Review: 2011 Ford Fiesta, Take 3

Michael Karesh
by Michael Karesh
review 2011 ford fiesta take 3

We’ve seen the sequence too many times before. Enthusiasts beg GM and Ford to offer their international products in the U.S. They offer one. It fails to sell. It gets canceled. Nevertheless, Ford plans to replace its entire small-to-midsize lineup with vehicles developed in and primarily for Europe. So this time it had better work out. First up: the subcompact Fiesta.

In hatchback form, the Fiesta is the segment’s best-looking car. There’s a lot going on, but none of the numerous eye-catching details warrants a “WTF?” The exterior’s complex curves meld to form a well-proportioned, cohesive whole. I could study the rear quarters for days. In “lime squeeze” or “yellow blaze” (the “blue flame” of the tested car isn’t the best choice) the athletic egg screams, “Let’s play.” Unlike with Detroit’s previous attempt at a playful small car, the original Dodge Neon, there’s also sophistication to spare. Good thing, because Euro-market cars cannot be profitably sold at Neon prices.

The relatively upscale aesthetics continue inside the Fiesta, though the materials don’t all keep pace and the silver plastic has been laid on a bit thick. The padded armrests on the doors and the contrasting piping and stitching on the optional leather seats are nice touches. Unfortunately, style in some cases trumps function. Sure, SYNC is a big plus, but the audio controls bring the unintelligibility of iDrive to the masses (I gave up). And the decidedly non-premium HVAC controls are a stretch. A first in my experience: there are no manual door locks. If the battery dies or a power lock actuator fails, how can you lock the car? (Pulling on an interior door handle unlocks the door even with the power out.)

The laid back windshield forces a deep IP, which distances the driver from the road. But, despite the small windowlettes ahead of the doors, you’re still clearly piloting a conventional car rather than an MPV. It helps that the A-pillars seem thinner and less intrusive than most these days, and that the driving position is lower than the segment average. The raked beltline and tall rear headrests impair rearward visibility, but not dreadfully so. Standard spotter mirrors more than compensate. The front seats pass muster, though enthusiasts will wish for more lateral support.

The price of the athletic exterior: an adult-unfriendly rear seat. The cushion is low, and you’ll find more knee room in some sports cars. (Unexpected consolation prize: rear reading lights.) The cargo area is similarly much less commodious than in a Honda Fit, though there’s a little more space behind the rear seat than in the related Mazda2.

Over on Ford’s UK site, you’ll find the Fiesta’s 120-horsepower 1.6-liter four described as “mighty.” But then the range across the ponds starts with a 60-horsepower 1.2-liter. Even fresh from a 100-horsepower Mazda2, “mighty” didn’t cross my mind when driving the Fiesta. To give credit where credit is due, the Ford’s 1.6 revs with more verve and zing than the Mazda’s smoother 1.5, and thanks to a plumper midrange doesn’t sink into a hole when you shift from first to second. But power is still adequate at best by American standards. “At best” meaning AC off and no incline. Turn on the AC and the engine loses its will to rev.

Both transmissions need a re-think. With the five-speed manual, shift throws are long, the gaps between ratios are overly wide given the torque-to-weight ratio, and the upshift light soon proves annoying. The “PowerShift” six-speed dual-clutch automated manual (think VW’s DSG, but with less expensive, lower maintenance dry clutches) could have been a high point. But while this transmission makes the most of the not-so-mighty engine, and enables top-notch EPA numbers (29/40), its overly frequent shifts lack finesse. A manual mode would help, but—in a first for this sort of transmission—none is offered. Consider this the first but not last clue that driving enthusiasts haven’t been invited to this Fiesta.

