ELKHART LAKE, Wisconsin - For a car that's just now being readied for actual sale at dealerships, Ford's subcompact Fiesta has garnered plenty of attention. That's largely due to Ford's early publicity blitz, which employs just about all of the social-media and networking techniques that have become so prevalent over the past year or two.
Young car-shoppers - precisely the ones Ford wishes to attract - are being wooed and cajoled both subtly and more aggressively, in the hope that they'll turn to this new Ford model when a car purchase becomes imminent. If a music festival or other youth-oriented event is taking place this spring and summer, there's a good chance that Ford promoters will be there with Fiestas.
We'd driven European-version Fiestas before: first just around the block at the New York Auto Show in 2010, and a few months later at Ford's Proving Ground in Michigan. Though pleasant enough to drive, those early models did not seem to come across as stimulating or enticing. Instead, they appeared to be common-sense subcompacts that rode and handled capably and would appeal mainly to a somewhat limited audience.
Available with either a five-speed manual transmission or an automatic six-speed PowerShift unit, the Fiesta uses a 1.6-liter four-cylinder that develops 120 horsepower. Ford promises 15 "class-leading" features, along with fuel-economy as high as 40 mpg on the highway.
In preparing Fiesta for the U.S. marketplace, Ford definitely did it right. From the first moments behind the wheel, this little sedan comes across as solid and tight, capable and rewarding.
PowerShift manages to extract some seriously spirited performance out of the small Fiesta engine, marred only by a shockingly noisy exhaust. Presumably developed to impart a sporty flair, that superfluous sound seems out of place on what is basically an economy-oriented subcompact. No doubt, some owners will find it invigorating, but others are likely to consider that noise tedious and tiresome. A more subtle sound might have made more sense.
Gear changes are quite curt, each accompanied by that blip of unnecessary sound. But they yield some impressive performance, both from a standstill and when passing or merging.
Nimble in handling, The Fiesta flaunts responsive steering, coupled with a tantalizing steering feel. Visibility is fine all-around, and the driver faces a distinctive dashboard.
Manual-shift update: Unlike some small cars, the Fiesta is easy and inviting to shift with a manual transmission. It's easy to tell which gear you're in, too, as the lever flicks neatly and mates with a well-matched, easy-engaging clutch. Like the automatic-transmission Fiesta, the stick-shift model excels most in European-style handling. Except for tire slap on some surfaces, the ride also is satisfying. One oddity: it's not so easy to accelerate to high rpm in a lower gear, because the engine starts to sound loud and strained along the way.
Despite short seat bottoms, the driver gets an enjoyable position, though one's right leg might touch the center console. Unless the driver sits well forward, back-seat space is snug. Rear legroom is scant, and some heads might touch the roof. An unfortunate center-rear occupant might find his or her head tapping the overhead light.
With either transmission, Ford's European-themed subcompact qualifies as lovely in nearly every respect, ranking among the best subcompacts on the market.
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