2011 Fiesta First Look: Ford bets big on its first no-excuses small car.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have what is known as “teh Internets” among tech-savvy folks. And if you have teh Internets, chances are you’ve heard of the “Fiesta Movement”. The “Fiesta Movement” was Ford’s bold attempt to round up the one hundred most annoying “social media intenders” in the United States and get them to “tweet” about the Fiesta to all their self-involved pals. Had Ford asked me my opinion of the “Fiesta Movement”, I would have told them that it was very possibly the stupidest idea in the history of Western civilization.

Luckily for them, Ford didn’t ask me, and the Movement turned out to be a complete success. As a result, the 2011 Fiesta has arrived on a wave of pre-launch all-media publicity capable of wiping out the entire West Coast. You’ve all seen the car. You’ve all heard about the frisky interior, the SYNC system and its new capabilities, (Pandora, Twitter, and other Android/BlackBerry applications) and the rainbow of millennial-friendly colors available for selection. The only thing you haven’t heard about is what it’s like to thrash the little Fiesta to within an inch of its 1.6-liter life. Stick around, because the road sign in front of us reads “Curves Ahead”.

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Before we talk about corners, however, let’s discuss the one place where Ford decided to cut four of them. The Fiesta is equipped with the Hankook Optimo tire. The Optimo must have been named by the same opposite-day folks who brought you the “Chevrolet Celebrity Eurosport”, because it’s very far from optimo. Whatever you’re planning to spend on a Fiesta, budget an extra $300 or so for a set of four Eagle GT, Bridgestone RE960, or Pirelli P6 tires. In this segment, every penny counts, and as we’ll see in a bit, Ford has brought a lot of standard equipment in at the Fiesta’s base price, so I can see how the decision to spec the ‘Kooks happened. Speaking personally, however, I’d have them in my nearest dumpster the day after I took delivery of a Fiesta.

With that said, even a set of Korea’s less-than-finest donuts cannot ruin the fast-road experience of the 2011 Fiesta. To begin with, it’s a freaking rocketship by the standards of the class. I ran the auto-tranny Toyota Yaris and “automatic” dual-clutch Fiesta back-to-back in short-distance acceleration tests. At the same spot in the road that the Yaris is reaching 50mph, the Fiesta is nearly at sixty. The Fit runs it much closer, but Ford’s decision to fit continuously-variable valve timing on the 1.6L Duratec has gifted it with more area under the horsepower curve than the Fit’s 1.5L VTEC mill, and the Honda’s sixty-pound or so weight advantage isn’t enough to close the gap. Fiesta owners will need to shy away from stoplight confrontations with the V6 Camry and its ilk, but if some fool in an Aveo decides to throw down for pink slips, you’ll own two little cars a quarter-mile later.

If your commute involves a twisty road, leave that Aveo you just won at home. Our run through the California redwood forests was a seventy-mile spaghetti ribbon of second-gear turns, elevation-change switchbacks, and long, flat-out uphill runs — and the Fiesta flat murdered it. Finally, we’ve found a Ford that comes from the factory with just about enough brake capacity for multiple ABS-engaged entries in a row. Since the stability control is capable of overheating the rear drums during enthusiastic driving, it’s best to avoid the sideways-entry heroics and simply trail-brake the little Ford in very lightly to every entrance unless a gearchange is required. In mid-corner, the Fiesta has surprisingly little plow, and the electric steering provides light but reliable feedback. When the aforementioned ‘Kook Optimos are hot, they can be quite variable in terms of exit phase grip, but when they release their hold on the road, it’s in progressive fashion and the Fiesta never does anything terribly sudden.

Some of our drive occurred in the rain, where the Ti-VCT Duratec is more likely to display its ability to spin a tire or two on exit. When the stability/traction control intervenes, it’s fairly mild. This is not Toyota’s cut-the-engine-to-idle TC, but neither is it what you’d find on a Williams FW15C, so modulate the throttle if necessary but weld it to the floor as soon as you can and hold the wheel straight on exit. Torque steer is not an issue with this car, plain and simple.