All of the above I could live with, as long as the chassis delivers on the promises made by the sheetmetal. Despite glowing initial reviews, in final production tune it doesn’t. Compared to the related Mazda2, the Fiesta is soft, even squishy. Especially when paired with the SE’s 15-inch Kumho tires, the electric-assist steering feels relatively dull and imprecise. Twitch the wheel one way and then the other, and the car wobbles as delayed reactions trip over one another while working their way through the chassis. In curves, the Kumhos plow early and often. The SES’s stiffer, grippier 16-inch Hankooks (still not ideal treads) delay the onset of understeer, but even with them the Fiesta doesn’t quite come alive. Granted, the average American driver will notice nothing amiss. But for anyone with an interest in driving, the Fiesta’s handling falls short of (admittedly high) expectations.

What your average American driver will notice: a smooth, refined, quiet ride. The Mazda2 doesn’t ride badly, but the Fiesta is a Lexus in comparison, especially on the highway. The exterior promises a driving experience that is both athletic and upscale. The chassis might fail to deliver on the former, but certainly does on the latter.

So, can the latest Euro Ford make it on this side of the Atlantic? Well, if Americans prioritized functionality and handling we’d be awash in tautly suspended compact wagons. As it is, Ford won’t even be offering the new Focus wagon here. Sharp styling, an upscale ambiance, handling tuned to keep inexperienced drivers alive, a plush ride, and iWhatever connectivity matter more, and the Fiesta delivers these. So it will likely succeed where the Merkur, Astra Lemans, Contour, Catera, G8, and Astra redux (have I forgotten any?) failed. Which would be fitting, because a European Ford has done well here before: the original Fiesta.

I’d prefer more power and a roomier back seat, so I’ve personally been looking forward to the similarly styled, one-size-larger 2012 Focus. But after driving the Fiesta I’m worried. Please, Ford, don’t muck up the handling.

Frank Cianciolo, an excellent salesperson at Avis Ford in Southfield, MI, provided the car for this review. Frank can be reached at 248-226-2555.

Michael Karesh owns and operates TrueDelta, an online source of automotive pricing and reliability data.

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4 of 107 comments
  • Tvisme Tvisme on Oct 20, 2010

    I owned a 78' Fiesta and it was in that same orange color. The car was an "econobox" and actually held up pretty well. I was in my mid twenties at the time, and while it was a barren car, with just a 4-speed and a radio, it did the job. The thing that really bothers me is that in 32 years, this is the best they can do to improve it? I mean really, this is a car that could easily have been produced in 1990. Where is the technology? I was getting 28-30 mpg in 1980. WTF? The Truth? American cars and most other import companies are selling JUNK for the money. This is 2011 everyone. Lithium Hybrid batteries are plentiful and I am sick of the fat cat oil companies selling this snot to us. Build a REAL car, with REAL mileage. 75 mph. C'Mon, this is stupid. Let's see something that makes sense, instead of this lightweight gas sucking old technology. This is pretty much the same car. I would HATE to be in that tin can in an accident. And people are potty-trained to believe "well...if it weighs more, it won't be as fuel efficient..." Yea...go sell that old line to someone else. And while we're on the subject, look at what GM did. We waited 5 years for the Chevy Volt, and they LAUNCHED IT IN CHINA, and THE USA didn't get it. WTF? I will NEVER, NEVER, NEVER buy another GM Car. As for Ford, this is the same company that 5 years ago was allowing its dealers to sell the Shelby 500GT at $75,000 over sticker. I am happy to say that my local FORD dealer closed its doors, and good riddance! When are the USA car companies going to tell the Oil Companies to shove it, and then pull back on their "planned obsolescence" and give us a car that fits into what can be done with the REAL technology that is out there today? Hydrogen Power is SAFE. Stirling engines, The Stan Meyers engine....has anybody heard of these? How about TESLA? it is a bunch of Lithium Batteries...the same technology that has powered cameras for the last 25 years. When is the American public going to STAND UP and say "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more!!!?!" The best deal on the market today is to go down to the Ford Dealer, buy a new Fiesta Sticker, and slap it on an old Fiesta that you can pick up for $2000-the same price that it was at in 1982. It is the same garbage folks. And they keep selling, and we keep buying it. What do I drive? I bought a 2001 Ford Taurus from a car rental company for $5000 7 years ago, and it is worth about $4000 today. Until the American Citizens pull their heads out of the sand and figure out that we are being "trained" to buy this crap, and WE DON'T HAVE TO, then we are going to be the same sheep that caused the raping of the economy and the crash and burn of 2008. The ELITE loves our stupidity and greed. Don't take the KOOL-AID....Here is a suggestion. Invest in the same ENRON-LIKE crap companies the rich are investing in, and then GET OUT in 2 years, because in 2 years we are going to witness the DOUBLE WHAMMY. Here is a great investment until the middle of 2012: HARA Corporation. They sell stupid "Carbon Swapping" software, which a zillion companies are going to buy, and they don't even understand the truth. that new BLOOM ENERGY "Solid Oxide Fuel Cells", which are going to be GARBAGE when the smart guys bring out the next best thing. THERE is the next scam that you can make BIG money just have to take the money and run, before it is shown to be an ENRON. Get your heads out of the sand people. I held my money and waited for the 2008 crash for over a year. I sold my house and switched to Bonds over a year before the divebomb and made plenty-took my capital gains tax exclusion, and watched Rome burn. I don't swallow the marketing hype. If anyone was REALLY watching closely, they would realize that the GEO Metro that was referred to earlier, is built to about the same weight and crash standards as this NEW Fiesta, and the GEO Metro of (about) 1985 got 50 MPG. So why doesn't THIS 2011 CAR GET TWICE THAT? Because they want you to buy the same old stupid junk and suck our wallets dry with petroleum. Whatever happened to the Fischer Tropsch method of Coal synthesization? The USA has 95% of the Coal Reserves in the world. We are COAL HEAVY. Oh...because Global Warming is real, and we can't harm the planet. Anyone hear about the 150 scientists who just petitioned the UN to reveal their DATA about Global Warming? Look, the planet is changing, no doubt. The fact is, the DATA DOES not support the claims. Drink the KOOL-AID? Not be pal. How about you?

