Cheap thrills

by Lesley Wimbush . Jul 08 2016

Ahhh, Fiesta. It’s not easy to say it without envisioning a burst of mariachi music. Especially when you consider the achiote-yellow Electric Spice paint that wraps this week’s tester, the 2016 Ford Fiesta SE.

Other than occupying the same slot in the segment hierarchy, the modern-day Ford Fiesta bears little resemblance to the original frugal fuel-sipper introduced at the height of the 1970s oil crisis. Instead of a rudimentary hatchback that’s little more than a platform and running gear, the current Fiesta has more modern safety and convenience features than the luxury cars of yesterday — and two additional doors.

The subcompact segment’s got a lot more crowded in the past few years, and the competition has been great for the consumer. With all those car companies vying for their dollars, the customer no longer has to settle for a dreary econobox, but can now pick and choose from an increasing lineup of well-built, feature-laden small cars.

The current Fiesta arrived here in 2011, and its sharp styling, refreshing character and available advanced technology quickly made it a favourite among Canadian hatchback buyers. But other manufacturers have ramped up their small-car games, and the Fiesta’s now trailing many of those who once were also-rans. They include such heavyweights as the Hyundai Accent, the Toyota Yaris and the Honda Fit.

The Fit is by far the segment leader in terms of room and versatility, the Accent can thank the generosity of Hyundai’s much-lauded warranty and high feature content for its success, and the Yaris, well, it’s a Toyota and will probably get passed down to the next generation, and maybe even the one after that.

There’s a lot to recommend about the Fiesta, however, especially if personality is near the top of your priority list. Nothing about the Fiesta’s sharp edges and abundance of character lines screams “budget car.” Our SE tester’s optional graphics package, cheeky little spoiler and spicy paint give it the outward appearance of channelling its inner ST.

The interior is fairly pleasing, modern and attractive, even though it is crafted from budget materials such as cloth and hard plastic. Seats are comfortable for smaller passengers, but compared to its competitors, the Fiesta’s cabin is a bit like flying economy. Rear seating is cramped, with not much leg, head and shoulder room. Those seats do fold, but not completely flat, which limits the usefulness of the 422 litres of cargo space.

Available on SE and Titanium trims is a 6.5-inch display screen, encased within a helmet-like binnacle on top of the dash. It’s the focal point of Ford’s much improved Sync 3 connectivity system which has been streamlined for simplicity and now features Siri integration with voice commands.

The SE is available with two engine choices: the optional three-cylinder turbocharged EcoBoost and the 1.6-L four cylinder in our tester. With 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque, it’s more than adequately powerful.

In the past, we’d ruminate on the injustice of Europeans once again being the recipients of all the three-pedal hotness of the XR2 and RS Turbo, while we had to make do with the Firefly. Fortunately, the sportier, more powerful Fiesta ST will satisfy those Canadian buyers with a hankering for a hot hatch. Drivers who aren’t necessarily looking for a sport hatch but still want a bit of engagement with their daily driver can opt for the standard five-speed manual, but the Fiesta also comes with an optional dual-clutch automatic.

This type of transmission is typically used in more performance-oriented hatchbacks, but here it’s geared to make the most efficient use of the small engine’s output. Previously criticized for its lurching engagement, the DCT shows some hesitation at moving off at startup, but is otherwise a decent gearbox. The Sport button on this trim lowers shift points considerably, but paddle shifters would have made for even better downshifts.

Of course, the SE has a softer ride than its ST sibling, but it’s well composed over rough pavement with minimal body roll. Electric-assist steering is on the numb side, but it’s sharp and accurate enough when navigating tight off-ramps. It’s a fun car to drive, but without the sado-masochistic tendencies of the Fiesta ST, which virtually begs you to flog it hard. Of course, without being tempted to have the car constantly on the boil, fuel consumption for a week’s mixed driving averaged a very sensible 7.3 L/100 km.

It’s not as compelling as the Honda Fit, which has better steering feedback and vastly more usable interior space. But there’s a lot to like about the Fiesta. It offers good value (although the fully optioned, top-spec Titanium trim can get expensive), is moderately fun to drive and its cheeky styling will resonate with a lot of buyers.

— Postmedia Network Inc. 2016