Fiesta – the name conjures visions of a street party, fun, laughter, enjoyment. Indeed, the word literally means a festival – originally a religious holiday – in Spanish. The word has a happy sound to it, a sound caught admirably by jazz pianist Chick Corea in his rollicking tune La Fiesta, a song filled with sunlight and fun. It’s also the name of Ford Europe’s small car which is a perennial best-seller in Britain.
The Fiesta, long a staple of Ford’s European range and widely admired for its excellent chassis dynamics, is a relative newcomer to New Zealand. The few that came here before 2004 did so as private imports, in much the same way as early versions of the Austin Metro did. It’s also been here in disguise. Ford’s underrated Ka three-door hatch was built on an earlier generation Fiesta platform; but the Ka is now sadly no longer a member of the Ford NZ family, a victim of unaccountably poor sales – blamed in part on its quirky looks and on the lack of an automatic gearbox version.
Ford introduced the Fiesta to New Zealand early in 2004, the decision forced largely by the end of production of the Festiva which was built in Korea by Kia on a Mazda 121 platform. Though it had attractive, if rather dumpy, body styling, the Festiva was very much old technology, noisy mechanically and only average dynamically. Still it was a big seller for Ford in New Zealand and Australia and established a strong presence in the small car segment.
With its demise, Ford was left without a truly small car for some time till the Fiesta came on the scene.
When the car was launched here in 2004, it was already two years old, and late last year Ford Europe gave it a revamp. It got minor restyling, a cabin makeover, new paint colours, and a beefed-up safety package. That safety upgrade added side and curtain airbags to the dual front airbags. The side and curtain airbags are what the motor trade calls a delete option: you can get $1000 off the sticker price by opting not to have them, though we can’t imagine why anyone would take that path. Styling changes included new bumpers and a new grille, new headlight and taillight designs, and thicker body side mouldings. The dashboard got new instruments which Ford declared were easier to read, and a soft-feel upper section to the instrument panel. Ford called the new seat fabric “modern” and said it helped give the Fiesta’s cabin an “exciting, trendy feel”.
Now opinion is opinion and Dirty Harry is on record about opinions, but we’re inclined to call the seat fabric on the test Fiesta “retro”. The design, using a motif of circles, is reminiscent of early 1950s abstract paintings. That aside, the Fiesta is decidedly modern and lives up to the happy, funtime image evoked by its name. It’s a neat little car, with a light airy cabin and good front seat leg and headroom. Rear cabin accommodation is good, too, though when taller passengers are seated in front and have pushed their seats well back, kneeroom can be a little tight. The luggage boot is unusually large for a car in this market segment, giving the Fiesta better-than-average load-carrying capacity. Ford says there’s enough room for two large suitcases or a baby buggy in the boot without folding down either of the rear seatbacks. The boot’s official capacity is 284 litres.
As Ford says, the Fiesta’s instruments are easy to read, though the speedometer doesn’t have a numeral marking for 100km/h, merely a bar between 90km/h and 110km/h. The latter speed is at top dead centre, indicating the car has been built for places where the speed limit is set at that more sensible level. So when you’re on the motorway or open road, it’s a matter of keeping the needle to the left of top dead centre. The test car was a five-door 1.6-litre fitted with the four-speed electronically-controlled automatic gearbox, and carrying a list price of $23,790. You can stump up with $1800 less and have the five-speed manual version. That would be our recommendation. The auto isn’t bad, but it does sap some power, making the Fiesta a little breathless on steeper hills; and the manual is a slick, direct shifter with a light, smoothly-operating clutch. You could spend the money you save on a set of alloy wheels which would enhance the car’s looks, and certainly be smarter than the standard imitation alloy spoked covers fitted to 15-inch steel wheels. The auto shifts smoothly, and kicks down of its own accord when the going gets tougher. You can also manually switch off the overdrive, and can manually select lower ratios. Even so, the Fiesta auto lacks the zing and sparkle of the manual.