While I thought the visibility was good enough, my shorter co-driver, Michelle “Miss Motormouth” Naranjo, was troubled by the A-pillar during the 180-degree turns. Make sure you can see out of this thing before you buy one. Ford refers to the Fiesta seating position as “cockpit” as opposed to “command”, and it’s a fair description. The Yaris and Fit have very top-of-the-world driver viewpoints, while shorter Fiesta pilots may find their shoulders on level with the beltline. Every size of driver will, however, surely be pleased by the NVH package, as this car is quieter than anything else in the class and often quieter than larger cars such as the Corolla.

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For those of us who are untroubled by “the vision thing”, the Fiesta interior is a genuinely decent place in which to spend time. There are a few ergonomic clangers — door-lock button hidden among radio controls? No volume adjustment on the steering wheel? SYNC activation from the turn signal, in some bizarre tribute to the 1979 Ford LTD turn-signal horn? — but this is, by far, the class of the field. If the interior design isn’t as avant-garde as the Mini Cooper’s, it’s certainly executed in better materials and with a touch more precision. The Fit, Yaris, and the Koreans aren’t even in the same ballpark. From the Bentley-style contrast-color-piped leather seats to the Vertu-mobile-aping center console, this Fiesta is a solid swing for the design and execution fences.

In the few days since I returned from the test drive, I’ve heard one question again and again: How’s the dual-clutch transmission? Well… Ford’s provided everyone a hint by persistently referring it to as the Fiesta’s “automatic” gearbox. There is no manual mode, and the clutch action is programmed to mimic a torque converter. Shifts are slurred, not banged into place. If you’re expecting a VW/Audi DSG, with the super-cool “brap” between shifts and instant tach-needle jumps, forget about it. Ford’s chosen dual-clutch for reasons of economy, not performance. The payoff is 40MPG in the EPA highway test, which handily trounces the competition and also beats the Honda CR-Z hybrid two-seater. I wouldn’t get the “Powershift” in mine, although in Ford’s mini-autocross it was slightly faster than the stick-shift thanks to the ability to grab first gear in the tightest corners.

Once out of the twisty bits and onto the highway, the Fiesta experience is very much what Americans probably expect from a “Euro Ford”. It’s solid and substantial-feeling, which is reasonable since both the five-door and sedan weigh north of 2500 pounds. Imagine that one were to draw a line, title it “Overall Freeway Impressions”, label the left side “Hyundai Accent”, and label the right side “Audi A3”. The Toyota Yaris is very far to the left side, and the Honda Fit is close to the center. The Fiesta is farthest to the right, far enough over that the Audi A1 will likely struggle to provide a substantially superior experience at its likely much higher price. The days of penalty-box small Fords — hello, Festiva! thinking of you, Aspire! — are long gone.

In fact, this Fiesta is so expensive-feeling that one wonders exactly where the differentiation between it and the new Focus is going to come from. Part of that differentiation will be in assembly location. The Fiesta will be assembled in Mexico, while the Focus will continue to be an all-Michigan effort. This will no doubt help put a little bit of MSRP difference between the two. There can’t be too much difference, because Ford’s chosen to price heads-up with the segment leaders. The four-door “S” is priced against the Yaris four-door at $13,995 including destination, while the five-door “SES” starts at $15,800. The well-equipped sedan and hatch we drove each rang the cash register to the tune of eighteen grand, although that put a full SYNC system and those tasty contrast-piped leather seats into the cars.

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During my appearance on Miss Naranjo’s MingleMedia video show last Tuesday night, I challenged the audience to name a small Ford that had not sold on the basis of low price. There was no reply. From the Model T to the Falcon to the Maverick to the original Fiesta and beyond, Ford’s always looked to the Monroney to move the metal. This loaded-up Fiesta, equipped to the gills and priced without excuses, may represent a “first” in the company’s history. Whether customers will flock to the car as they have in other markets is, for right now, a mystery, but I will say this: This is the best small car I’ve yet driven. Try it yourself and see, even if you’re not a “millennial”, a “social media leader”, or a “downsizing Boomer”. If I had to pick a term that would best describe people likely to be charmed by the Fiesta, it would be this: “driver”.

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Jack Baruth

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