Driven: 2009 Ford Fiesta ECOnetic Diesel

July 20, 2009
Ford Fiesta ECOnetic

Ford Fiesta ECOnetic

“We get squat.”

That was the pronouncement of a journalist and car-nut friend of mine named James who I bumped into on the streets of a northern Italian town this past spring.

His pronouncement came when he spied a gen-VI 4Motion Golf TDI. “We” Americans don’t get the new Golf (ne Rabbit) just yet and even when we do a TDI with all-wheel drive might not happen here.

Why this VW talk in a Ford review?

Because Ford is savvy enough to know that when its Fiesta launches in the U.S. at the end of 2010 it absolutely must be affordable enough to attract some of VW’s vaunted youthful fervor, i.e., single guys in their early thirties like James who want the cool factor of cars that currently sell in Europe. But in this economy there’s no way that out of the gate Ford could gamble on facing off against such expensive machines as TDI Golfs, just as even VW probably won’t bring us TDI Golfs with AWD because they’d cost roughly $30k, too daringly close to the MSRP of an Audi A3.

In the case of Ford these cost concerns likely mean optional Fiestas, such as the subject of this review, the 1.6-liter ECOnetic turbodiesel that might otherwise compete for a similar buyer to VW’s TDI Golf (and is touted as 63-mpg eco titan across the pond) probably won’t ever sell on these shores. It’s just too expensive.

How expensive? The FWD version I drove earlier this month in Portugal stickers just north of $31,000. Yes, a car with the interior capacity roughly on par with that of a three-door, $12,205 Toyota Yaris is more than twice as expensive. Ouch.

Mind you, there are big variables in European market pricing; the five-speed-manual, 1.6-liter TDCi ECOnetic in England sells for more like $23,000. Still sounds pricey? Perhaps. But I suggest you keep reading.

First, I had a five-door model to test. That makes the cabin more flexible, and although it’s not a huge car inside, the Fiesta is comfortable enough for four passengers, and the height-adjustable front seats and tilt/telescoping steering wheel stalk meant both tall and short drivers (there’s loads of headroom) found the cockpit comfortable. Some aspects of the Fiesta interior even best the uber-titan of this segment, the Honda Fit, with more supportive seating surfaces and switches and dials that feel a hair more deluxe.

Some pieces of the puzzle not so slick include a raw metal seatback behind the fold-forward rear seats that’ll almost certainly get scratched and the rear-seat bottoms also don’t fold forward a la Fit, so you don’t get the benefit of a fully flat load floor. So while the Fiesta is close in scale to the Fit, it’s not as practical, making the Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris more logical cross-buys.

Save for the ace in the Fiesta deck—superior handling to either of those cars.

I put over 500 miles on the ECOnetic and from the windiest snakes of blacktop barely cut into mountainsides to the fastest national highways, the little Ford felt tight, taut, and supremely stable. Kind of like a VW Golf, actually. Crucially, Ford doesn’t err on the side of a soft suspension, which today seems the universal solution to making econoboxes feel less cheap and darty. The Ford’s simple but effective strut front, beam axle rear suspension is stiffly damped, minimizing body roll and the electric steering, which has made many a more expensive car feel numb at the tiller is highly communicative without making the small Ford darty. Impressively, while the latest MINI Cooper will awkwardly tramline on grooved pavement, even over large segments of metal bridge decks the Fiesta feels firmly planted and easily tractable.

This is all on a version of the Fiesta that’s tweaked for fuel economy. Yes, the lowered suspension (by 10mm) surely aids handling, but low-rolling-resistance 14-inch tires do not, and yet the Fiesta hangs on tight, and only when pushed much harder than I’d dare behind the wheel of a car that gets similar fuel economy, the Honda Insight, was I reminded that this wee Ford was brewed for eco-frugality, not sportiness.

Speaking of which, that Insight analogy might twig you to the fact that I did not achieve 63 mpg during my test; more like 44 mpg. I blame the Portuguese.

On Portugal’s national highway system even those in the far right lane regularly hustle at 85-90 mph, and with the ECOnetic Fiesta’s fifth gear made taller (final drive ration adjusted from 3.37 to 3.05), to save more fuel, the engine was barely-there quiet even at these speeds. And although the 1.6 TDCi motor is slow to rev, torque builds quickly and there’s passing power aplenty around 2500 rpm.

So I drove the snot out of a diesel Fiesta for 11 days and got fuel economy numbers on par with the $20,000-$23,000 Honda Insight in a car that’s far more nimble, equally practical, and which, if Ford could figure out how to build the diesel motor in Mexico (where North-American versions of this car will be made) could theoretically sell for about the same price.

And none of that will probably happen, much to my friend James’ chagrin.

Then again, if both gasoline and diesel were running about $4.50 a gallon, as they were in Portugal this summer (and in this country last summer) Ford might well reconsider the idea. And American buyers might come to welcome the notion that “fuel economy” and “vanilla driving experience” don’t have to be synonyms.

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