Test Drive: 2016 Ford Fiesta SE

Car and Driver recently ran a story about a medical courier who racked up 743,000 miles on his 2011 Fiesta – I’ll save you the math, folks, that’s 1.2 million kilometres!

With a full trim range and generous option list, the Fiesta can either be a basic fleet car for meter maids or a chic leather-lined boutique compact for trendy condo dwellers.

Furthermore, that mega-miler has the much-maligned dual-clutch automated manual (PowerShift in Ford lingo), a dry-clutch design that did not win many fans at launch with its clunky low-speed behaviour. This endurance run shows that the Fiesta is one well-born, solid offering in the subcompact world, a category where cars are often considered throwaway commodities.

Part of Alan Mullaly’s “One Ford” approach, the Fiesta came to us straight from the Old Continent in 2011, with name-appropriate Mexican assembly to reduce the price of admission to this little party on wheels. Launched in cheerful colours and to rave reviews, the Fiesta was an immediate hit with the masses in the land of the supersize. With a full trim range and generous option list, the Fiesta can either be a basic fleet car for meter maids or a chic leather-lined boutique compact for trendy condo dwellers.

No matter how loaded a Fiesta is, the Euro genes can be felt through the seat of your pants, proving that a frugal ride need not be a purgatorial experience. In 2014, Ford created one wild party animal, mating the Fiesta with a tuned 197 hp version of their 1.6L EcoBoost mill and bolting on all the proper go-fast bits to create one heck of a pocket rocket, the Fiesta ST. Automotive journalists are very weak to this sort of bait, and immediately the rest of the Fiesta range dropped off their radar. That’s too bad because the other EcoBoost in the Fiesta family deserves more attention. In 2015, Ford introduced North America to a very European approach to fuel economy improvements: the tiny engine. The available 1.0 litre EcoBoost is a turbocharged, intercooled three-cylinder briefcase that pumps up an impressive 123 hp at 6,000 rpm and 125 lb-ft of torque at only 2,500 rpm.

This week’s ride however has the bread-and-butter 1.6 litre four-cylinder engine, good for 120 hp at 6,350 rpm and 112 lb-ft of torque at 5,000 rpm. My tester also came in two-pedal configuration, mating the four-banger to the six-speed PowerShift automated manual. According to Energuide, this tandem is good for 8.7 L/100 km city, 6.4 highway and 7.6 combined. In late 2013, I recommended a Fiesta to a friend who was on a tight budget, but needed a basic automatic compact with A/C. She’s very pleased with her Fiesta sedan, but the DCT transmission was very balky initially and needed a few software upgrades before things became acceptable.

See also: 2015 Ford Fiesta ST

Having driven that car, as I plopped myself in the driver’s seat of my 2016 Fiesta SE hatchback and saw the “PRNDS” shifter, I immediately wondered how much refinement three model years have brought to this drivetrain. A lot, it turns out. Having just stepped out of a new Focus 1.0 EcoBoost, sporting a conventional automatic, I did not immediately feel the DCT difference. It’s that good. The manual nature of the beast will still make itself known during parking manoeuvres, where you can feel the clutches at work and get occasional clumsy behaviour. But under way, this is nothing like my friend’s old Fiesta was. Shifts are crisp and smooth, no balkiness.

 

A lot of virtual ink was spilled in discussion forums over Ford’s choice of a dry clutch DCT in its smaller models, but all it takes is a short drive to convince yourself that it was, indeed, the right choice. Low-torque engines tend to be bogged down by automatics, but the 1.6 litre in the Fiesta shows surprising spunk and is eager to play and rev away. More playfulness can be found at a tug of the gear lever, accessing Sport mode, granting shifts at higher revs and giving the driver manual control through a thumb selector. Thumb? With the rise of the millenials, expect more thumb controls. It works so well even this gen-X’er was able to flick shifts with his thumb.

I’m risking blasphemy here, but I’ll go out on a limb and say that the PowerShift may be a better fit for the Fiesta than the standard five-speed manual. Why? The Fiesta is packaged like Ariana Grande, a lovely rendering done at 7/8’s scale, right down to the legs. At an even six foot, I prefer a close relation with the controls and upright seating. Legroom is actually fine – lengthwise. Beef: the center console seriously intrudes in the pedal’s airspace, to the point that a three pedal tango would probably induce a very sore right knee.

Other than that, ergonomics of the diminutive cabin are splendid. The deep dash sits behind a panoramic windshield, and forward view is enhanced by sidelights and an ideally placed rear-view mirror. Out back, despite the curvy hatchback bod, blind spots are minimal and the optional electric / heated mirrors feature separate convex mirror lens to negate any blind spot to be found in the car’s tiny shadow. Except for said lack of pedal box width, a good driving position is easy to achieve and you sit higher than you would in a Focus.

