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First drive: Ford Fiesta Thais loose ends

Conservative: Ford's new Thai-built Fiesta sedan has sedate lines, compared with the funky facelifted hatch.

Improved equipment, comfort, driveability and choice bring a finer Ford Fiesta

25 Aug 2010


FORD has revealed more details of the facelifted Fiesta due in October – but not the all-important price.

That won’t happen until September, but it seems almost certain that the switch from German to Thai sourcing will not necessarily result in cheaper prices, despite Australia’s free trade agreement with Thailand.

Instead, Ford says it will take the added-value route with WT Fiesta, fitting more standard features in every model, including a new sport suspension tune for the popular Zetec.

Furthermore, all Thai-built Fiestas will boast a number of refinement, comfort and dynamic upgrades compared with the European-manufactured WS.

But do not discount a small downward price movement anyway. Ford intends to go hard against the Toyota Yaris, Mazda2 and Honda Jazz – the latter two are Thai-built too – to nearly double the Fiesta’s market share from a little over eight per cent.

So expect a $16,500 opener or thereabouts for the CL five-door (replacing the outgoing $16,090 three-door version (that bodystyle is now history for Australia), approximately $18,500 for the mid-range LX five-door, and a $20,500 or so ask for the Zetec five-door.

The new B409 sedan’s pricing will most likely mirror its corresponding B299 hatch siblings’, while the second diesel to join the range after the $24,990-driveaway low-emissions Econetic range-topper – the performance-orientated TDCi – is expected to attract a premium of about $2000 over the LX and Zetec models that it is fitted to. Bank on diesel prices to kick off from about $21,000.

Petrol-powered Fiesta sedans are auto-only, and come in CL and LX formats.

27 center imageAll Zetecs are scheduled to dock Down Under in the first quarter of next year.

So how is WT different from WS? Think of it as a facelift under the skin, with a new sedan option (complete with a 430-litre boot capacity), no more three-door hatch versions, minor front bumper changes, different wheels, and new colours and trim.

Retrograde steps first.

The Oz-bound Fiesta’s shift from Saarlouis to Rayong means that it is now more closely aligned in some key features to the DE Mazda2 that is built alongside it no bad thing, except that in the interests of saving money presumably, the Fiesta loses reach-adjustable steering.

The soft dash cover is also gone, along with a sequential-shift facility beside the automatic transmission lever. All these criticisms have been levelled at the Mazda2 too. A can of goo replaces the spare wheel as well.

Get over those omissions and the world does become much brighter for the WT Fiesta buyer.

The biggest news is the adoption of Ford’s six-speed Dual Dry Multiple Disc Clutch Powershift ‘automatic’ transmission (built in Mexico by Getrag and similar to Volkswagen’s DSG) for the 1.6-litre twin-cam 16-valve Ti-VCT variable valve timing four-cylinder petrol engine.

Displacing the maligned 71kW/125Nm 1.4-litre four-cylinder engine/four-speed torque-converter automatic gearbox combination, it delivers 89kW of power at 6000rpm and 151Nm of torque at 4050rpm. Also offered in five-speed manual guise (hatchbacks only), it sees a 1kW rise and 1Nm fall over the WS’ 1.6-litre Ti-VCT unit.

The Fiesta’s combined average fuel consumption figure is 6.1 litres per 100km for both gearboxes, representing a 10 per cent improvement over the old 1.4/four-speed auto pairing. At 73kg, Powershift also weighs some 13kg less.

Other interesting transmission tidbits include a ‘Grade Assist’ function that reduces gearbox hunting when driving, for example, in hilly terrain a ‘Hill Start Assist’ device that holds the brakes for a couple of moments to stop the Fiesta rolling forwards or backwards ‘Neutral Idle’ – a economy and emissions-enhancing feature that takes the Powershift out of ‘Drive’ when the car is stationary and a ‘creep’ function that emulates regular torque-converter autos in edging the car forwards when in Drive.

The company says Powershift is a sealed unit with no maintenance required, and falls under Ford’s global durability standards in that it designed to operate for 240,000km or 10 years.

Unfortunately the Powershift is a petrol-only proposition for now. But the five-speed manual-only Econetic and TDCi are expected to eventually gain this gearbox as an option.

Speaking of diesels, the TDCi is closely related to the 1.6-litre common-rail direct-injection turbo-diesel unit found in the Fiesta Econetic, producing the same 66kW and 200Nm.

