2011 Ford Fiesta SES review: Not supposed to be…but is

2011 Ford Fiesta SES

2011 Ford Fiesta SES

Up and down hills, braking and accelerating and shifting gears, we’re driving on winding roads and we’re having fun. This is not how it’s supposed to be.  This is the 2011 Ford Fiesta SES with the five speed manual transmission, purported to be an economy car. But at the moment, with a willing roar from the engine and steering accurate enough to put that tire on that pebble while cornering with minimum lean and equal effort from the front and rear…we’re not in an economy car with a highly touted  40 mpg highway gas mileage, but rather a covert subcompact sport sedan.

Or if we’re being specific, a convert subcompact sport hatchback, though somehow that’s not as sexy.

2011 Ford Fiesta SES dash

The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES dash has more than a hint of sci-fi. (click to enlarge)

Sexy or not, the Ford Fiesta is Dearborn’s new entry into the subcompact market. It’s a segment where Ford has had mediocre results with an earlier Fiesta, the Ford Festiva and the Ford Aspire, none of which were, well, particularly aspirational, and overall Americans considered them just too small.

Yet Ford has had great success with subcompact “B-segment” vehicles in Europe and the rest of the world, so with a pressing demand for more fuel efficient vehicles and a growing acceptance, indeed an enthusiasm for smaller cars, Ford decided to take another crack at a B-segment automobile.

Hence the Fiesta. For the North American market, Ford is building– at a converted F-Series pickup plant at Cuautitlán, near Mexico City–a four-door sedan and a five-door hatchback. Despite the axiom that Americans won’t buy hatchbacks, Ford appears to be promoting the hatch over he sedan. If it’s your only car, it makes more sense to have one with greater cargo capacity. For a two small-car couple, at least one should be capable of swallowing a big box, just because sometimes there are just big boxes that need to be carried.

For our test, we drove a 2011 Ford Fiesta SES. Ford offers the Fiesta in three basic trim levels, including the base Fiesta S sedan, the Fiesta SE sedan and hatchback, and at the top of the range the Fiesta SEL sedan and SES hatchback.

2011 Ford Fiesta SES cargo

The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES cargo area can be increased by folding its seatbacks forward, but it hardly creates a “stackable” space. (click to enlarge)

Ford also offers all trim levels with a choice of a conventional five-speed manual transmission, or the company’s Powershift six-speed automatic transmission. The latter isn’t a conventional automatic with a power-sapping torque converter between the engine and the wheels, but what’s essentially a compact manual transmission with automatic shifting and an electronically-actuated clutch pack. It can be shifted manually or left to its own devices. The automatic for a change is actually the more efficient of the pair and helps the Fiesta get better mileage. We drove the five-speed stick so we can’t report about the other, but more about the car-with-a-clutch-pedal later.

All American-market Fiestas are powered by the same 1.6-liter double-overhead cam four-cylinder engine. For techies, it’s a sophisticated engine, with twin variable camshafts to maximize horsepower and torque.  It’s rated at 120 horses, impressive for an engine its size, with 112 lb-ft or torque. That latter number comes at 5000 rpm, however, which means to get the most out of the engine on a regular basis, rev it must. We don’t (yet, at least) get the array of diesel and high-performance engines offered in other markets.

The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES hatchback we tested is a long way up from the $13,320 Fiesta S sedan. The latter comes with 15-inch steel wheels and hubcaps, an AM/FM radio and hand-crank windows, though it also includes a four-inch multifunction LCD screen, Ford’s EasyCap capless fuel filler, a full complement of airbags including a driver kneebag (to help prevent broken legs in severe collisions), and electronic stability control to help prevent a crash in the first place. The Fiesta S sedan also comes with standard front floor mats–something one must pay more for in a BMW.

11 Ford Fiesta SES engine

The 11 Ford Fiesta SES engine isn’t covered with a sound-deadening shroud. You can actually see it. (click to enlarge)

Our top-of-the-line Fiesta SES, however, starting at $17,120, came with standard one-touch driver’s power window, leather-wrapped steering wheel with cruise control, electrochromatic automatic dimming rearview mirror, and AM/FM/ Sirius satellite/CD/MP3/aux/USB premium audio with six speakers and Sync system developed with Microsoft. The SES also comes with a message center and trip computer for the dash-mounted LCD screen.