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Car reviews - Ford - Fiesta - LX 3-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Dynamics, practicality, performance, versatility, value
Room for improvement
Expensive auto/ABS option, bland cabin

16 Jul 2004

FIESTA, Ford’s baby car combatant against the Toyota Echo and company, has been coming for a very long time.

In fact, in the tradition of world peace, a watchable post-Empire Strikes Back sequel and a decent Paul McCartney album, we’ve actually been waiting decades.

Ford Australia was deliberating over Project Bobcat, its new Euro front-wheel drive three-door hatchback answer (called Fiesta) to tiny tot hotshots like the original Honda Civic, Renault 5 and Fiat 127, way back in the mid-1970s.

It even imported at least one example to Melbourne – a silver Ghia 1.3 – for local evaluation. I know because it was later sold to a neighbour who regularly drove me to school in it.

Anyway, Ford instead stuck with the English rear-drive Escort and later lapped up the laurels earned by its larger Mazda-sourced front-drive Laser, neglecting a niche that Holden eventually helped foster with its Suzuki Swift-cloned MB Barina.

When the second all-new Fiesta arrived in Europe in the late 1980s Ford passed it up again for the same reasons.

But this time its ungainly post-1990 Laser suffered as the second wave of baby cars like the MF Barina and Mazda 121 "bubble" closed the quality gap in the face of a yawning price chasm.

Ford’s half-hearted response was the 1991-1994 WA-series Festiva, a 1986-1990 Mazda 121 built by Kia in South Korea. Cheapness in a time of ravaging recession was its only drawcard, and crowds it drew.

The second 1994-2000 WB-WF Festiva was better, although not by much. Still, big discounting, a pleasant interior and a name brand baited bargain buyers and Ford was happy - until Hyundai acquired Kia and killed its Festiva pipeline.

By late 1999 Ford was forced to field its left-field Ka, a Spanish built sub-Festiva sized baby that ironically was Fiesta-based. However, although it was sweet to steer, fun to fling and fine to ride in, buyers baulked at the Ka’s kooky styling, absent rear doors and AWOL auto option.

Ford’s lack of a competitive light car culminated in the dark days of stalling AU Falcon sales, sub-zero profits and marginal market share.

Meanwhile, in Europe, a third generation Fiesta was readied for a 2002 release.

This time Ford was keen to party down with it, even if there was a two-year wait for the right engine size (1.6 litres) and gearbox (a conventional four-speed automatic instead of the dubious semi-automatic offered elsewhere).

So after all these years the Fiesta is finally here.

Stylistically, unlike the breathtakingly bold Focus and Ka, it airs on the conservative side, but the Fiesta is still a handsome design. Its no-nonsense geometric forms speak fluent Deutsche (its country of origin), with a friendly face and a particularly pert posterior.

It’s a boxy execution that pays welcome dividends inside, even in the base three-door LX test car, with its slightly faster roofline than the more upright five-door hatchback.

Straight off there’s exceptional leg and headroom up-front. Then there’s the dashboard – solid, symmetrically stylish and smartly arranged.

The properly propped driver sits on firm but supportive seats, behind a chunky little steering wheel and crystal-clear instrumentation (with funky night time illumination), and beside the superbly slick gearshift.

Commanding views outside, excellent ventilation, easy audio and climate controls and adequate storage areas also abound. Ford’s ergonomists have certainly earned their keep here.

Remember how bare-bones basic baby cars once were? Here’s a standard features count to embarrass a 1994 BMW 318i: twin front airbags, five head restraints and lap/sash seatbelts, keyless entry, power front windows, power steering, tilt-adjustable steering column, CD player, rear window wiper, tachometer and 60/40-split rear seats.

The latter augments a deep and accommodating 261-litre luggage area (five-door: 284 litres). Folded, the Fiesta easily swallows a full-sized mountain bike.

But for all its squeak-free solidity, spaciousness and practicality, the look and materials err on the dour side compared to the brilliantly luminous and holistic Honda Jazz interior.

That car also eclipses the Fiesta for rear seat space, comfort and versatility.

And three things erode the $14,490 Fiesta LX’s value-for-money argument: $2000 extra for air-conditioning, no ABS brakes availabile on the manual and an eye-searing $3000 automatic transmission option.

However, the latter is an excellent device that may even suit the Fiesta better than the superb manual gearbox, and it does include ABS with Electronic Brake-force Distribution (they’re inseparable).

Niggles include rear side windows in the three-door that don’t open, some engine noise at speed (although that’s an endearingly raspy note to driving enthusiasts) and the lack of cabin grab handles.

Ah, handles. This smallest of Fords, with its impressively big-car feel, is an expert on that.

Whether it be deep in the CBD or snaking through searing S-bends, there’s a poise and finesse to the Fiesta’s steering fluency and handling that puts it at the top of its class. Dynamically, this really lives up to its name.

And then there’s the engine, which has been well worth the wait.

It’s a spirited 1600cc (in the manner of early '70s Escorts) with lots of punch down below yet enough top-end zing to put a real spring in its delivery. After the flat 1.8-litre Focus unit, this twin-cam 16-valve unit is a fiery revelation.

The output numbers are 74kW of power at 6000rpm and 146Nm of torque at 4000rpm. And here are some more: 6.6L/100km combined on a Euro cycle – an achievable figure thanks to the 1.6’s impressive flexibility. But be wary that 95-plus premium unleaded is best for it, although the regular stuff will also do.

The pluses just keep-on coming, with the Fiesta offering a level of refinement and ride suppleness one just wouldn’t expect – certainly not in the Jazz. And the brakes bite with reassuring ease.

As GoAuto said a few months back at Fiesta's launch, Festiva owners will think this is from some distant Utopian future, particularly in the way the driving experience is measured and all in one.

In a crowded segment, the Fiesta seems to have no real drawbacks, while its strengths are truly its own, especially the way it manages to entertain its driver while pampering its passengers.

Until the VW Polo finds a better engine, the Peugeot 206 a classier cabin, the Renault Clio a roomier interior and the Citroen C3 decent dynamics, the Ford really does show-up its chi-chi Euro rivals.

And it’s got more brio and beep than the fine Holden Barina and feels more together than the still impressive Toyota Echo.

That leaves the class-leading Honda Jazz and Mazda 2 as competition. Only a detailed comparison can decide which is best. The Ford is the most fun though.

The fact that the Fiesta has made it this far, both geographically and as a baby car contender, should make it mandatory on every baby car buyer’s short-list.

And that hasn’t happened to Ford for decades.

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