Since it came along six years ago, the Ford Fiesta has established a distinct identity, expressive and fun to drive, nimble and tight, and that’s not something you can say about many subcompact cars. It comes as a sedan or a more spirited five-door hatchback.
The base engine is a 1.6-liter four-cylinder making 120 horsepower. It isn’t exactly quick but it’s peppy enough. It comes with a 5-speed manual transmission, which we prefer, or the 6-speed PowerShift automatic, a twin-clutch design that can’t hold a candle to the VW/Audi transmission.
The big engineering news is the tiny 1.0-liter three-cylinder turbocharged engine (manual transmission), making 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque. It’s more fun than the four-cylinder to drive with spirit; keep the revs up and you’ll be a fan. We did this and got more than 40 mpg on a 350-mile test.
Even more spirit is found in the Fiesta ST, a hot hatch, a pocket rocket with a 1.6-liter EcoBoost twin-turbocharged four, making 197 horsepower and 214 pound-feet of torque (in overboost mode). It uses a 6-speed manual gearbox, and features upgraded brakes, suspension, steering and tires. Fiesta ST is ready for a track day, something you can’t say about many subcompacts. Its competition there might be Mini Cooper S, Hyundai Veloster Turbo, or the larger Volkswagen GTI.
For 2016, there’s a new interface, Sync 3 replacing MyFord Touch for audio, connectivity, and navigation on a touchscreen or with by voice command. Otherwise, there are no significant changes.
The 2016 Fiesta gets four stars from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in frontal and rollover crash tests, with no side test or overall results yet. The 2015 Fiesta, identical to the 2016 model, got only two stars in the side-impact test and four stars overall. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety gives Fiesta its top Good results in large frontal, side, rear, and roof-strength tests. But in the small frontal offset test, like hitting a telephone pole, it achieves just a Marginal rating.
The hatchback is a crisp flowing wedge, and looks way better than the sedan. The wide-mouthed Ford grille makes it look macho. The rear pillar nips and tucks, as the taillights climb to the pillars.
If you don’t want anyone to look at you twice, get the sedan that looks tall and narrow. If you want them to stare get the ST, a hot hatch with a low stance, black honeycomb grille and big air dam, and wheels that mean business.
The first impression of the cabin makes the Fiesta look like a more expensive car, with quality fabric seats and coordinated colors and soft textures, as well as the 6.5-inch touchscreen of Sync 3. But after a while the standard seats feel a little flat and unsupportive, the back seat doesn’t fold flat, and there’s engine noise in the cabin.
So you climb into an ST, with available Recaro seats and Sound Symposer, piping the engine’s intake noise into the cabin, to create a sporty tone.
The Fiesta weighs 2600 pounds so it’s not quick, but acceleration is okay in the base 1.6-liter with the good five-speed manual transmission, and revs up. Zero to 60 in about 10 seconds. Meanwhile the 6-speed PowerShift automatic is a dual clutch that doesn’t do the job. It’s lazy on downshifts and clunky on upshifts.
The Fiesta reminds us of the original Mazda Miata, in that the driving dynamics are so good you think it’s faster than it really is. What the Fiesta is mostly all about is handling, with excellent steering and suspension tuning. The electric power steering system feeds back the feel of the road precisely, and makes the car responsive and nimble, while being secure for the freeway. The steering has Pull-Drift Compensation to help keep the vehicle going straight on crowned roads or in heavy crosswinds.
The ride finds some suspension flaws, however. The Fiesta can hop on rough surfaces, and it takes a nosedive under quick braking.
The one-liter three-cylinder engine is quicker and more efficient than the base four-cylinder. The tiny turbo has a distinctive exhaust note, a little howl that grows to a thrumming sound as revs increase. You have to shift a lot to run with the fast cars on the highway, as the torque is at a fairly high range, but the very fact that you can run with the fast cars is impressive and praiseworthy.
If you want to run with the really fast cars, there is the Fiesta ST. It’s for supercar dreamers with standard salaries. The suspension is lower and stiffer, the steering ratio quicker, brakes better, tires grippier, and there’s electronic torque vectoring to keep the maximum 214 foot-pounds of torque at the front wheels under reasonable control. But even at a low 1400 rpm, the engine makes 148 lb-ft, so casual acceleration is good too.
If it’s a subcompact five-door you need, it’s hard to think of a reason not to buy the Fiesta, in each of its guises: base, fun and eco, or hot rod, each one expressive and nimble. Wait, we just thought of a reason. The automatic transmission sucks.