What to name my new, lime-green 2011 Ford Fiesta? It may be teensy, but with that sharp design and explosive neon paint job, it won’t be overlooked. Something manly, like the Green Hornet or Atomic Wedge.
That Ford’s new subcompact and least-expensive car is endearing enough to name is a good sign. That I’ve even seen everyone from business women to good ‘ol boys checking it out in the parking lot is an even better one.
Starting at $14,000 for the four-door sedan and $15,800 for the better-equipped five-door hatchback, the Fiesta’s selling points are broad. It seats five and gets up to 40 miles per gallon.
And unlike most cars in the subcompact segment, it doesn’t bleed adolescence. The Fiesta’s a cheapie with adult swagger.
The Japanese excel at fun, economical eco-boxes. Yet American-produced small cars have always fallen flat, as if our “Go-West-Young-Man” spirit can’t really get behind producing itsy-bitsy vehicles.
We loved our F-150 pickups and yacht-sized Navigators, but if you wanted a carbon footprint the size of ballet slippers rather than cowboy boots, you were stuck with sad-sack autos like the Aveo, Aspire or Geo. Even the names were wimpy.
Prepare for a new wave of feisty gas sippers. The Fiesta makes a strong competitor to the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris. The $14,700 Mazda 2 and larger but high-mpg, $17,000 Chevy Cruze are also joining the fray.
Though vastly more expensive, the extended-range electric Chevy Volt and all-electric Nissan Leaf show how seriously carmakers are taking small, highly efficient cars.
The best news: The Fiesta gives a good drive. Solid yet fun. Small yet comfortable. Economical but sporting.
In Europe, where quality subcompacts are both appreciated and adored, the latest Fiesta has been on sale since 2008. We finally get ours in the U.S., a 1.6-liter four-cylinder with two choices of transmission, a five-speed manual or six-speed double-clutch automated manual.
The automatic is the same type of fancy system you’ll find in the latest Ferraris and Porsches. It also gets the better gas mileage, with EPA ratings of 29 city, 40 highway. The stick is rated at 28 and 37.
I tested a manually-equipped hatchback with mid-level SE trim. According to the onboard computer, I only averaged 28 mpg over more than 400 miles of mixed driving. Not as good as promised.
Perhaps this was because I spent many of those miles bombing along with fast-moving freeway traffic, passing luxury cars despite the Fiesta’s very meager 120 horsepower. Maybe I have a Napoleon complex -- I wanted to see if I could run the big boys down.
To blast past those Mercedes and Infiniti sedans, I was forced to downshift from fifth to fourth gear and push the engine up to the redline.
Even when working its heart out, the Fiesta was stable and quiet, without lurches, shimmies or rattles. The suspension is very well sorted for a small car, and it confidently makes high-speed lane changes.
Since it’s a front-wheel-drive, you’ll get torque steer if you jump on the gas from a standstill -- the steering wheel twists by itself and the front tires bark. I noticed this especially when the street is wet. Expected, if still annoying. Yet the Ford handles hard jounces on bad pavement without unsetting the car or your spine.
Braking is confident and steering is good. The wheel itself has a nice heft. In all, it’s a genuine car for a grown up -- much more so than the $15,650 Honda Fit, which I find odd-looking and cheap-feeling.
The design is European inspired, especially in hatchback form. Ford says it has an excellent drag co-efficient rating, so the shape helps gas mileage. It also gives front passengers a lot of headroom, though the rear occupants will find their legs cramped.
It’s only in the details where the Fiesta occasionally gets caught out. The biggest issue is that the rear seats don’t fold anywhere near flat. The headrests get caught on the front seats, so that the rear seats are canted at an angle. Forget loading in long boxes.
There are other niggling details. The base S sedan has manual windows. Gauges are boring. The Sync infotainment system has voice-guided, turn-by-turn directions but no dynamic map on a screen.
There’s a sharp ridge separating the center stack from the driver, just where my right knee rested. Ow.
Better-attended details include standard stability control; one-touch automatic windows on all models except the S sedan; swiveling overhead lights; a number of different-sized cup holders; and a niche to rest your cell phone.
If you want top of the line, the SES hatchback comes in at $17,795 and includes satellite radio, LED lights and 16-inch wheels.
It’s a car that I found myself living with easily. I didn’t mind the small size, I generally liked driving it and, most surprising, I didn’t mind being seen in it.
The 2011 Ford Fiesta SE Hatchback at a Glance
Engine: 1.6-liter four-cylinder with 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque.
Transmission: Standard five-speed manual or optional six-speed double-clutch automated manual.
Speed: 0 to 60 in about 9.5 seconds.
Gas mileage per gallon: 28 city, 37 highway (manual), 29 city; 40 highway (auto).
Price as tested: $16,960.
Best feature: Drives and looks like a real car at a cheap car’s price.
Worst feature: What’s with those rear seats that don’t fold down?
Target buyer: Somebody dumping the SUV for a smaller, less-thirsty and more fun package.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)