Does the Ford Fiesta need any introduction? First revealed in the summer of 1976, and going on sale in the UK in January 1977, from tentative beginnings when even its maker was not entirely convinced that front wheel drive was the right answer for a small car, it has gone on to sell over 16 million examples worldwide. In the UK, it has been the market’s best seller every year since 2009, deposing the larger Ford Focus, which in turn had taken the title away from an earlier generation of the Fiesta in the late 1990s. Since that initial Tom Tjaarda styled three hatch of 1976, there have been a number of different generations of the car, but none have deviated much from the formula of a supermini-sized hatch, which has grown in line with the rest of the market to be just under the 4 metre mark now, offered with a variety of engines and trim levels, from budget-focused to really rather sporting. In 2007, Ford showed a concept car called the Verve at the Frankfurt Motor Show, promising that the next production Fiesta would look rather similar. No-one really believed it, but when the sixth generation Fiesta was launched a year later, it proved that Ford had not been wrong. This was the generation of Fiesta which aimed to put style on the list of attributes as well as being good to drive – something its predecessor had achieved – and relatively cheap to buy and run – something that all Fiesta generations have been. Needless to say, it was an instant hit with the press and the buying public alike. Ford had another surprise up their sleeve, and that was they planned to sell this car in America. They had tried that once before, with the original Fiesta in the late 1970s. It was a dismal failure there and was quickly withdrawn after just a couple of years. America just was not ready for really small cars at the time. But the steadily rising fuel price and the 2007/2008 credit crunch changed everything, and suddenly, the US market was well provided with low cost small cars. One way of keeping the cost of the US Fiesta was to build it in Mexico, where many rivals also build their cheaper cars. This was not an issue as the previous model Fiesta had been built there, for local consumption. But Ford also figured that their chances of success would increase if they had a version with a conventional boot. America might have started to embrace smaller cars, but it has still not taken to the hatchback. And so, at the 2008 Los Angeles Show, a second Verve concept was shown, this one with a boot on it, and in 2009, this was also duly transformed into a production car. US sales started in the middle of 2010, and have continued ever since. Although Hertz have had the model on fleet since that time, for some reason a US spec car has continued to elude me all those years, but finally, on what turned out to be one of the wettest days in Southern California for a very long time, I was able to claim the keys to an SE Sedan model, to see how it compares with the European spec cars that I have sampled over the years.
American buyers get less choice when it comes to the engine that powers their Fiesta. Fitted to the car since launch has been the 1.6 litre 4 cylinder unit which generates a promising sounding 120 bhp. More recently, the 125 bhp version of the three cylinder 1.0 litre Ecoboost engine has also been offered, though this unit has disappeared from the 2018 range, and then at the top of the range is the ST, specced very much like the European cars at 178 bhp. Standard transmission is a five speed manual, with a six speed dual clutch auto available as option. This being a rental car, that is what featured in my test vehicle, and it is understood that this has proved more popular than the “stick” with US buyers. 120 bhp in a car of this size ought to make it feel quite lively. Sadly, it does not. Performance can only really be described as adequate. The engine is quite refined, and smooth, and is surprisingly quiet until you make it work hard, but it just seems like it needs a bit more something to make the Fiesta feel spritely. It can keep up with the traffic, and if you press the throttle hard, the gearbox will obligingly drop a ratio or two to help out. My experience of automatic transmissions on small Fords has generally not been very good, but this one seemed better than most. It is certainly smooth, though there were times when it was a bit too eager to drop a gear momentarily only to change straight back up again. There can be no arguing with the economy, though. I drove the Fiesta 235 miles, perhaps a bit more slowly and steadily than would sometimes be the case, and certainly with far less stop/start for photography, as it was unspeakably wet all day, so when I only had to put 5.4 gallons in to fill it up, that computes to 43.52 mpg US or 51.99 mpg Imperial, an impressive result indeed. It is the Fiesta’s driving dynamics that have caused the press to fall so in love with the car, but somehow most of it seems to have got lost in translation to US spec. The steering lacked that precision and sense of feel that so characterises most Fords these days, and the handling just did not feel that special either. This was not a day to test high speed cornering or grip levels, but had this been the proverbial “blind fold test”, I don’t think I would have guessed that this was a small Ford that I was driving. It was not bad, and the Fiesta rode well, even on some of the increasingly awful surfaces of California’s roads. And with low levels of noise from all sources, it was quite restful cruising on the freeway. When it came to time to stop, the footbrake felt a bit spongey, needing a firm pressure on the pedal before anything happened. A conventional pull-up handbrake is fitted, between the seats. All round visibility was generally good. There’s no reversing camera on 2017 model year Fiesta cars, but with a short stubby tail, you don’t really need it. The door mirrors had an extra piece of glass in the top outer corners to give a different field of vision, to eliminate any blind spots. As the Fiesta is a small car, it is also pretty manoeuverable and easy to position on the road.
