October 10, 2011

Ford Fiesta

words and photos by Ryan Kiefer
What's a Fiesta? 
Ford has made a lot of noise about the return of the Fiesta to its lineup. Many (me included) do not remember the original Fiesta, which was only sold in the US from 1978-1980 as a stop gap because the much-maligned Ford Pinto was woefully outdated and the Pinto's subcompact replacement, the Escort, was not ready yet. After 1980, the Fiesta returned to being an overseas-only model that has enjoyed an unbroken run of progressively-better models since.

Since then, Ford has done its best to make sure we hate American-branded subcompact cars. From the late 80's through most of the 90's, Ford offered the underfunded new car buyer Kia-engineered and -built subcompacts in the forms of the Festiva and the Aspire. Those vehicles were inferior to even the comical 3-cylinder Geo Metro, which is what many might picture when they read "subcompact."

In the face of permanently-elevated gas prices, increased city congestion, and the green movement, Ford has decided to bring the Fiesta (now in its sixth generation) back to the US. The Fiesta has always been a global car, being produced everywhere from Thailand to Germany to India, and Ford has not rested on its laurels with this one, steadily improving it with every generation without interfering with its main goal -- inexpensive personal transportation for the masses.

I worked with Wes Shields at Olathe Ford and picked up a black-on-black 2012 Fiesta SE hatchback. Olathe Ford were generous enough to allow me to take it for an overnight stay.

My wife was upset I did not bring home one in Lime Squeeze or Blue Candy.

Exterior Impressions
Ford calls its design language “kinetic.” The idea is that the car always looks like it’s zipping along, smartly achieving 40 mpg, even when it’s parked under the tree in your driveway being fouled by a flock of birds. I say it looks a bit like an aging Hollywood star with an extreme facelift.

It’s as though every line was once square or softly rounded, but is now being pulled back toward a point somewhere about 5 feet above and behind the rear bumper. It might have once been considered extreme, but now every styling studio is trying out this swoopy-lines-pulled-taut styling theme, and some (Hyundai, for one) are pulling it off better than Ford. In the end, like a god, the Fiesta demands that you either love it or hate it – no lukewarm feelings allowed.

Interior Impressions
The taut lines continue inside the car, where there is more room than the exterior size might suggest. All of the controls are within easy reach of the driver, and the driver's seat is 3-way manually adjustable – front to back, up and down, and seatback angle. With that range of adjustability, most drivers who aren’t members of the LPA or NBA should be able to get comfortable.

In the interest of keeping everyone inside alive when the inevitable SUV-driver-distracted-by-cell-phone mistakes the Fiesta for a speed bump, Ford did not skimp on the roof pillars. From the driver's seat, looking over your shoulder to merge or change lanes will reward you with a fantastic view of the Fiesta's interior, but not much of what's going on outside. Ford's work-around comes in the form of factory-installed blind spot mirrors, which give a great view of what's beside the car, if I could only get in the habit of using them. The more bunker-like cars become, the more I think we'll be seeing this type of mirror employed.

The outside upper corner of the mirror used to be useless. No more!

The entertainment controls are a minimalist’s dream. Only the most-used functions have buttons. You can select your entertainment source, one of six presets, turn the volume up or down, and scan. That’s it. All other fine-tuning adjustments are buried in the little menu interface controlled by the 5-way rocker button at the top. The red-on-black screen looks a little dated (like, the brick-sized, $1000 calculator your father used in college in 1975 that required a car battery to run and only did basic math dated), though it’s easy to read. I’ll call it a retro touch.

One curious element of the interior styling is the seemingly random use of chrome on the transmission selector and its chrome accent ring. It’s the only place inside the car where chrome is used. Otherwise, the interior is swathed in textured black plastic with faux brushed metal accents.

Bling, Bling!

Things calm down -- and shrink down -- quite a bit when you move to the backseat. Though the Fiesta has seatbelts enough for three in the rear, it is only usable for three people who have not yet passed through the throes of puberty. Otherwise, unless you hate the people you’re cramming back there, you might want to keep it to two. I was able to install two rear-facing Britax Marathons in the back seat using the LATCH anchors, but had to scoot the driver’s seat a bit closer to the steering wheel than I would have otherwise liked, and the lower anchors were buried infuriatingly deep in the seat cushions. There are three sets of LATCH anchors, but you cannot use more than two at a time. Duggar wanna-bes should shop elsewhere.

Belts for three, room for two.

In the hatch, there doesn’t appear to be much room. However, after No-Knuckles Freddie cracked me over the head, he was able to stuff me (225lbs) in there and shut the hatch without having to break any of my limbs. Unless you’re making a Costco run, you could easily fit a week’s worth of groceries.

It's a one-large-man, or one-and-a-half-dead-prostitute trunk.

If you’re not carrying rear seat passengers, the outlook is much better, as the seatbacks flop down and open up a cavern of space, enabling all but the most extreme packratty college kids to move to and from the dorm with ease. For this same reason, musicians will prefer the hatchback over the sedan – with the large opening, it can easily swallow drums, guitars, and half-stacks.

