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Car reviews - Ford - Fiesta - LX 5-dr hatch

Our Opinion

We like
Freshness in design, cabin styling, 1.6-litre performance, handling, grip, safety, refinement, comfort, affordability
Room for improvement
Class-best steering is still bettered by previous model’s hydraulic set-up, rear cushion won’t fold down flush anymore, restrictive rear vision, prefers 95 RON premium unleaded petrol, no more temperature gauge, could use a sixth gear, base prices creeping up

18 Mar 2009

PROGRESS is a funny thing. Take the Ford Fiesta, universally praised around the world for the manifold reasons outlined below (or in three words: fresh, fun and refined thanks for reading).

Some British reviewers say it even beats the enduring darling of the light-car set, BMW’s Mini, while making short work of the Fiat Cinquecento.

But does the latest Fiesta really represent absolute progress over its boxy but likeably bolshie predecessor?

We are not so sure, yet we stand fully prepared to argue that the latest little Ford is probably the best car on the planet in its class.

As it is only 2009, we cannot yet sample next year’s promising Volkswagen Polo, but for your convenience we’ve driven most others, including models unavailable in Australia such as the latest Opel Corsa, and so we can reach this sort of verdict confidently.

And confidence, in design, dynamics and attitude, is what underpins all that is desirable about the Fiesta.

Chief among the ‘bad’ bits relates to what makes the Ford so aesthetically exciting right now.

Besides the fact we think its bold and ultra contemporary styling may date more quickly than the upright Teutonic lines of the older model, that upswept wedge of a window line reduces rear vision. City cars should be easy to see out of.

And be glad there’s colour on the seat trim because otherwise it would be unremittingly dark inside as a result.

The rear seat in the old car had a base that hinged forward to allow a flatter and flusher extension of the cargo floor. Inexplicably, this is no longer possible in a Fiesta, so when you fold the backrests you are left with a metal-backed raised mezzanine-like area just ahead of the fairly short but deep 281-litre cargo space.

In contrast, a Honda Jazz is like a panel van (for pygmies) back there.

Nevertheless, whether we’re talking about the five or three-door version, the Fiesta’s back seat is a good place to be despite the rising window line, with armrests and cupholder for each outboard passenger, and a trio of headrests and lap/sash seatbelts.

The five-door model’s back windows retract about half way down (much to the chagrin of kids and dogs), but that’s better than having no opening window at all, in the three-door version.

On the other hand, access to the back seat in either configuration is easy, with wide-opening doors in the former and front seats that tilt and slide, with a handy return-memory function.

In both the base CL and mid-range LX, the seat trim is a classy Paul Smith-style striped cloth material in shades of blue and grey, matching a similar hue on the test cars’ beautifully textured dashboard.

If you think the Fiesta’s exterior is fresh, then cop a feel of the fascia inside.

‘Kinetic’ design motifs abound, from the smartly presented and finished centre stack – containing quality-feel buttons arranged symmetrically for the audio and (standard on LX upwards) communications controls – to the distinctive twin instrumentation binnacles that are at-once futuristic and retro in a 1960s Alfa Romeo Giulia way.

This juxtaposes nicely with the upper centre-console screen, with its simple and super-effective scroll down menu for a myriad number of car control functions, such as clock and audio options, and even the number of flashes for the lane-change indicators. It’s all great stuff in a car this inexpensive.

Some observers found the instrumentation’s speed demarcation markings a tad vague at first glance, but familiarisation soon fixes that. The trip computer function between the dials works extremely well, and the night lighting is second to none, but previous-model Fiesta drivers will notice that Ford no longer offers a temperature gauge.

Speaking of which, ventilation is generally quite good, with an air-conditioner that seems to cope with Australian summer heat. But we found that keeping the lower-windscreen area demisted was difficult on one of our test cars, while the driver’s left hand on the steering wheel sits over one of the centre-dash vents. Cool Hand Luke indeed!

That console protrudes forward in the centre, while the wheel and glovebox areas are set back towards the vast windscreen base, giving a three-dimensional feel to the Fiesta’s cabin.

Ford sets new standards for the price here, even outshining the excellent dashboard of the latest Honda Jazz, with a quality item that makes you feel good about sitting inside and using.

The good-looking three-spoke steering wheel is refreshingly thin-rimmed, giving the driver a feeling of control. On the left spoke at ‘nine-o’clock’ there’s the remote audio switches (surely rendered useless by the close-at-hand audio controls), while the cruise control buttons live on the right-hand side spoke in the LX and Zetec models.