The engine is a 1.6-litre, four-valve-per-cylinder Duratec four. It develops 74kW of power at 5000rpm and peak torque of 146Nm at 4000rpm. Ford says it will push the Fiesta (the manual presumably) to 100km/h in 10.6 seconds, and on to a 185km/h top speed. That’s brisk performance, and even in automatic form the Fiesta will cover long distances with ease and at good average speeds. The engine revs freely but is also quite noisy when being pushed: refinement isn’t its strong suit. Combine that with high levels of road noise – especially on coarse-chipped roads – and the Fiesta is definitely a place for the rock/pop or even country music or jazz fan. The subtleties of classical music – outside of the noisiest more dramatic passages of Wagner (could you call then subtle?) – will be lost at cruising speeds on chip seal, or when you’re pressing-on on smoother-surfaced country roads. If noise levels are on the high side, the car’s dynamic ability is even more so.
The 2002 Fiesta was a small car handling benchmark, and the 2006 model retains that mantle. It is an absolutely engaging car to drive. Its steering is light in the city where the car’s compact dimensions and relatively good lock make it easy to park and manoeuvre in tight spaces. The steering weights up nicely at speed where it has a direct feel and offers good feedback. The turn-in to corners is crisp and direct, and the car corners flatly, generating
high g-forces. The driving experience is heightened by a nicely chunky steering wheel with an ideal diameter and front seats that offer very good lateral support, especially around the shoulders. Some passengers felt the cushion was too short and didn’t offer enough under-thigh support for long journeys. The nimble, secure-feeling chassis and sharp direction-changing ability make the Fiesta very rewarding to drive on a demanding winding country road – even the auto version.
I’m not a great fan of automatic gearboxes in 1600cc or under cars, but the Fiesta’s torquey, willing engine and well-chosen gear ratios make even the automatic entertaining for some no-holds-barred open road driving. A Tiptronic-style manual shift would make it even better, but with Tiptronic gearboxes come greater mechanical and electronic complexity with attendant high bills if something goes wrong. The 195/50 tyres combine with the well-sorted strut front and semi-independent twist beam rear suspension to provide excellent roadholding. We don’t believe you’ll find a better-handling standard model small car. Ride quality is good, firm enough to ensure precise handling yet supple enough to be comfortable.
Like most of the new generation of small cars, the Fiesta has a solid feel and has completely outgrown the tin-can-built-down-to-a-price impression that once characterised cars in its market segment. Standard gear includes electrically-adjustable exterior mirrors, power front windows, air-conditioning, and a good quality sound system with in-dash Compact Disc player. The sound system controls and dashboard layout are models of user-friendliness, logic and ease of operation in the current Ford fashion. About the only thing that might confuse you is the location of the bonnet release: it’s in the front passenger’s footwell.
It’s a tough world for the small car manufacturer with multiple players chasing the same dollar. Most of the current crop is good, some outstanding. Suzuki’s Swift remains a fine all-rounder, let down only by a slight lack of handling sharpness. Holden’s Daewoo-based Barina is a generation behind most of its rivals and its only strong points are its very attractive styling which Holden has enhanced with bold colour choices; and its bargain basement price. Mazda’s revamped 2, with better handling and a much sharper feel than the original, is an excellent all-rounder whose appeal is helped by Mazda’s free-servicing plan. Nissan’s Micra is quirky and comes with an impressive array of safety equipment that reflects parent company Renault’s influence. But it lacks handling sharpness. Toyota’s Yaris will be popular and will undoubtedly be the big seller in the segment, but we’re underwhelmed by it.
If we were buying the choice would come down to three – the Swift, the Mazda 2 and the Fiesta. Given our love of driving and cars that handle well, we’d probably lean most towards the Fiesta. It may have higher-than-expected levels of road and engine noise, but it also has standout on-road behaviour that makes it the logical choice for the keen driver. Then there are its excellent ergonomics and passenger and luggage space.
As petrol price increases bite harder and the focus moves inevitably towards smaller cars, Ford offers in the Fiesta a vehicle that will delight the keen driver with its ability, performance and joie de vivre. We’d prefer a manual, but even in automatic form, this Fiesta sure provides a funtime experience.