Tuesday, December 15, 2009

2011 Ford Fiesta: First Impressions and a Drive

This year’s LA Auto Show saw the launch of a myriad of vehicles, spanning the majority of the industry’s top names. None of these product launches, however, struck me as being nearly as fascinating as that of the 2011 Ford Fiesta.

Yes, Ford. The company which stuck the US market with an inferior Focus from 2005 on, completely removed hatchbacks from its US lineup several years ago, and abandoned many US car enthusiasts (only those Mustang die-hards were spared). However, it seems that they’re finally starting to come to their senses and introduce their European models to American shores, starting with the Mk. VI Fiesta.

The Fiesta will be available in the US starting during the summer of 2010, for the 2011 model year, in both a 4-door sedan and 4-door hatchback style. No 2-door hatchback (a la Focus ZX3) is currently planned for American car buyers. Now, I’m mostly going to be focusing on the hatchback model because, as far as I’m concerned, the sedan’s existence is a crime… Nevermind that I certainly don’t know anyone who would prefer the sedan over the hatchback.

The basic styling of the Fiesta isn’t new to some of us since it has been on sale in Europe since 2008, but Ford did decide to make some styling tweaks for the US version of the Fiesta hatchback. Thankfully, though, the attractive little hatch made it through the localization process mostly unmolested. The interior is well laid out and surprisingly roomy for such a small car, interior fitment is much better than I was expecting it to be, and I’m not going to put too much weight on interior materials quality since, well, this is a $14,000 car. Granted, I can say that the interior of the US spec Fiesta is light-years ahead of the ’06 Focus ZX3 that I had for a year before switching to the BMW 328i for 2007-2009. Ford has also decided to grant us lowly car buyers the chance to opt for either a 5-speed manual or 6-speed dual-clutch gearbox (interestingly, utilizing dry clutches instead of the wet clutches found in VW’s DSG) and basics like heated leather seats (which, might I add, are very supple…in retrospect, perhaps too much so). One niggling detail which sticks out in my mind in spite of all the aspects of the car that Ford got right: the Braille-like texture applied to the hard plastic door panels and dash—there’s absolutely nothing about it which could possibly classify as “tactilely friendly” (aside from, of course, it not feeling like razor blades).

Here’s a quick video clip of the interior taken at the LA Auto Show:

Didn’t those doors sound nice when they opened and closed? Anyway, I couldn’t shoot video of the interior of the hatchback model since all of them were locked (there was just one open sedan) and I suppose I should be at least somewhat thankful because it gave me the opportunity to discover something more to add to my Fiesta sedan complaint list.

The trunk of the sedan model opens and closes on old, cargo crushing, pivoting arms instead of articulated hinges, and isn’t even supported by gas struts. Rather than gas struts, Ford decided that coil springs would be a great idea…even though they don’t really hold the trunk lid at all until almost fully opened and are embarrassingly loud (see video below).

Some of you might recall the Fiesta having been MIA at the Orange County Auto Show, which was a great disappointment to me. However, I was quite pleased to learn that Ford had a Fiesta sitting outside the LA convention center that I could take for a brief drive in the surrounding area. Unfortunately, though, I didn’t have my camera mounts with me to shoot video of the drive (perhaps some other time when I can have a little more fun with the car). I found the drive to be about as enjoyable as any other and, considering that I hate driving in LA, that should be considered high praise—it also helped that the Ford rep. who was with me was patient and appreciated the feedback I was providing about the car…even if I did miss several turns and ended up in the wrong lane more often than not (I can’t honestly say that 100% of it was unintentional).

The driving position that I settled on after getting into the bright green party on wheels felt relaxed and comfortable, but definitely needed some additional lumbar support. I can’t recall if there’s an option for adjustable lumbar support but, if there isn’t, there should be—if you want people to actually drive your product to more than just the grocery store, the seats must be comfortable and supportive enough to help compensate for driver fatigue. This isn’t a complaint directed specifically at the Fiesta, more a general notice to all auto makers: there is absolutely no excuse for unsupportive, poorly designed seats regardless of the vehicle’s price point. If the seats can’t hold you together for a two to three hour plus drive, then it doesn’t matter what other features the car comes equipped with because I won’t want to be in the car for a long enough period of time to care (for reference, the poor seats were one of the many reasons I was so eager to get rid of that ’06 Focus after only one year).

Moving along… The driving characteristics of the Fiesta are straight up German and very much reminded me of the newer Volkswagens that I’ve been in. Absent are the stereotypical “block-o-wood” American brakes and in their place is a sensitive system, with light pedal resistance, and a fair amount of initial bite that manages to effortlessly bring the happy little car to a halt. Acceleration is brisk, reaching an undisclosed [but perfectly safe] speed in one long smile and a gear change—I expected peppiness and the Fiesta, without a doubt, delivers. Mercifully, Ford did not contract out the accelerator pedal response mapping to a group of crack-addicted Jack Russell Terriers, as a few other manufacturers apparently do these days. The clutch pedal, upon first use, felt a lot like a second grader’s book report: vague, a little mushy, and reeking of spilt apple juice… just without the apple juice part. However, after three or four standing starts, it’s something that one quickly adapts to (at least it isn’t an on/off switch).

I really only have two complaints about the driving experience and one can be solved simply by stiffening up the suspension a bit. The other complaint, however, involves a little more tinkering to correct, and is the same complaint I have about newer Volkswagens: the electric assist steering. Admittedly, I haven’t delved too far into the workings of the electric assist systems that are currently being used, but in most every car that I’ve driven which has been equipped with such a system, the steering has felt remarkably disconnected—very much like a pre-force-feedback arcade game. Similar to the Volkswagens, the Fiesta’s steering is light enough to be operated by Lindsay Lohan, provides virtually no road feel, yet remains very precise.

