2011 Ford Fiesta SES hatchback

Review and photos by
Chris Chase, CanadianDriver.com

It’s pretty rare that a small car makes the front page in “bigger-is-better North America”, but the 2011 Ford Fiesta has been a highly-anticipated little car since Ford started hyping it nearly two years ago.

2011 Ford Fiesta

2011 Ford Fiesta

Canadians are typically more receptive to subcompact cars, so I think the Fiesta will sell better here (per capita, anyway) than in the U.S. Small-car buyers on both sides of the 49th parallel should find a lot to love in this car, for many reasons.

Highlights at first glance include a wide range of catchy colours (magenta, yellow blaze and lime squeeze) and there are four interior colour choices, depending on what paint you choose. The Fiesta is also the first subcompact available with a dual-clutch automatic transmission, currently the transmission technology of record but typically only found in luxury and sporty cars.

The Fiesta’s only powerplant on this continent is a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine that comes matched with a five-speed manual transmission or that six-speed dual-clutch automatic. Manual transmissions are loved by both enthusiasts and budget-conscious drivers, but for once, the automatic might be the gearbox of choice here. The engine makes 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque, but the latter peaks at a high 5,000 r.p.m., meaning the engine must be wound out to high revs for the car to feel anything like quick. Social Media Editor James Bergeron has driven Fiestas with both transmissions, and says the automatic’s six ratios are far better suited to the engine’s power band.

Gearing issues aside, the manual is pleasant to use, with a light shifter and clutch that work well together and make it easy to drive smoothly in and around town. The third-to-fourth shift can be tricky, though; my tester’s shifter often got hung up going into fourth gear.

Ride and handling are the real highlights to the Fiesta’s drive. The ride is firm without being harsh, and even with a weekend’s worth of camping gear loaded into the car, the suspension rarely felt unsettled over rough roads. Handling is balanced and eager, but without the twitchiness inherent in some small “sporty” cars. Brake and steering feel are surprisingly good for a low-budget car, and it all makes the Fiesta a riot to pilot down twisty two-lanes. All I’d ask for would be gas and brake pedals just a touch closer together for easier heel-and-toe downshifting.

The Fiesta’s interior is one reason why we North Americans should be more cautious about asking automakers to bring cars originally designed for the European market over here without any modifications. Case in point – the radio controls are weird, the centrepiece being the toggle/buttons used to scroll through radio stations and menu settings. A rotary knob would be much more intuitive to use. Steering wheel audio controls are part of the deal on the top-trim SES model, which is nice. Less so is the lack of a volume control on the wheel, a conspicuous omission.

The ventilation controls are a bit low on the dash, but easy to use. Turning the system off also apparently effectively shuts off all flow-through ventilation, so it must be on with the fan running to get any air flowing through the car, rather than allowing air to flow in naturally at highway speeds when the car is moving.

Odds-and-ends storage in the cabin is in short supply, and the lack of a centre console bin (which few subcompacts have room for anyway) means no elbow rest between the front seats. The Hyundai Accent, for example, offers a fold-down driver’s armrest, but no such luck here.

The plastics making up the dash are a small step above what you might expect in a subcompact; the nifty pattern in the soft-touch dash top bears a passing resemblance to braille.

Ergonomics aside, the Fiesta is comfortable, with nice front seats and good headroom, at least without the optional sunroof. The long reach over the dash to the base of the windshield looks at first like a product of an inefficient design, but it actually makes the car feel more spacious, and tiny windows at the base of the A-pillar eliminate the blind spot that would otherwise be created by the steeply-raked windshield.

The rear seat isn’t for tall people, with typical small-car legroom (as in, there’s not a lot of it), but the hollowed-out front seatbacks help make the most of the space that is available. The rear quarters certainly are useable, and headroom is decent despite the slope of the roofline toward the rear of the car. The huge headrests on the outboard rear seats are a nice touch, but they block some of the view out of the rear. Shingle-style headrests (like the one on the centre seat) for all three seats would make more sense given the small rear window.

I was impressed by the amount of cargo space, and how the car handled all the stuff we brought with us on the aforementioned camping trip. The rear seat folds 60/40, but I left it in place and simply piled stuff on the back seat; the backrest doesn’t fold anywhere near flat and winds up taking up more space than it creates when you need to carry a whole bunch of smaller items. The Fiesta hatch’s 490 litres (17.3 cu. ft.) of cargo space with the rear seats in place is a decent number, but pales against the Honda Fit’s 585 litres; the Honda is also the best in its class for carrying large cargo.

The Fiesta hatch is available in two trims, SE and SES, while a sedan version can be had in S, SE and SEL versions. The SES hatch, like my tester, starts at $18,899 and includes heated seats and exterior mirrors, cruise control, auto-dimming rear-view mirror, steering wheel audio controls and SYNC. To my car, Ford added leather seats ($1,200) and smart key with pushbutton start ($500); the only other options of note are a block heater, the PowerShift transmission ($1,250) and a power moonroof ($1,200). With extras and $1,350 freight, an SES like the one I drove comes to $21,949, less a $1,552 “employee pricing discount” being offered at the time of this writing.

It’s safe to say the SE will be the volume seller, with its $16,799 MSRP (with manual transmission) and still-decent standard feature list, which includes air conditioning and power windows and locks. The only thing I wish was available in the SE is SYNC, Ford’s wireless connectivity system.

Many North American small-car boosters have been waiting for an opportunity to get their hands on the Fiesta, and overall, it was worth the wait. The quirky interior design and the lack of a few small-but-important features might be a deal-breaker, though, so make sure you can live with these things – or the lack thereof – before you join the Fiesta.

Pricing: 2011 Ford Fiesta SES hatchback
Base price: $18,899
Base price (SE hatchback): $16,799
Options: $1,700 (Leather seats, $1,200; pushbutton start and smart key, $500)
A/C tax: $100
Freight: $1,350
Price as tested: $21,949

Chris ChaseChris Chase is an Ottawa-based automotive journalist. He is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

Read more Test Drives on CanadianDriver.com

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