The Fiesta did not make a good first impression.
What awful seats, I thought as I struggled to find the recline lever.
What an awful noise, as the engine wheezed to life.
What an awful car.
I had been curious about the Fiesta ever since I’d ridden in a European model with an acquaintance who works in Ford’s Vehicle Dynamics department. It had a nice interior, good looks, and a chassis that, from the passenger seat, seemed oriented toward handling rather than comfort. It was the first time since the first-generation New Mini JCW that a front-wheel-drive car had interested me. It had the makings of a truly ideal daily driver- comfort, style, space, economy, and, most importantly, driving excitement.
I had resolved to drive one as soon as it arrived in the States, but the combination of a cross-country move and a plethora of available supercars in my new location conspired to keep my attentions elsewhere. Finally, on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I went forth in search of an appropriate test vehicle.
The first dealership I stopped by had two dozen Fiestas in stock. The salesman was enthusiastic if unhelpful; seeing my S2000, he promptly whipped out his phone to show me photos of his Morgan Plus 4 (beautiful), but was unsure if any of the Fiestas on the lot were five-speeds (frustrating).
Eventually, we located a manual sedan. The sedan body-style seems to have been conceived for the sole purpose of offering North-American-market buyers the option of hitting the Fiesta multiple times with the ugly stick. Hunchbacked, white, dusty, and rolling on what appeared to be shopping-cart castors, it was the epitome of poverty-spec. This would not normally be an issue, as manual-everything saves weight, but I’ll trade standard iPod integration for more serious tires any day.
The interior, too, represented a step back from the European model. The wheel was prodigious and lacking contouring, the plastics were dismal, and the console had been rearranged to accommodate an enormous cupholder. The driving position, however, was excellent, the visibility good, and the accommodations spacious.
Turning out of the dealership, foot flat to the floor, a small eternity and two redline shifts were required to reach sixty; in California traffic this is downright hazardous. Admittedly the gearbox is very nice; far better, in fact, than that in a Miata. It needs to be, though- the gearing is absurdly short (48mph in second) and frequent downshifts are required for passing/hills/any hope of actual acceleration. Heel-and toe is difficult but not impossible- the deep-set gas pedal requires a determined jab to rouse the engine.
I was instructed to make a right turn at the first intersection. I lined up, braked firmly (in the process discovering that the Fiesta is much better endowed with stop than go), and smoothly but firmly turned the wheel. The immediate result was yards of unusually smooth understeer, comedy body-roll, and the car winding up in the leftmost of three lanes instead of the rightmost.
The remarkably composed salesman swiftly suggested that we relocate, at slower speeds, to a large parking lot nearby, where I could explore the handling without becoming a road hazard. It seemed unlikely that the Fiesta had dynamic qualities outside of the domesticated-animal-on-linoleum spectrum, but I agreed.
What I discovered surprised me. With sufficient provocation (heavy trail-braking), the Fiesta is actually very neutral. Real rotation is out of the question, and grip and roll levels remain alarming, but it is entirely conceivable that the little Ford could be hustled around an autocross. The Fiesta is probably the most exciting economy car on the market, a trait its target market will no doubt totally fail to discover or appreciate. It’s not entirely to my taste- the no grip, no grunt approach to automotive thrills has never worked for me- but it is unquestionably an achievement.
After the car was returned to the far reaches of the dealer lot, the salesman asked me what I thought.
“It’s a good car, but I wouldn’t want to drive it every day,” I replied, and climbed back into my noisy, thirsty, impractical, uncomfortable, and utterly brilliant car.
Photos Courtesy of Ford APA and Connect With Fiesta, on flickr