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2011 Ford Fiesta - First Drive

Could this be the new king of the subcompacts?

According to Ford, small B-segment cars are projected to make up almost half of U.S. car sales by 2012. That's a lot of cars and big business, which up until now Ford hasn't been competitive in. However, the new '11 Ford Fiesta changes all that and brings a competitive package to a market that has been dominated by Honda and Toyota in years past.

The new Fiesta is good - really good, actually - but before all the raving and praise, let's touch on its most inherent flaw: the powerplant. You don't expect much performance or oomph from a car that's rated at a whopping 40-mpg highway (30-mpg city), but one still hopes the engine is paired accordingly with its 2,537-lb chassis. On paper, it seems to be so, churning out 120 hp at 6350 rpm and 112 ft-lbs of torque at 5000 rpm. In real life, however, the 1.6-liter Duratec four-cylinder somehow doesn't live up to standards. It feels slouchy and inadequate, forcing one to make more downshifts than normally necessary.

Scaling uphill mountain roads left the engine wheezing - you're expecting more, but receiving less. Some blame should be put on the tall gearing in the 5-speed manual transmission, which holds the engine back, but alas, it's all for the greater good. The 1.6-liter gets class-leading gas mileage, and that's more important than how fast it will crawl up a mountain or trap the quarter-mile (17.2 seconds at 84 mph, if you're wondering). The optional smooth-shifting 6-speed twin-clutch automatic transmission is a better match for the motor and probably the best route to go when considering the car's daily regimen.

Despite the engine's shortcomings, the Fiesta more than makes up for it in other key areas. The handling is refined and remarkably responsive. Through an autocross course, it maneuvers more like a Miata than a tallish five-door hatch. Ford provided some competing segment cars like the Honda Fit and Toyota Yaris for us to compare against and even timed the sessions so we could see our improvement between the models. While the Fit provided more forward grunt, it didn't feel as stable as the Fiesta. The Yaris was last in the bunch in all aspects of performance. The Fiesta was the clear winner out of the three, which not only showed in the lap times but also through the chassis' feedback.

Ford really nailed the suspension tuning and ride quality on the Fiesta. It exhibits an exceptionally solid ride, thanks largely to its electronic-assisted power steering that helps iron out some of the irregularities in the road with fancy computer technology. It's not perfect because it still feels slightly artificial, but the overall sense of stability is well worth the trade-off.

Let's face it, though, if you're in the market for a subcompact car, performance and handling aren't exactly at the top of your list. It's more about what's inside that counts and, once again, the Fiesta delivers. Its industry-leading SYNC communication/entertainment system offers voice-activated commands, Bluetooth sync with your iPhone, iPod, smart phone and so on, and a new feature allows users to download weather and navigation directions.

Ford has also gone to great lengths to ensure the cabin noise is at a minimum with extensive sound-deadening treatment and specially treated glass. The result is an interior that's exceptionally quiet, enhancing the overall driving experience. The dash, steering wheel and surrounding trim all exude an expensive feel that gives the impression you're getting more for less.

When looking at the Fiesta from the outside, one can get used to its styling, but because I judge style more about what wheels and exterior enhancements I can make, the Fiesta is a tough sell for me. As any B-segment car goes, bigger wheels often make it look goofy. A proper lowering job can help tremendously, but all too often it comes at the expense of ruining ride quality. And forget about any performance mods unless you want to sound like you're going fast when you're not. It has potential, though - just look at Ken Block's rally Fiesta and envision some of those styling cues on a street car, and all of a sudden, it becomes more appealing.

But where does the Fiesta slot into the performance enthusiast's garage? How about the wife's car, or a starter car for your son or daughter. Maybe it can replace that modified EVO that guzzles gas like a freight liner during your daily commutes. The Fiesta uses as much gas in a month as one track day would in a force-fed turbo four-cylinder. Sure, you won't look as cool, but with a solid ride, great interior and 40 mpg, it sounds like a very tempting alternative.

Specs & Details
'11 Ford Fiesta

Engine 1.6-liter, Ti-VCT-equipped Duratec four-cylinder engine
Horsepower 120 at 6350 rpm
Torque 112 ft-lbs at 5000 rpm
Transmission 5-speed manual & 6-speed twin clutch automatic
Base Price $17,795

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