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. ;-)