors than others.
If there was a guiding credo for the designers assigned to craft an all-new interior for the revived Fiesta, it was to focus more on entertaining than informing. How this affects the driver's focus on the primary job of driving a car may be subject to debate, but clearly, at least as far as the new Fiesta is concerned, Ford has chosen its side.
The dominant feature of the dashboard is not the instrument panel, with its analog speedometer, tachometer and fuel gauge, but the center of the dashboard. Ford says the array of infotainment controls housed in a brushed metallic pod and topped by a deeply hooded data screen was intended to evoke thoughts of a PDA or a smart phone; one also might think of the Starship Enterprise or something along those lines. This infotainment system is a centerpiece of the Fiesta's market strategy. The Fiesta's voice activated SYNC system uses its Bluetooth capability to link up with a smart phone to access certain internet streaming services, including FM like sites and podcast providers. While the idea may be new and the system may function reliably most of the time, it does rely on cell phone coverage, users should be forewarned that when it's connected to those internet streams, the clock is ticking on that same cell phone's monthly minutes.
Good thought is apparent in most of the ergonomics of the multimedia control panel, with easy to read and finger sized buttons and knobs. One questionable juxtaposition is the proximity of the central door lock/unlock button and the emergency flasher activator, where the former is stacked right on top of the latter. This will require careful aim in dark of night when proper choice between unlocking doors and activating the flashers is most urgently needed. One more is the placement of the USB slot in the center console within spill or splash distance of the conjoined, three pot cup holder.
Another awkwardness is the placement of the power mirror control knob on the upper door trim next to the latch handle. Having this on a flat plane at right angles to the driver's seat forces an almost painful twisting of the wrist to adjust the mirrors. But climate controls, which are tucked up under the overhang of the infotainment pod, are comforting in their plainness. The triangulation of the shift lever, steering wheel and pedals fit well a 98th percentile male and a 85th percentile female.
Seats are comfortable and minimally bolstered, which is good for ease of ingress and egress and quite adequate for the Fiesta, which really doesn't invite vigorous driving. The Fiesta is rated as a five passenger sedan, but if those five are adults, the fifth better be short and extremely thin. The front seats boast enough room for a six footer, but in that circumstance, knee room for the person behind is cramped, especially vis a vis the immediate competition; both the Honda Fit and the Toyota Yaris have at least two inches more rear seat legroom than the Fiesta. The Fit's back seat also is more than two inches wider than the Fiesta's.
Operating the Fiesta hatchback's 60/40 split, fold down rear seatback is more than a little hassle; the head restraints have to come out for the seatback to clear the back of the front seat, and due to the low ceiling, the seatback has to be folded half the way down before they can be removed. No doubt some owners who regularly make use of the 26 cubic feet of cargo space with the seatback folded may end up leaving the rear head restraints on a shelf in the garage; for safety, make sure they're in place when someone sits back there. The Fiesta's 26 cubic feet of cargo space is just half of what can be found in the Honda Fit (57.3 cubic feet) and Nissan Versa (50.4 cubic feet).
Forward and side visibility is about average for the class. The small, triangular, fixed windows at the base of the A-pillar add an airiness to the forward vision. Rear visibility in the hatchback pays the price of that aforementioned taut styling, with kind of a tunnel vision effect from the inward tapering of the rear quarter panels and C-pillar. This is one area where the sedan is superior.
All 2012 Fiesta models add integrated spotter mirrors into the sideview mirrors. These spotter panes are incorporated into the outboard edges of the side door-mounted mirrors to enhance driver visibility in potential blind spots. They work okay, sort of like those stick-on kind you can buy while waiting for your car at the car wash.
Interior fabrics and materials are neither rich nor cheap, save maybe for the headliner, which is kind of like sheared mouse fur. Seat upholstery feels durable, at least the test vehicle SES's uplevel fabric; static time on the optional leather suggest its price point is about right. Major portions of the dash have a soft touch covering, but the way that part and the other fit and look together, with their different textures and contours, does not flatter. Our test cars were pre production models, and we expect the final production models to have tighter tolerances between trim and dash panels.
For 2012, the top-level SEL sedan and SES hatchback can be ordered with two-tone leather, either Race Red with black or Oxford White with black. In both cases black is the dominant hue, with splashes of the contrasting color on the seat facings, inner door panels, upper dashboard and steering wheel. The effect really is both striking and cheerful.
Ford is targeting the Fiesta at the urban/suburban market, and the first charge up a freeway onramp confirms the carmaker has succeeded. Once it gets up to speed, it'll run with freeway traffic, cruising reasonably comfortably at 70 mph and 80 mph. Hit a slight grade, though, or undertake an overtaking when running 10 mph or 15 mph slower, and the limitations of 112 pound-feet of torque become obvious.
We found ride quality in the Fiesta SES to be comparable to that of other subcompacts. Steering response was what was expected from the wheel and tire package, that is, not especially sharp but still sufficiently precise that there were no surprises. Driving it to the limit of grip, we found understeer (where the car wants to go straight instead of turning), which was easily controlled. On freeway and two-lane alike, the 6 speed, automated manual transmission's gear changes were frequent and not always consistent or predictable, shifting down or up in some situations but then doing neither in virtually identical situations. As uncertain as the 6 speed's shifts were at times, it still would be our choice any time over the Nissan Sentra's continuously variable transmission. The Fiesta's shifts when executed were quicker and more certain than in a regular automatic but not the equal of other, twin clutch automated manuals. Ford's box is unique, however, employing electric servomotors instead of the more popular, electronically managed hydraulics to effect the gear changes.
It's quite comfortable in its intended environs. Flitting around town, from the parking garage at work to dinner at the neighborhood bistro, the new Fiesta delivers everything as promised. Of course, those environs are where cell phone signal strength commonly is at its best and most constant, so the audio streaming in through SYNC is crisp, clear and full. It's tidy size lets if slip easily through narrow gaps in city traffic. Odd, seemingly whimsical shift points for the most part go unnoticed, as long as any impromptu stoplight grands prix are dutifully avoided. Also to be avoided is offering transit to any more than three people in addition to the driver. Likewise, it'll be quite competent for running over to the mall to pick up some kitschy frames for the latest classic cartoon cell addition to the collection. The shortage of truly usable cargo space militates against a stop at the gardening/hardware big box or warehouse store, however.
We noticed no brake fade after driving 30 miles on winding, two lane, hilly roads at a moderately aggressive pace, even though we saw a few wisps of smoke from the front brakes while stopping for a driver change.
Handling is easily controlled. We saw little body roll through the tight corners, the car maintaining a relatively flat composure. Powering out of those corners, however, did not shove our backsides into the seat cushion. On the other hand, over the 60-plus miles for that same drive, much of which was navigated with wide open or nearly wide-open throttle, the Fiesta managed 27.1 miles per gallon. That real world figure is in the neighborhood of the EPA's lower, your mileage may vary, city ratings for the Fit (27 mpg), Yaris (30 mpg), and Versa (28 mpg), but considering the equivalent EPA rating for the Fiesta is 29 mpg, that's a very respectable performance.
The Ford Fiesta is a fresh entry in an increasingly popular and important market, the small, fuel efficient runabout.
NewCarTestDrive.com correspondent Tom Lankard filed this report from San Francisco, with John F. Katz also reporting from south-central Pennsylvania.