Absolutely the driver’s choice, interior space, refinement, European sassiness
Room for improvement
Some intrusive engine noise, Zetec deserves a power upgrade to match slick dynamics
By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS 21/03/2006
UNTIL the arrival of the new-generation Renault Clio later on this year, it appears the Ford Fiesta will maintain its crown as the most grown-up baby in the light-car class.
To this end Ford has simply bolstered its German import with serious soft-feel surfaces throughout the cabin; by adding a more substantial dashboard that does away with the twee electronic fuel and temperature readouts for real three-dimensional gauges; and by implementing a revised (if lurid) trim and colour palette.
Yep, from the chunky design, solid doors and nicely weighty feel of everything you touch and use, it’s the light-car for people who want a heavy experience.
One favourite posh-car detail is how the indicator can be operated for three quick flashes with a gentle dab of the stalk – ideal for a spot of lane changing. Previously Holden’s likeable AH Astra was the cheapest new car with this user-friendly function.
Yet here’s the irony.
Nothing for under $20,000 feels as fun on its feet as the aptly named Fiesta.
It still steers and handles with a Travolta-like turn (circa ’77 not ’06); the manual’s shift is beautifully slick; and the body control in this class is second to none.
And in new and revised Zetec form this little Fiesta really is the life of the party.
Compared to the regular versions the suspension feels even better tied-down, so it responds to steering inputs instantly. You can dart through city streets with pinpoint accuracy, and have a good time doing it too.
Now here’s a surprise: on the irregularly surfaced roads in and around Sydney, the Zetec’s relatively supple and absorbent ride came as a bit of a shock, so to speak.
An old Fiesta Zetec tested in 2004 (and fitted with the then-optional 16-inch alloys) revealed a harder ride. One Ford engineer says it is due to the calibration of the new Zetec’s tauter suspension to the now-standard lower-profile wheel and tyre combo that results in the smoother ride. Whatever the reason, it’s a happy outcome.
Of course more power would be welcome, but the 74kW 1.6 Fiesta engine is probably the most enjoyable light-car powerplant this side of the rorty 1.8-litre 20-valve turbo Audi unit found in the $26,990 VW Polo GTI.
The 1596cc powerplant is reminiscent of the lusty old early Cortina and Escort engines in that there is plenty of low-down poke for fast take-offs and instant acceleration without the need to downshift, as well as in the way that you hear and feel the mechanical noise of it all.
But unlike these low-revving old-timers, the Fiesta’s modern twin-cammer, though by no means the quietest around, is also very happy to rev without hassle past the 6000rpm redline and right up to the 6800rpm cutout.
It makes the Ford one of the liveliest littlies around. And that’s a good thing too.
So what is the sub-$20K state of play?
Since the Fiesta first arrived here two years ago, the light-car segment has seen seismic changes.
Of the brand newies, Suzuki’s Swift, is almost as fun in a brilliantly realised package – except it may be too tight in the back seat; the Toyota Yaris is fresh and funky but cannot touch either if it’s a keen drive you’re after; while the much-improved Kia Rio still has a long, long way to go in this esteemed company.
Meanwhile, out of the recently facelifted brigade, the Mazda2’s makeover brings it closer to the Ford but it suffers from far too much road noise, the facelifted Honda Jazz – outstandingly spacious, smooth and refined – is a drag dynamically, while Hyundai’s 80kW Getz 1.6 – the sole offerer of the potentially life-saving stability control option – deserves a look-in if you can cope with its able but dull driving experience.
Only Holden’s Barina, now in South Korean-built TK format – seems to have taken a step backwards – except in affordability and thus initial sales – since the Ford’s debut.
So while there have been changes galore in the smallest car class, the WQ Fiesta – particularly in new Zetec guise – is still the king of the sub-$20K light-car road.
Except now it’s a little bit more grown-up than before.