The steering wheel is a joy to hold, thanks to a meaty leather-covered rim and easy-to-use ancillary controls. Instruments are in plain view, and the Sync 3 touchscreen sits high up and center in your field of view, shielded from sun glare by a protruding shelf. It’s rare that I drive a car whose screen never gets washed out, and this is one of them.

One issue though: the clock display is also shielded from view by the shelf, but again not many six-footers drive Fiestas sitting bolt upright – your results may vary. The 2014 interior upgrade yields an ambiance that belies the low price of entry of the Fiesta range.

My tester’s all-black interior featured a fully padded dash top whose design and textures would not look out of place in a MINI or Citroën. The instrument panel’s one ergonomic fail, besides the clock, is the very low and recessed location of the HVAC controls. The door panels don’t feel as premium, offering hard surfaces to your elbows. Rear passengers don’t even get padded armrests – only solid plastic ones. And speaking of armrests, there is a padded one up front between the cloth-covered heated bucket seats. However, I would need my arms to extend behind my elbows for that armrest to be of any use. And no, it doesn’t slide forward, but does contain two USB slots and a pass-through for your phone’s cable.

Sync 3 worked without a hitch, easily pairing my iPhone and accepting vocal commands despite my French-Canadian accent. The audio system punched above the price class, except for the typically tinny-sounding satellite radio channels. Breaking up the monochrome black seriousness is the ambiance lighting package, whose control is right at your fingertip if your hand is resting on the gearshift. Enjoy driving your passengers nuts at night while discreetly cycling through all the colours that light up the footwells, cupholders and recessed areas of the dashboard. Purple! Blue! Orange! Red! Wheee!

Even though a petite Fiesta is no minivan, I was able to use it as an airport limo to drive my significant other and no-less significant mother-in-law to their flight, along with luggage. Planning to rent a small car on a Euro trip? Take note: the trunk will swallow one standard suitcase and two carry-ons. The second piece of luggage came aboard thanks to the 60/40 split rear seat; no flat-floor here as the folded seatbacks sit one level above the trunk floor. Besides mother-in-laws, six-foot-tall reporters can also fit back there, provided their 18-year-old teenage daughter is at the wheel. This allows me to report that a) it’s a bit noisy in the right rear seat thanks to the surprisingly sporty exhaust note and b) daughter’s same-age friends found my ride to be totally, like, funky.

And all dressed-up as this tester is, “funky” fully applies. Tired of seeing fifty shades of grey? “Electric Spice Metallic” seems to have been lifted out of a Hot Wheels assembly line, and along with the graphics, SE Black trim package and body kit, this Fiesta is one flashy little party on wheels. That eye-popping colour fits the Fiesta’s playful personality and words fail to describe how vivid it looked one very early morning as I got out of the house to begin my commute.

Covered with water bubbles from the overnight rain, the paint radiated as the rising sun went through the water spheres, two drops falling over the headlights as if to draw dragon eyes on this Pokémon shape. Despite all the optional tech featured on this car, there is no back-up camera, but once you’re on the move the party begins. The raspy exhaust, precise steering and purring engine all entice you to have some fun on your journey, yet the highway ride is refined and serene, the helm firm, the tracking true and the revs under control (2,500 at 100 km/h).

Not as true over the week was the trip computer, crediting me with 7.8 L/100 km against a manually calculated 8.8, my commuting almost matching the city rating. Suspension is taut but never brutal, a high tossability index is helped here by the 195/50R16 tires that come with the SE Black package. The minuscule disc/drum brake setup proves up to the task on this light vehicle and inspires confidence.

At your destination, the Fiesta is a cinch to maneuvre around obstacles and park in tight downtown confines, like the true European that it is. 1.2 million km? Anytime, Li’l pumkin, anytime.

Warranty:
3 years/60,000km; 5 years/100,000km powertrain; 5 years/unlimited distance corrosion perforation; 5 years/100,000km roadside assistance

Competitors:
Chevrolet Sonic
Honda Fit
Hyundai Accent
Kia Rio
Mini Cooper
Nissan Versa Note
Toyota Yaris

2016 Ford Fiesta SE hatchback
2016 Ford Fiesta SE hatchback
Base Price $16,749
Optional Equipment $6,095 (PowerShift dual-clutch automated manual, $1,250; Group 201A Sport appearance package, includes Sync 3 with 6.5-inch touchscreen, satellite radio, sport cloth seats, driver’s manual lumbar support, leather-wrapped shift knob, compact spare aluminum wheel, $910; body kit, includes front airfoil, rear valence, side rocker mouldings and fog lamps, $995; Comfort package, includes heated seats, electronic auto temp control and heated mirrors, $550; Engine block heater, $100; Interior protection package – dealer-installed accessory, $150; Fiesta lower door stripe graphics, $200; voice-activated navigation, $800; Remote-start system, $300; SE Black package, includes black dual power-heated mirrors with blind spot lenses, black-accented machined 16-inch alloy wheels, black grille and black fog lamp bezels, $600)
A/C Tax $100
Destination Fee $1,600
Price as Tested $24,544
Optional Equipment