Whilst the mechanical spec of a US market Fiesta may differ from a European one, when you open the door and look inside, it will all appear very familiar. The dash is exactly the same. That, of course, is not exactly a good thing. Several US reviews I found cited the quality of the interior and its use exclusively of soft touch plastics. I don’t what they were looking at, because most of the plastics are anything but soft, and if I were to use the word “quality” to describe the interior it would need qualifying with a less than complimentary adjective. Reality is, the interior was the weak point of this Fiesta, something Ford tacitly acknowledging with the new car they launched in Europe in 2017. Not only is the design fussy, but there are all sorts of different mouldings and they simply do not quite fit together, being especially poor around the area where the dash meets the door casing. Much of the main dash and door casings are made from a sort of textured plastic that looks like someone poured the plastic in over a mould that had rain drops on it. And as for the metal-effect plastic that surrounds the air con controls and the gearlever, it is just plain nasty. At least most of it is quite easy to use. The main dials sit in their own deeply recessed cowls, with a sort of “lid” over the top. There are two large ones, for rev counter and speedo, and a smaller fuel gauge set between them. The pointers are in turquoise, which provide a bit of colour, I guess. There is a bar chart for water temperature in the central upper area where the trip mileometer and odometer display is to be found, and you cycle through the options by pressing the end of the indicator stalk. Wipers are on the other stalk on the right of the wheel, with an inset rotating thumbwheel to alter the intermittent interval, something I did when the rain eased off not to need the wipers on permanently. Lights are on a rotary on the left of the dash. The steering wheel spokes house audio repeaters on the left and cruise control on the right. it is the centre of the dash where it looks over-endowed, with the notorious “phone pad” style set of buttons among the many presented to control the audio system. On the spec of the test car, all you get is a basic AM/FM radio with one slot CD, and a few display settings, presented on a deeply recessed and very small screen set in the top part of the dash, but you get an awful lot of buttons to operate it. As it is a Sync set up, if you prefer, you can try voice commands, though the car did not understand me at all. There is Bluetooth and there were MPE3 and AUX slots in the centre console, behind the gearlever. Below this lot are three rotary dials of the single zone air conditioning system, which did a good job at keeping me warm on a day when it was not that outside.
Getting comfortable was not that hard. The seat has a height adjuster, and I had to put it in the lowest setting, and then pull the seat well forward. There’s plenty of adjustment on it, though the backrest goes in graduated steps, with an awkward lever on the side of the seat to alter the rake. The steering wheel only went up/down, with no telescoping capability, despite what I’ve read elsewhere. Even so, I was able to get a good driving position. The seat seemed well padded, and was trimmed in the sort of rather cheap cloth that you get on most entry level cars these days. How happy people in the back will be will depend on where the front seats are set. Put them well forward, as I need to do, and there is a reasonable amount of leg room, but set them well back, and things get very tight. There’s less space in here than most of the Fiesta’s US market rivals. And because the car is narrow, although there are three seat belts, you would not want to ask three adults to sit here. The floor is almost completely flat, but the centre console unit does protrude well back, as well, further limiting space. The boot is also of modest size compared to rivals such as the Nissan Versa. Part of the problem is that there is a lot of intrusion from the rear wheel arches and suspension, so there is decent width right at the back of the car, but most of the boot area is much narrower. Oddments will be catered for quite well in the cabin. The glove box is not very big, but there are bins on all four doors, with a moulding to take a bottle, there are various small recesses in the centre console, as well as two cupholders and there is a very deep cubby under the central armrest. Those in the back get map pockets on the back of both front seats.
US market Fiestas are available in 4 trims: S, SE, Titanium and the sporty ST. The base S model starts at $13,660 and comes standard with a tilt-and-telescopic steering wheel, cloth upholstery, 60/40 split rear seats, a 4-inch LCD screen, a six-speaker sound system, and the SYNC system with SYNC AppLink, which allows you to make calls, listen to music, and control certain applications with voice commands. Optional features include a subwoofer (not available in hatchback models), remote start, keyless entry, and a moonroof. The SE model, as tested, and the most popular in the US range, starts at $14,890. In addition to features found in the S trim, it adds cruise control, power windows, upgraded cloth front seats, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, and MyKey, which allows you to set volume and speed limits for other drivers. Optional features include a leather shift knob, satellite radio, and SYNC 3, which includes a 6.5-inch touch screen, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Siri Eyes Free, and navigation. Several packages are available for the SE trim and add things such as USB ports and heated seats. They range from $90 to $995. The 1.0-litre EcoBoost engine and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission are also available. The Titanium trim starts at $18,650. It comes with the same features as the lower trims, plus heated front seats, an eight-speaker sound system, automatic climate control, park assist, push-button start, a leather-shift knob, a rearview camera, HD Radio, satellite radio, two USB ports, leather-trimmed front seats, and the SYNC 3 system with a 6.5-inch touch screen and navigation. Optional features include remote start, a moonroof, and a six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission. The performance-oriented ST comes with a turbocharged 1.6-litre engine and a six-speed manual transmission. A six-speed dual-clutch automatic transmission is available. The ST trim starts at $21,140 and includes a leather-wrapped perforated steering wheel and upgraded cloth upholstery. Optional features include navigation, satellite radio, heated front seats, leather upholstery, and a moonroof. Several packages are available, ranging from $90 to $1,995. The ST is available only as a five door hatch, whereas the other trims are available with both body styles. The hatch costs an extra $300.
Overall, this particular Fiesta did not really hit the spot for me. All the things that make the European market ones so good to drive seem to have been diluted somewhat, and the car felt like it needed another 30 bhp to make it come to life. And then there is that low-rent interior, which while you can live with it is simply not up to the standards of most of the Ford’s rivals. Of course, they are all newer than this Fiesta, as this is essentially a 10 year old design now. It has been replaced in Europe by a car which looks quite similar from some angles, but which (allegedly, as I have yet to drive one) improves on all the areas that most needed attention without losing the good points of the sales champion it replaced. Apparently the new car won’t be coming to America at all, with Ford concentrating on the EcoSport instead, believing that buyers will value the crossover-ness of that offering instead. How much longer the Fiesta stays in the US range is thus unclear. Meanwhile, if you are looking for the cheapest rental that you can find in America, take the Fiesta but expect to be a bit disappointed, or take a Kia Rio, or, if you can find one, a Toyota Yaris iA, the Mazda 2 with an ugly snout on it. I think in US spec, they are both better cars.