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Words and Pictures | Ron Myers

Cruising along the Dan Ryan Expressway at a steady 70 MPH, it hits me: "Can a car be too refined?" I fixate on that question as the hypnotic rhythm of expansion joints puts me into a Zen-like moment of clarity. 

Here is a car that I've been driving for the past 24 hours, and it's yet to convince me that it belongs in the b-segment. Sure, I'm aware of the car's exterior dimensions, its mere 1.6 liters of fuel sipping displacement, the lack of rear disc brakes and a decidedly primitive solid beam rear axle. But, I'll be damned if this thing isn't forcing me to rethink what it means to wear the somewhat unflattering sub-compact label.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of small cars. I've been driving them all my life and am a staunch supporter of them to anyone who'll listen. Ironically, the first car that I bought with my own money was a Fiesta. A 1978 version to be exact. Used but in very good shape despite being flogged around by a series of owners for the first 10+ years of its life here on US soil. You see, the first time us Yanks got a look at Ford's diminutive ‘super mini’–as the Europeans are so fond of calling this size car–was when oil prices shot up dramatically in the States during the first oil crisis. Quick thinking executives decided to import the scrappy little Fiesta to give consumers who were cruising by Volkswagen dealers, eyeing the Rabbit, an alternative with a more patriotic badge.

Jump cut 20 years into the future and here I am, once again, behind the wheel of a Fiesta. 

First, I'm surprised. I had all but given up on the idea that I would ever have a chance to drive–let alone purchase–another Fiesta, even though its production had continued unabated in Europe since the factory had churned out my original version. You see, Americans just don't seem to ‘get’ small cars, figuratively or literally, the former leading to the latter. Blame it on the excesses of the 80s or the fast food of the 90s. The typical US car buyer either thinks that you buy a small car because "it's all you can afford," or is physically too large to comfortably fit into one after engorging on a plethora of $.99 value meal options for the past decade. Or, you might just blame it on the cheap gas that made having a gas-guzzler less of a burden.

Whatever the case, being a small car fan in the United States has been an exercise in frustration. Choices for the most part have been limited and uninspiring. Many of us who grew up driving early Rabbits and Civics know just how fun these cars can be. But, even the originators of those small cars lost the plot as those cars grew into C-Class sized vehicles in response to customer demands and increasing waistbands.

With the successful introduction of the new MINI in 2001, a new segment was forged here: a small car that people bought because they wanted it not because of its sticker price. Even with its success and attention, the MINI is still a niche vehicle. Nonetheless, it has certainly helped perceptions that ownership of a small hatchback doesn't have to be limited to that of the pizza delivering college student. And, on cue, a funny thing happened on the way to the gas station. Fuel prices shot up almost overnight, and the country was shocked into the realization that cheap gas and cheap beer might not be mutually exclusive inalienable rights to those of us born in the Land of the Free.

Japanese companies (who not only cut their teeth on small cars but who continued to keep their portfolios flush with the little buggers overseas) were able to act quickly and provide a few options available to US consumers who were starting to raise the small car flag. The Detroit-based manufacturers, whose trials and tribulations developed into a mainstay on the nightly news, were caught on the back foot. Sure, they had shown renderings and concepts of small, fuel-efficient cars, probably more to appease the Green Movement than anything else. But, it seemed that once again, foreign competitors had skated to ‘where the puck was going to be.’

Asian companies put cars on the road that made the trips between fill-ups less painful. However, unbeknownst to those outside a select few in the Ford boardroom, Ford's newly acquired CEO Alan Mulally had a simple question: Why are we not utilizing the products we have in Europe to fill in the recently exposed gaps in our lineup? It seemed like a simple question, but it took an executive outside of the industry to not only pose it but to have the leverage to act upon it.
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So, that brings us to why I'm driving a Euro-spec Fiesta on an American highway and why you will be able to drive one off your local Ford dealer's lot in just about a year's time. In a clichéd "why reinvent the wheel" moment, Ford decided to adapt their award winning European Fiesta for the American market, a no-brainer concept. However, exchange rates, differing safety and emissions regulations, etc. have always proven to be the Achilles heal of profitable small car production here in North America, but now the timing seems to be right. 

Even though the high tide of fuel prices has receded for the moment, all bets point to them slowly increasing over the coming months and years ahead. The spike of last year has opened people's eyes to the possibility that we may soon see our fuel prices align themselves with the rest of the Western world. That potential eventuality will more than likely create a burgeoning market for fuel-efficient cars here. However, owners of large sedans and SUVs will be reluctant to part with many of the creature comforts that they have become accustomed to. So, is refinement the key to appeasing these naysayers? This seems to be where Ford is heading with the upcoming Fiesta.

I have been discussing this car with various Ford employees for almost two years now, both on and off the record. The single drumbeat that has been the steady soundtrack is that this car will not be of the "lowest common denominator" variety. What two years ago sounded to me like a long shot for this market (albeit a refreshing one) today feels like it may be a masterstroke. 

This brings me to my original question, "Can a small car be too refined?" Let me give you the short answer. It depends. People purchase vehicles with different intents. For instance, those looking for a pure driving experience may not put refinement at the top of their list because isolation more than likely breeds disconnectedness from being at one with the car.

Likewise, small cars, especially from US manufacturers, tend to be fairly benign. They are easily maneuverable, but that's just a byproduct of their size and doesn't necessarily equate into particularly good handling. Their styling, more times than not, is usually the result of form over function. Their fit and finish (especially the interior) belies their ‘built to a cost’ mantra. Finally, their engines, while ultimately frugal, usually don't inspire you to spend too much time near the redline since they normally range somewhere between wheezy and thrashy near the top end. 

