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2011 Ford Fiesta: Less is more

New subcompact offers high mileage and wealth of options
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, The new Ford Fiesta has more to offer than good gas mileage, including contemporary styling, a long option list and surprisingly smooth ride for such a small car.

With the hype surrounding all-electric and new-generation hybrid cars, is there still a market for a conventional gasoline-powered car that gets good mileage?

Ford thinks so and is marketing the new Fiesta by emphasizing its EPA-rated 40 highway miles per gallon.

Unlike electric-powered cars, the Fiesta achieves its fuel economy the old fashioned way - by being small. It is a subcompact, the smallest car in the company's lineup. But it also feels very well built, meeting the high production standards that characterize the rest of Ford's cars, trucks and SUVs.

When it comes to internal combustion engines, increasing mileage is a relatively simple equation. The heavier a car, the more power is required to move it. Power is produced by burning fuel, which means lighter cars require less fuel to move them. Smaller cars can get by with smaller engines, which means smaller cars get better mileage, all things being equal.

Ford understood this when it introduced the first Fiesta back in the wake of the Arab Oil Embargo in 1976. Back then just about every manufacturer was scrambling to come up with more fuel-efficient cars. At the time, the Fiesta - one of the original econoboxes - was praised for also being fun to drive, a rare feature in those days of self-sacrifices.

The first generation Fiesta was also sold in Europe. Ford stopped selling the Fiesta in America in the 1980s but continued manufacturing it overseas, where it has sold extremely well over the years. When gas prices hit $4 a gallon a few years ago, Ford committed to bringing the Fiesta back to American. The 2011 model is actually the sixth generation version, which has been on sale in Europe for more than a year.

The Americanized version is powered by a 1.6-liter inline 4 cylinder engine that produces 120 horsepower. Despite its excellent fuel economy, Ford appears to be hedging its bet about whether that is enough to make Americans interested in buying small cars again, though. The company seems to have two other marketing strategies going on. First, the 2011 Fiesta is overtly styled to appeal to young buyers. And second, it can be loaded up with kind of options that appeal to older buyers, including heated leather seats.

The result is a little bit of a contradiction. Our test model was an SES version with a six-speed automatic transmission. It got excellent mileage, felt very roomy, and was easy to drive around town. But it wasn't a lot of fun. The steering was numb, the automatic was slow to downshift and the suspension was soft. It rode very well for such a small car, floating over broken pavement better than some bigger cars we've tested. But we were never tempted to race it over twisty roads.

The five-speed manual transmission version is probably more entertaining to drive. On the other hand, there are two genuine sport versions of the Fiesta offered in Europe, and a turbocharged one is reportedly in the works, too. There are no plans to offer any of them for sale in American yet, however.

There is still plenty to like about the American version of the Fiesta, especially if you favor snazzy styling. On the outside, the Fiesta looks fast standing still. The sides angle up sharply from the large, low grill, giving it a sporty stance. Our hatchback version also had an integrated rear spoiler that added to boy racer appeal. The sculpted five-spoke wheels looked great, too.

The inside was equally contemporary. In an obvious but well-designed appeal to younger drivers, the center console looks like a cell phone. Easy-to-use knobs controlled major functions like stereo volume, temperate settings and fan speeds, while smaller buttons managed specialized tasks like front and rear window fogging. Both the materials and the fit-and-finish were very good for an economy car. The contoured front bucket seats were comfortable enough for a long trip, something that can't be said about most small cars in the past.

The sharply-angled windshield and deep dash open up the front seat area, making it feel bigger than a subcompact. On the other hand, the front seat room comes at a price for rear seat passengers, however. With the front seats back, they are only suitable for small children, a typical issue with subcompact cars.

On the road, the Fiesta drove like a larger car. The suspension soaked up minor imperfections, giving it a softer ride that most cars with short wheelbases. Acceleration was adequate around town but required a heavy foot for steep hills and freeway passing. Even then, it took a few moments for the automatic transmission to downshift. Routine shifts during normal acceleration were smooth, however. Visibility through the large front windshield was good, although back views were slightly restricted by the relatively high rear end. Parallel parking was a breeze, though, since the Fiesta is so short.

The new Fiesta is not the first small car that Ford has sold since the original version, of course. All American manufacturers have offered at least one small car with relatively good gas mileage over the past four decades. Ford's models have included various version of the Escort and, more recently, the Focus. Chevrolet's cars included the Cavalier, which was replaced by the Cobalt, and the Korean-made Aveo. Dodge offered the Neon and, now, the Caliber. Few were ever rated as good as the competitors from the major Japanese manufacturers, however - something Ford has pledged to overcome with the new Fiesta.

The base sedan costs just over $13,000, while the lowest priced hatchback begins at a little more than $15,000. Both come with a wide range of features that aren't normally found in low-priced subcompacts, such as push-button start and SYNC connectivity. Three higher-priced trim levels - SE, SEL and SES - add other features, such as a manual tilt and telescoping steering wheel, heated side mirrors and SIRIUS Satellite Radio. Additional options include heated leather-trimmed front seats. Fully loaded, the a Fiesta hatchback can top $17,000, but still deliver on its original promise of 40 highway miles per gallon.

With the price for regular gas hovering at around $3 a gallon, interest is lagging in super fuel-efficient cars. Truck and big car sales are on the rise, while hybrids - which carry a premium over similar gasoline-only cars - are moving slowly. Ford is hopeful the Fiesta's styling and features will attract buyers who are concerned about more than just economy. But if gas prices start to go up again, the company is also well position compete against such other high-mileage subcompacts as the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris.

Facts and figures

• Model: 2011 Fiesta.

• Manufacturer: Ford.

• Class: Subcompact.

• Layout: Front engine, front-wheel-drive

• Style: Sedan and five-door hatchback.

• Engines: 1.6-liter inline 4 cylinder (120 hp).

• Transmissions: 5-speed manual; 6-speed automatic.

• EPA estimated city/highway mileage: 32/40.

• Price: beginning at approximately $14,000.