Insert lava lamps, gigantic stereo, beat up desk chair,
and a semester's worth of dirty laundry.

Ford has, in recent decades, shot for the moon when it comes to keeping everyone alive and in one piece should the worst happen. To that end, it has filled the cabin with every currently available airbag, and they come standard, even on the cheapest model. In addition to the usual driver and passenger airbags, the Fiesta also gets side-curtain airbags for front and back passengers and a driver's side knee airbag, none of which are new, but definitely not common at the Fiesta’s price point. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) rates it Good in all tested categories, which in this day of hyperbole everywhere might sound just middlin’, but Good is IIHS’s highest rating, so, translated to hyperbole-speak, it’s crazy-awesome safe.

Under the Hood
The Fiesta’s 120 hp, 1.6L 4-cylinder engine starts quickly and settles into an idle that sounds a bit diesel-y. That somewhat-untoward clatter is thanks to the high, 11.0:1 compression ratio. Despite that high-performance sounding specification, Ford makes use of it for good instead of fun. With a combination of variable valve timing on both cams and a cleverly designed head (co-developed with Yamaha), this engine makes the best use of every milliliter of fuel to squeeze out an EPA-estimated 39 mpg on the highway, and does it on regular swamp-water 87 octane fuel.

To get that might onto the pavement, Ford has brought racing technology to the occasionally-washed masses with a dual-clutch automatic transmission. Don’t let the techspeak bugger your brain; it behaves just like you’d expect an automatic transmission to behave. There are still just two pedals to operate. “R” goes backward, “D” goes forward, “P” and “N” go nowhere, and “L” goes forward, but differently (I’ll get to that later).

Dual-clutch means that you effectively have two transmissions shoved together like some Siamese sideshow. One has the odd gears; the other holds the even, and each is coupled to the engine with its very own clutch – hence, dual-clutch. The magic-trickery is that this enables buttery-smooth shifts with no awkward power interruption like a conventional automatic. One clutch engages while the other disengages, and it does it quickly, which is good for both economy and acceleration. Another advantage of this transmission design is that it only takes as much power to spin as a manual transmission, so there is not as much power and efficiency lost due to friction as with a conventional automatic.

Illustration shamelessly lifted from autospies.com.
My brain hurts just looking at it.

Let’s Drive!
One-hundred-and-twenty horsies sounds downright pokey – and it is, more or less. If you're really interested in achieving the 39 miles per gallon, you probably already drive like a nearsighted, rheumy octogenarian and won’t care. When plodding along like a good citizen, the transmission shifts quickly and at low RPM, which is great for efficiency, but about as sprightly as the aforementioned social security burden with his or her walker.

However, when you stuff your right foot into the long pedal, the Fiesta will come alive, but only after a moment of hesitation in which it seems to ask “Are you sure that’s what you want? Back off the pedal now and we can forgot about all of this moving-quickly nonsense. Really? Okay, here goes!” The ratios are closely spaced for efficiency, but it also benefits acceleration, enabling the engine to stay on the happy side of the tachometer when that oblivious jerk on his cell phone will not let you merge.

Hoon Mode
So what’s special about selecting L on the transmission? I'm going to guess that L stands for "Low," because it causes the Fiesta's transmission to always remain in the lowest possible gear for the speed you're driving, keeping the engine in the Feisty Fiesta zone at all times. I’m not sure exactly what the powertrain engineers envisioned when they programmed the L mode on the transmission, but I’m going to call it “batshit-crazy” mode. With the engine permanently buzzing at high rpm, the Fiesta transforms from a sedate econo-cruiser to a puppy you’ve fed a strict diet of Red Bull and meth.

And it was while driving with the transmission in L that I realized the Fiesta has an extremely competent chassis. The ride is well-controlled without being a bit harsh. When I threw it into a roundabout with reckless abandon, the Fiesta bit the asphalt sharply and hung on until its narrow economy tires started to slip into a four-wheel drift, at which point the stability control system stepped in to pull the Fiesta on course.

Stock Khumo tires handle sharp, but let go easily. At least they should wear forever.

The four-wheel drift was actually quite unexpected. Most cars have a suspension designed to understeer (or “push”) at the limit, meaning the front tires let go before the back, causing your turning circle to widen, but in a predictable and easy-to-correct manner. The Fiesta seemed to let go of all four tires at about the same time, which is something that is normally the provenance of very sport-oriented cars designed to be driven by someone less mutton-mitted than me. I suppose that Ford has tuned the chassis this way because it has gone and put an electronic computer in the car that can all but drive it in your stead, thus eliminating the need for a “safer” understeering suspension design.

Bottom Line
The car can be a hoot to drive, if you’re so inclined. And I hope a lot of people are inclined, because this is an excellent car -- one of a new generation of small cars that doesn’t deserve comparisons to the shitboxes of yore. I may not have gotten 39 mpg during my lead-footed test drive, but the car’s computer claimed I still achieved 32 mpg overall, so managing 39 mpg shouldn’t be that hard. And beyond – hypermilers have already reported achieving 45 mpg with careful driving. With permanent $3+/gallon gasoline, America needs more cars like this on the road, waving their middle fingers at OPEC.

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