However, as a small car fan, those traits are part of the character that you accept when you climb behind the wheel. You learn to exploit the less than supercar grip, if for the very least a few thrills at less than "go directly to jail" velocities. You learn to love the Swiss army knife utility rather than feel the need for a sexy shape. And, you come to terms with less than Audi-level quality interiors or Mercedes-esque fit and finish. After all, you didn’t have to pay a premium price tag. You were never much of a dash-stroker anyway. 

Then, there's that engine. Sure, smugly driving past the pumps more times than not is somewhat rewarding. Maybe you even short shift enough (you know, for economy) that you don't have to dwell on the fact that the engine is more utilitarian than performance-oriented.

However, spending over 1000 miles in the new Fiesta has caused me to re-calibrate my perceptions. You do give up some of the direct road connectedness you feel in a Yaris or Fit (and of course, the MINI), which provides that go-kart-like sensation that draws enthusiasts to those cars. The handling, though, doesn't seem to suffer. Body roll was a tad more than I expected on a Euro-spec car, but it was really only noticeable on aggressive off ramp blitzes. It simply has—for lack of a better term—a more grown up feel, which I suspect will resonate with the majority of buyers. 

Styling is subjective, but Ford's new ‘Kinetic’ design language applied to this small car works well and cuts a solid stance on the road. However, its lower, arching roofline does undoubtedly trade a bit of space for style. But, it gives you a car worthy of second looks.

The build quality of this Cologne, Germany produced model was impressive. If Ford can keep the level on par when it moves US production to Mexico, there should be few complaints. The tester I drove got more than a couple positive comments on the metallic Panther Black paint as well, even if it wasn't as eye catching as the signature Squeeze Green or Hot Magenta examples that have been crisscrossing the country as part of the Fiesta Movement promotion. 

Where this car really shines, literally, is in the interior. On more than one occasion I noticed a reflection of the top of the instrument panel in the front windscreen. It wasn't particularly distracting, but I did make note of it, and it certainly isn't disconcerting in the way the thickness of the Honda Fit's A-pillars actually cause you to alter your driving style. Thankfully, the Fiesta's A-pillars look like the silhouette of a supermodel by comparison. But, all joking aside, the interior is shockingly good for the segment. 

Ergonomically, all the controls seemed to fall readily to hand and made the car relatively comfortable from the get go. The center stack, which mimics the keyboard layout of a mobile phone, provides a well-known and intuitive interface metaphor. A small, central LED information screen sits atop the stack and provides good feedback as you navigate the car's various controls either via the keypad or the wheel-mounted controls. In this day and age of iPhones and OLED displays, I expected it to be a little low-tech for my taste, but it proved to do the job well. I can only expect it will be the command center for the obvious Sync audio option that US customers will no doubt be offered. 

In addition, the high-touch surfaces as well as the seat materials were all above expectation for a car in this class. Other than the center console digging into this lanky tester’s leg, it was hard to find fault considering the expected out the door price of the car. We'll have to wait to see the US version to assess just how much will change; however, I'm assured it will be minimal. If the car that arrives on US shores keeps true to this Euro-spec car, then buyers will be amazed.

So, at this point, everything is looking good. But, what about that engine? 

While there are several engine options for this car in Europe (including a diesel), we will receive just one, which actually is the highest output version available overseas: the 1.6L Ti-VCT. There are currently no plans for a hotter ST. That puts it squarely against its competition here. The numbers are also in the ballpark with what we typically see in this segment: 120PS (118.36HP). Driving the car, though, defies those numbers. Could it be the gearing? While the car's slick 5-speed manual did, in fact, have the Euro cog set in place, I'm told that the revised US ratios will actually be adopted by the overseas cars at some point in the future. Hopefully, the changes will be minimal because they match the willingness of the engine to pull admirably from down low and continue its sweep into the right side of the tach. I continued to marvel at this every time I took a spirited run through the gears (coupled with what was a very un-economy-car-like induction note), which was often. 

And, all this spunk does not seem to come at the expense of mileage. The onboard computer showed an impressive maximum MPG of 41.2 and never dipped below 39.5. Whether gliding down the side streets of Lincoln Park casually looking for a parking space or hammering along at 80+MPH on the I-94 toll road for hours on end, air-conditioning full blast (in 90 degree heat), the car simply never flinched. The lack of compromises leaves you continually needing to remind yourself that this is a sub-compact car.

As mentioned, the Fiesta is set to be available here by this time next year in both 5-door hatch and 4-door sedan body styles. While Ford representatives point out that changes to the car are inevitable, they insist that they will be limited to items dictated by government regulations and well-known, US customer preferences and that the cars currently being shown to the public (via the Fiesta Movement and other PR venues) are 90% of what we will see here, which makes sense. Why would they choose to raise awareness in such a dramatic way and then deliver something that didn't meet those expectations? So, until we can get our hands on a US-spec car, we will take their claims at face value.

At the end of the day, the 2011 Ford Fiesta is a car that punches well above its weight. While some purists may think that it's missing some of the typical chuck-ability inherent in a small car, the majority of buyers will see a vehicle that our friends across the pond would refer to as a "serious bit of kit" for the money.

Ford provided the vehicle, insurance and one tank of gas for this review.
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