    • See 1 previous
    • Joeaverage Joeaverage on Oct 22, 2010

      Wouldn't it be nice to stop the weight and HP creep and see some MPG creep instead? My 13 year old VW has 115HP and I find that to be plenty of Hp to get in trouble with. Mostly because it has a fair amount of torque to negates the need to shift down on every hill.

  • Threeer Threeer on Jun 26, 2012

    Late to the game here, but I wound up with an Fiesta SES for a rental a week ago. At first I groaned, since I wasn't overly excited about the prospect of spending a week in it. But about ten minutes into the drive, I started to rather enjoy it. At 75 MPH, I was amazed at how quiet and refined the ride felt (sure, this is all subjective...but still). It handled nicely with a weighted, solid feel over the road. SYNC took a few seconds to master, but then it wasn't a problem from then on. I did have a few quibbles...first, the tranny at launch was tad "off," but I learned to expect it. Shifts were fine once underway and thank the God's that it isn't saddled with a friggin' CVT. And my other quibble is the dash layout. Ford tries waaaaay too hard to make it "hi-tech." Too many buttons. Who needs a numerical keypad anyway? Other than that, given a manual trans variant, I could see being very happy to commute every day in this, and take it for long drives back home. I still have my heart set on a 500, but I would easily consider a Fiesta (and my family has some "history" with Fiesta, so the tie-in to our past would be a little neat).

  • 2ACL Nice. KBB suggests that the price is a few grand optimistic for that mileage, but the seller isn't out of line for seeing if they can get a high side bite.
  • EBFlex Remember, the only way to solve the fake climate crisis is for the government to take more and more money.
  • EBFlex Sweet ride. Great engine and the best transmission on the market today. I test-drove one of these once and the ride was very harsh. That may have been pre-adjustable suspension though.
  • Ollicat If I were a car manufacturer, I would add those costs to my EVs
  • FreedMike It's time to play "First Amendment F*ck Around And Find Out", ladies and gents! And today's contestant is Elon Musk. (Sorry, Mr. Musk, there's a big difference between "free speech" and "consequence-free speech." )