But the TDCi lacks its eco-siblings’ lower ride height, slipperier aerodynamics, 14-inch wheels, low-viscosity oils, and taller final drive ratio, so it uses 0.7L/100km more diesel (4.4L) compared with Australia’s most economical new car (Econetic – at 3.7L).

Economy, however, has long taken a backseat to the baby Ford’s spirited steering and handling characteristics.

Those worried that going Thai would unravel the Fiesta’s renowned athleticism will be pleased to hear that Ford’s global integration team in Germany tuned the WT for its intended markets using the European architecture in place.

“AAT (Auto Alliance Thailand) Fiesta has the European dynamics of the German vehicle,” said Stefan Muenzinger, Vehicle Integration – B-cars, Ford Asia/Pacific and Africa.

In fact, the Thai Fiesta is an evolutionary development of the German car, gaining a number of improvements that will soon be adopted by the Saarlouis plant for European market models.

These include more soundproofing, better door seals, a significantly more rigid mounting for the twist-beam rear suspension (that brings NVH noise/vibration/harshness benefits as well as a sounder base dynamically), and a stiffer body. Lined up against the outgoing WS, the WT is up to 40 per cent better for wind noise, up to one decibel quieter for road NVH, and – overall – measurably improved.

A more up-to-date ESP system and upgraded electric power steering have also been introduced.

The latter now offers more torque assistance at parking speeds for lighter handling and a heavier helm at higher velocities to help the Fiesta to maintain a weightier feel.

Ford has also fettled the suspension, changing the springs and dampers on the non-Zetec models to offer a “plusher” ride without – Mr Muenzinger insists – sacrificing handling prowess. Quieter (Continental) tyres are also now included.

Conversely, Ford has finally implemented the sportier suspension tune of the European Zetec S/Titanium model for the Thai-made Zetec, just as it did in the WQ Fiesta in early 2006, bringing a distinct edge to the car’s dynamic characteristics.

“It gives a more direct driving experience,” Mr Muenzinger said.

Suspension and steering tuning vary depending on each markets’ needs.

Ford says it repeated and so doubled the accelerated durability testing the WS Fiesta received during its gestation prior to the late 2008 release in Europe.

Furthermore, ‘real world testing’ was done in Australia, Thailand, the Philippines and South Africa, involving 73 prototypes driving more than 900,000km over all types of roads.

Most of the WT upgrades over the WS eventually will make their way on to the Ford of Europe-produced Fiestas, as part of what the company calls “the continuing evolution” of its vehicles.

Meanwhile, the Econetic model will continue to come from Germany for the time being. It’s due for a spec upgrade – that will include side airbags – in the coming months.

Just over half of the WT Fiesta’s supplier base is in Thailand, but most of these are subsidiaries of the companies that already service the European-made model.

All Fiestas now come fitted with electronic stability control (previously it was only standard fare in Zetec), along with ABS anti-lock brakes and EBD Emergency Brake-force Assist.

Only the base CL misses out on seven airbags – including side curtain/thorax airbags and a driver’s knee device – so has only an ANCAP four-star rating to the other Fiestas’ five-star result.

Ford is making a big deal about Bluetooth connectivity with voice control being standard on all Fiestas, along with an aux-in connection for personal audio devices.

Other CL additions include ESP, a driver’s ‘Beltminder’ warning, body-coloured bumpers, six-speaker audio, and a sliding drawer under the front passenger seat. These come on top of the standard ABS/EBD brakes, air-conditioning, power front windows and mirrors, remote central locking and a ‘temporary mobility kit’ instead of a full-size spare wheel.

The WT LX gains these plus all seven airbags, a passenger Beltminder, and new alloy wheels, above the WS’ rear power windows and cruise control. It also offers the TDCi option.

Lastly, the WT Zetec builds on these with the sports suspension tuning, different sports seats, and a unique front bumper and honeycomb grille treatment.

Ford says that in little over one and a half years the WS has doubled the sales of its underperforming WQ predecessor.

Year to date, the Fiesta is up by 28.6 per cent (6603 compared with Jan-July 2009’s 5133). Upping the market share from today’s 8.3 per cent to somewhere within striking distance of the Yaris’ 16.1 per cent (12,774) is a priority.

The German-designed sedan is expected to snare about one in five overall WT sales, in a growing segment that currently accounts for 15 per cent of all light-car volume in Australia.

Ford is confident that it will usher in a fresh customer type to the Fiesta – one that responded to the style of the WS/WT hatch but needs the functionality that a sedan with a large boot brings.