Ford has done its homework in the Fiesta’s cabin details too.

Just forward of the absolutely perfectly placed gear lever and just below the natty little heater/air-con switches is a place to put your mobile phone. Beside the handbrake is another, next to an iPod jack and a power outlet, while moving further back there are cupholders and even more storage places to complement the door pockets, large glovebox and rear-seat pocket.

Most models have Bluetooth connectivity, and Ford’s interfacing of this technology with the car’s console controls is first class.

The door cappings are especially stylish, with their body-coloured surrounds, cloth inserts on the armrest area, and metallic-look finishes lifting the ambience up to premium small-car standards.

Praise continues for the excellent driving position, large-car standards of front-seat legroom, great set of front seats that hold and support even after a three-hour driving stint, and – aided by a large set of exterior mirrors – ample forward vision, as a contrast to the rubbish rearward vision available.

You know, other than the hard cheapo plastics in the lower centre console area and lower-door casings, as well as the lack of overhead grab handles in the base CL, there is nothing overwhelmingly economy car about the Fiesta’s cabin. Even road noise intrusion is acceptable – although all our test cars were fitted with nice thick Fiesta-emblazoned mats that do much to deaden unwanted sounds.

Nevertheless, you won’t find a more refined interior for the money. And it starts the moment you’re handed the new key fob that is a dead ringer, so to speak, of an Audi’s.

Turn it in the ignition, and you certainly won’t find a better-driving light car this side of a Mini Cooper S (or just-discontinued WQ Fiesta XR4, as we shall see). In fact, the fiery and feisty little Ford even has the British icon’s measure when it comes to steering feel and ride quality.

That thin-rimmed wheel does a great job telegraphing what’s going on down below, giving the driver maximum confidence to explore the Fiesta’s fine handling abilities.

Even in the non-sporty CL and LX models, Ford has set the chassis to a taut yet comfortable sporty level, resulting in hugely entertaining cornering abilities, coupled with great amounts of body control.

You feel as if you can steer this car from the seat of your pants, clenching your buttocks to nudge it precisely where you want it to go.

Speaking of butts though – the big but here is the weight of the steering. Going electric helps to reduce engine load and thus increase efficiency, but the absolute perfect weighting of the old Fiesta (and current Focus) is gone, replaced by a lightness that will still feel better than most other rivals’ efforts, but will sorely disappoint keen enthusiasts.

Ford Australia could have easily adopted the weightier European Zetec S steering for sportier models. We suggest you write in to the product-planning department to complain.

Still, the secret of why the Fiesta is such a fine drive is in the measured consistency of all the major controls – steering, gearshift, brakes, and clutch – that shows how well engineered this car really is.

An then there is the engine – a revised version of the old 1.6-litre four-cylinder petrol unit, featuring variable valve timing among other new technologies, for smoother revving up top and a usefully deep well of torque for tootling around town.

Whichever way you look at it, this is a great little powerplant, with a surge of thrust available from spirited standing-start acceleration right up to and beyond the 6000rpm red line.

We set the cruise control at 110km/h and drove up the Hume highway for three hours, and then back again, and walked out feeling fine. The Fiesta’s cruising demeanour is yet another feather in its fulsome cap, with little wind noise and only moderate tyre rumble being registered.

At an indicated 100km/h (about 95km/h) the tacho is showing a tad over 3000rpm in top (fifth) gear. That’s why we reckon this engine is flexible enough for Ford to offer a sixth forward ratio.

Running on preferred 95 RON premium unleaded (although standard 91 RON won’t make much of a difference, according to Ford), the Fiesta will scramble forward from the traffic lights cleanly, chirping the front tyres but still keeping composed. We averaged sub-8.0L/100km result in all three different vehicles tested too, and regularly slipped into the 6s.

After a few weeks with the Fiesta in several of its many guises, we were sad to see it leave. And we weren’t Robinson Crusoe here either, as everybody who came into contact found something to like about the feisty little Ford.

Seen through serious eyes, the change from old means less cargo practicality and reduced rear vision. And, don’t forget, we are only talking about the manual model the automatic now uses a smaller and less powerful engine than it did before.

But even the most hardened critic will respond to the emotional styling inside and out, as well as the palpable steps forward achieved in areas of comfort, refinement, equipment levels, weight reduction and engine efficiency.

Together, they help make the manual Fiesta the finest light car money can buy. And that’s progress.

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