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First Drive: 2011 Ford Fiesta [Review]

In Spanish, una Fiesta is often literally a multi-day celebration, which could encompass a carnival, holiday, celebration or party. With Ford's North American-bound Fiesta, the company is hoping for all of the above when the Dearborn, Michigan, automaker releases the Fiesta four-door sedan or five-door hatch this summer as a sub-Focus, Euro-bred offering aimed squarely at trendsetters.

Available with a single choice of engine and two choices each for body style and transmission, Ford is hoping that the Fiesta is the next big (small) thing in automotive style among drivers, young and old.

From a base SE trim level, to SES Sport and SEL high line trim levels, there is clearly something for everyone - as Leftlane's Mark Kleis learned early on as a Fiesta Agent by participating in Ford's unique social marketing experiment.

Expressing yourself
Like Kia is doing with its Soul, Ford is hoping to conquest young and in-the-know customers that suddenly don't find Toyot's Scion division hip anymore. Words like "expressive," "flowing," and "sculptured" are words rarely uttered from the lips of Ford officials. Not so with this entry. Designed to compete against the natural predators in the segment, including the Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris and Nissan Versa, it manages to hold its own both in terms of performance and in its ample feature content.

The Fiesta features Ford's now-common kinetic design language to give the car the appearance of movement while standing still. Sporting the typical Blue Oval-adorned grille opening, the Fiesta sedan shows the now-familiar trapezoidal shaped intake seen on the Fusion and Taurus. Order the four door and, not surprisingly, you get a traditional three-box body with a trunk.

On the other hand, click the order box for the five-door hatch and you get the European-model front fascia with a body-colored grille and a floating blue oval logo. Headlamps lend "eyes" to the situation and show interesting lenses to spread the light pattern where it's needed.

Scalloped side panels show body creases that add interest to the vehicle"”as well as add strength to the overall vehicle. At the rear, a chamfered rear window is offered shade from a hatch-mounted rear spoiler. Overall aero is good to a drag coefficient of 0.33 Cd.

Sync me up
The Fiesta is, like most Fords available today, equipped with the Sync system which links audio (including Sirius Satellite Radio), navigation, and Bluetooth functions. Also included is streaming audio from Bluetooth devices like the iPhone, Blackberry or Palm Pre. A Sync software update called AppLink will be available later this year that allows the Sync system to download iPhone-style apps including one that allows it to play Pandora streaming Internet audio - cool tech that will inevitably give the Fiesta a leg up over its competition.

With the center stack console as the focal point of the dashboard, the look is a cross between a Transformers character and a cell phone. What surprised us, though, was the quality of the materials in the interior. Soft touch covering on the dashboard and contrasting silver metal-look trim pieces dress these digs to a class above this price level.

A tilting and telescoping steering wheel with redundant controls keeps the hands on the wheel. The jury was out on seat comfort. This writer loved the bolstered front seat; a driving partner was of the opposite opinion. A "technical" check-patterned fabric is standard, while leather in various shades with contrasting piping is an available option - again, a ritzy high-end feature for a low-buck car. Rear seat legroom is at a premium and will be trying for those who draw the short straw on the seating chart. But this is a little car and we're not expecting stretch-out legroom.

Power play
A single engine powers the U.S.-spec Fiesta: Ford's new 1.6-liter twin cam inline four-cylinder engine with the automaker's Variable Camshaft Timing. The VCT allows for a smaller engine overall while providing for increases in power and fuel economy. Producing 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft. of torque, it provided a bunch of zip to the flywheel. From there it was the tranny's deal.

Available with a five-speed base manual transmission or the new PowerShift six-speed Automatic dual-clutch transmission, the little 1.6-liter cranks out generally enough power for in-city driving. The one exception we found was during our jaunt along Skyline Boulevard near Half Moon Bay, California, where, while driving the five-speed manual version, we found the constant need to downshift just to keep the revs up. It was almost as though anything above third gear was an overdrive gear. There were clearly times where we thought the engine was begging for a sixth gear with the row-it-yourself setup. And with Ford's emphasis on supplying six cogs across the lineup, we were rather surprised to see just five here.

On the other hand, we enjoyed the quick shifts from the PowerShift automatic transmission. Built with six forward gears and a double clutch shift system, it allows the transmission to pre-load the upcoming gear for a smooth, more efficient gear change. It has sealed internal lubrication and requires no regular maintenance. Although EPA numbers are not in yet, Ford is claiming a projected 40 mpg highway rating.

Point the way
The Fiesta is equipped with a new style steering system from Ford. The Electric Power Assist Steering reduces parasitic drag on the system, but clearly adds to the overall fun-to-drive quotient thanks to nice weight and predictable tuning. With something called Active Nibble Cancellation, which sounds more like a diet aid than a handling software, the Fiest's steering system senses road imperfections that can disrupt a smooth ride, and the ANC compensates for it in a nearly imperceptible manner so the driver isn't aware the process is even happening.

The Fiesta features a pair of MacPherson struts in front, combined with tuned shocks and a 22 mm front stabilizer bar. Out back, a less-than-high tech twist-beam rear axle works in conjunction with the tuned rear shock absorbers to deliver reasonable comfort and a solid, but still decently plush, ride experience. The overall feel was decidedly upmarket and typically European, although we'll reserve full judgment on a variety of roads once we get a little more seat time for a more traditional review.

These bits, combined with the EPAS help to give the Fiesta enough premium-feeling small car mojo to keep us more than entertained.

Why you would buy it:
You've always admired the European-only Fiesta from afar. Now it's your turn to get the goods here.

Why you wouldn't:
You still think it's hip to be square.

Leftlane's bottom line:
While we weren't able to spend a long time behind the wheel during our shared driving stints, we did enjoy the perkiness and willingness to please that the Fiesta presented to us. With great tracking over quickly changing switchbacks and off-camber turns, it is clear that Ford is really on to something here.

Think of it: With the Fiesta, it appears that a genuinely fun, practical and premium-feeling car can be had without breaking the bank. That's progress.

2011 Ford Fiesta sedan base price, $13,995.
2011 Ford Fiesta hatchback base price, $15,795.

Words and photos by Mark Elias.