All things considered, the 2011 Ford Fiesta represents a huge step in the right direction for Ford, both in the US and in general. If you happen to be in the market for a practical, economical, fun daily driver and general purpose car, then do yourself a favor and take a Fiesta out for a test drive. Yes, it is a small car and many Americans seem to have this unnatural aversion to all things small but, coming from someone who drives two-seaters with trunks the size of a lunchbox, the Fiesta really does provide more than enough room for the daily grind and occasional weekend trips. What, you need to haul a boat and half of a junior soccer team? Well, that’s what E-series vans and trucks are for… occasional use. The Fiesta is an everyday car.

As a side note to anyone at Ford… make a good, basic Fiesta (hatchback, properly adjustable heated leather seats, manual transmission, some chrome accents, lighted shift knob, no fancy audio, no Sync, no automatic climate control, no proximity key, no satellite radio, no sunroof, etc.) and couple that with a turbocharged (EcoBoost) engine that’s good for around 210hp/tq, keep the weight under 2700lb, toss in a rear-biased full-time all-wheel-drive system (45/55?), front and rear disc brakes, the ability to shut off stability control with the push of a button, and deliver this package of near-unfathomable awesomeness for somewhere around US$20,000. A silly dream? Perhaps. If it happened, though, I’d be the first person in line with cash in hand for what could possibly be dubbed the Fiesta4 RS. ;-)

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Test Drive: 2009 Mazda RX-8

I knew when I started with this whole test driving shtick that there was a chance I'd run across a car which I enjoyed to the point of actually wanting to go out and buy one. I didn't, however, expect to come across such a car so soon. Enter the 2009/2010 Mazda RX-8.

Mazda RX-8 Front

The exterior styling has been refreshed from the 2008 model year, with Mazda opting for a slightly more aggressive happy face to greet 2009+ car buyers. Thankfully, though, the massive dose of Prozac fed to the RX-8 hasn't resulted in the same sorts of adverse side effects seen in the Mazda 3... which could now probably pass as an automotive rendition of the Joker. On the mechanical end of things, the RX-8's suspension geometry has been tweaked, horsepower bumped up to 232hp, a moving redline added, and a few other issues addressed (I recall coming across something about an additional oil injector having been thrown in to better lubricate the center of the rotors' apex seals).

Mazda RX-8 Interior

Once inside of the RX-8, you're greeted almost entirely by hard plastics. Mind you, not all of which are particularly bad hard plastics... but it's still pretty disappointing. The cheap, 'tech gadget' gloss black plastic which runs down the center stack collects fingerprints quickly enough to cause an obsessive-compulsive to gouge their own eyes out rather than wipe it down again. This same plastic is found on the steering wheel inserts, the steering wheel center, top of the gearshift, around the center HVAC vents (which, oddly, are rectangular while the outermost vents are circular), on a push-to-open door just below the HVAC controls, and even on the door-mounted lock/window controls. Mercifully, none of the iPod flesh was placed around the gearshift or storage console which runs the length of the interior. The fitment of interior pieces was quite good, except for the doors covering the storage compartments in the tunnel console which I was able to wobble left and right while closed. Additionally, many of the controls that one would interface with while in the car (including the stalks mounted to the steering column, the parking brake lever, and every storage compartment) felt cheap and flimsy.

Mazda RX-8 Back Seats

Moving away from detail work, I found both the front and back seats to be quite comfortable and reasonably supportive, with the front seats in the Sport/Touring model losing points due to the lack of adjustable lumbar support (something which is included in the Grand Touring model). The problem, however, with the more comfortable seats only being available as part of the Grand Touring trim is that you're forced to cough up an extra $6000 for a bunch of junk you don't want just to get some decent seats (and stability/traction control).

By now you're probably wondering why I'd present the RX-8 as a car that I'd actually like to purchase, yet complain about it so much. Well, that's the real kicker with the RX-8... once you get in and start the engine, you completely forget about everything I was complaining about and are totally overcome by the desire to just drive until you run out of road. Yes, the handling characteristics, driving feel, and engine are that good.

Let's start with the engine... The 2009+ RX-8 comes equipped with a 1.3L, twin-rotor, Wankel rotary engine, producing 232hp at 8.5k RPM (redline at 9k) and 159ft-lb of torque at 5.5k RPM. Some consider Mazda's obsession with the Wankel rotary engine to be an unhealthy one; however, after doing a little research, I have developed an appreciation for the deceptive simplicity of the design. Check out the brief video below to get a general feel for how the Wankel rotary works.

Seems simple, right, with only a few moving parts and no vavletrain? That's because the challenges with the Wankel design are in lubrication, cooling, and sealing. With those challenges, however, come benefits like a high rev ceiling, amazing power to displacement ratio, incredible smoothness, and a sound that could make some sportbikes blush.

Now, the horsepower and torque numbers that I mentioned may not sound all that impressive until you factor in the RX-8's weight: a mere 3064lb (21lb lighter than my '00 BMW M Roadster). Three thousand pounds plus the weight of a small child isn't exactly mid-90's Miata light, but it's a far cry from the likes of modern American “muscle cars” and practically anything mainstream coming out of the Vaterland. Combine that with a chassis/suspension setup which begs to be thrown into corners and slid around, one part beautifully smooth transmission, three parts fantastic engine note, two parts precise, crisp steering, five parts poor fuel economy, and you have yourself a recipe for huge smiles and endless fun... with up to three terrified passengers.

Excuse me while I go and figure out how to pay for one of these things.