And what of the new diesel? Ford does not believe the TDCi is a dead duck in Australia without automatic availability, and does not think it will hurt sales of the Econetic. Company forecasts have the new diesel pegged at 15 to 20 per cent.

Although it won’t divulge volume expectations, Ford is confident the Fiesta will keep growing in sales, pull in buyers as diverse as Hyundai i20 (CL), Volkswagen Polo (TDCi), and Toyota Prius (Econetic), and change the brand’s image from ho-hum to progressive, tech-savvy and youth-orientated.

“The FTA gives us a great opportunity to add high value content for the consumer – rather than drop prices,” says Ford Australia’s general manager of marketing, David Katic.

“We have focussed on what’s in it for the consumer,” he saidDrive impressions:THE current-generation WS Fiesta has been the most exciting, and noticed, small Ford in Australia since the halcyon Laser days of the 1980s.

Its fresh exterior styling, funky cabin presentation, high-tech features, alert dynamics and reasonable pricing have turned on people to the little car big time.

And the media has been almost universally supportive of the Fiesta too.

But there have been one or two caveats that have stopped the little German-made supermini from flying higher than it could have, and chief among these have been the rather strained relationship between the sluggish four-speed automatic and 1.4-litre petrol engine.

This has been highlighted by the introduction of the latest Volkswagen Polo – a light car with a heavy look that feels every bit the shrunken little prestige hatch that it purports to be. The DSG gearbox is a paragon of techie chic while the boxy interior looks and feels indestructible, with just a soupcon of Golf flair.

Now Ford has hit back – and quite unexpectedly soon – with an evolved WT Fiesta that strives to right most of its wrongs.

Among the changes are a stronger, quieter and more refined body, improved suspension performance, better steering feel, more safety gear, and an increase in standard consumer-friendly gadgets – Bluetooth and voice control leading the charge in this regard.

More importantly for some though, the old 1.4-litre auto has been consigned to history, replaced by a revised version of the 1.6L Ti-VCT four-pot petrol smoothie that – connected to the fab five-speed manual – loves to rev, pulls strongly from low down, is sufficiently economical and sounds keen the whole time doing it.

Now much of the same is true more or less for the new dual-clutch Powershift auto, because it delivers fast, slick and well-timed shifts. But it doesn’t really feel especially quick, and sadly lacks the Tiptronic sequential shift function that was the old 1.4’s only saving grace. We’d still prefer the manual, but now we would not hesitate to recommend the Fiesta auto if that’s what you want.

Unfortunately, we did not drive a Fiesta Zetec with the new sportier suspension tuning, but the TDCi diesel S we sampled impressed us deeply with its spirited performance, balanced chassis, buttery smooth gear shift and supple suspension. This may end up being our favourite model in the whole range.

Did we notice any quality issues, bad craftsmanship or nasty plastics?Basically, no, because the Thai-built Fiesta seems as well-screwed together as its German counterpart.

However, Ford’s decision to discard the rubbery-like dash top for a hard plastic cover does cheapen the Thai Fiesta if you’re the type to tap the top of the fascia.

Of more concern is the loss of the telescopic steering wheel adjustment, meaning that the Ford takes a big step back in terms of accommodation. That’s disappointing. And where is the spare wheel? A can of goo is a poor substitute.

The sedan isn’t the prettiest car of its type in the world, but from rear-on the lines are interesting. The interior is usefully quiet, certainly spacious enough for a B-segment sedan, and equipment levels are more than satisfactory.

Lastly, as we don’t yet know what the pricing will be, it is difficult to place a value judgement on the keen little car, but as a Ford insider hinted that it won’t move northwards, we can only assume that affordability will continue to be a strength.

Another country is not really the place to assess a car accurately for Australia, but we can tell you that the Fiesta seems to have survived its Thai transition on varying varieties of Phuket roads with most of its attributes in tact.

Local roads will help in our assessment of the car, but on the strength of the quality, diesel performance, Powershift responses, sheer choice and famous Fiesta driving pleasure, the baby Ford has a real chance of dominating the light-car scene.

In the past we said that if you had only up to $20,000 to spend than the outgoing WS Fiesta is still the best buy – even with the new Polo playing the field, while the Volkswagen seems that it would still garner our vote if you have more to splash out on a premium baby.

On our first acquaintance then, the refreshed WT is significantly better than its predecessor as a cheaper car, and doesn’t seem to drop the ball in the upper reaches either – with the TDCi diesel especially shining brightly.

Whatever the result, at least Ford can take heart that people actually care about the Fiesta these days.

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