Three-cylinder engines are synonymous with some of the most wretched cars ever sold in the U.S. You may remember the Geo Metro, for instance, the Crocs shoes of cars: lightweight, practical, fairly cheap, and something you should never want to be seen using. Likewise, the more modern Smart ForTwo is better for city slickers’ cow-tipping practice than driving. Not that we’d advocate vandalism, of course.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta 1.0-Liter EcoBoost is different, though. We’ll save you most of the engineering gravitas, but you should know this: Ford completely overthought its new subcompact car. With a small, turbocharged three-cylinder engine, it makes 3 horsepower more than the base 1.6-liter four-cylinder, but comes with an additional 36 pound-feet of torque—the twisting force that gets you moving—at 148 lb-ft. That may not sound a lot, but it’s more than enough in a car that’s 700 pounds less than a Corvette.
But even Popov vodka is potent. That doesn’t make it any good. How about this Ford?
Model and Price
Ford is positioning the 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine as a premium alternative to the four-cylinder, justifying it with added power and efficiency. Officials from the automaker say it’ll exceed the current car’s 29 mpg city/40 mpg highway fuel economy rating by as much as 20 percent, putting it comfortably atop, well, everything outside of a hybrid. The cars we sampled were European-spec, coming with a cumbersome Sony audio system in place of the simpler MyFord Touch unit that will make its debut in the U.S. version.
Other than that, the speedometer in kilometers, a start/stop ignition system, and minor touches, Ford says the Fiesta we drove is close to what we’ll get. So yes, even the Euro-tuned suspension is destined for the Colonies. Same with the standard five-speed manual transmission and sophisticated torque-vectoring system. But more on what all that techno garble means to you later.
Safety and Key Features
Besides some styling changes–with new headlights and a lower-bumper grille that mimic the 2013 Ford Fusion–the structure of the EcoBoost ’14 Fiesta remains largely unchanged from previous models. It’s the same size, but at least you know it’s safe, with six standard airbags: front driver and passenger, side driver and front-passenger, and two overhead airbags that stretch on either side of the car to the back row. In IIHS crash safety testing, the ’12 Fiesta earned Top Safety Pick status, and garnered an overall four-star safety rating from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Being an up-spec car, some features like a smaller 6.5-inch MyFord Touch screen will be available. The EcoBoost 1.0-liter engine will come as an option both sedan and five-door hatchback body styles. Initially, only a five-speed manual transmission will be available with the three-cylinder.
Family Friendliness and Utility
While five people can technically fit into the Fiesta, back-seat leg space has never been one of this car’s best assets. No, the Fiesta is for urban dweller, Millennials in the minds of Ford product planners. This is despite the fact that the age of the average Fiesta owner is 42. We’re not sure just how many of them are sold as commuters for the working stiff versus being used high school chariots.
If there’s something to be said for the Fiesta’s family friendliness, though, it’s that the 2014 model will be the first to feature Ford’s SmartKey system that can limit the car’s top speed, radio volume, and even alert the primary driver when the car is being driven outside a designated range. If you don’t like your daughter’s boyfriend, you can program the car to alert you when she’s approaching his neighborhood. Sadly, it can’t yet detect the odor of Axe body spray.
Comfort and Quality
We want our economy cars to ride and feel like bigger, plusher vehicles; that’s not always realistic. You’re going to get seat fabrics with diagonal stripes and racy colors instead of fine leathers and thick, wool carpets. You’re going to get rubberized plastics instead of stitched vinyl and leather adorning the dashboard and doors. And yet, when all put in the 2014 Ford Fiesta, the car never feels lacking, like it ought to have something that it doesn’t.
Some of the Fiesta’s interior plastics are comically spongy, like something from a mid-1980s car that didn’t have airbags. But they feel high-quality. While space is certainly at a premium, quality isn’t. The seats are a little narrow and upright, but they’re supportive. And over pocked roads, the Fiesta rides stiffly, but it’s never jarring. It has something of a Volkswagen-like feel of solidity to its ride, not surprising considering its European roots. It rarely ever punishes its passengers, even over rough stuff. And if there are any squeaks, rattles, or shakes, we were hard-pressed to find them.
How it Drives
The three-cylinder has a character all its own. It’s not like a high-revving motorcycle’s, nor does it feel industrial. Before driving the EcoBoost Fiesta, we were planning for disappointment. But from about 1,700 rpm all the way to its 6,500 redline limit, it pulls with consistent power. There’s little turbocharger whistle when driving the car casually; the engine has a calming reverberation, as if its sound were modeled after James Earl Jones singing a cappella. Its engine mounts are counterweighted to offset the natural imbalance of a three-cylinder engine, making it hard to find any fault with the engine or unwanted vibrations. If you’re expecting this car to feel underpowered or buzzy, prepare to be surprised.
Then there’s the lessened weight over the front, which helps the Fiesta hustle around corners as well as it accelerates, despite steering that doesn’t feel quite as precise as the Honda Fit. That said, the Fit has the best steering feel in the class; second place isn’t a bad trophy.
Ford has instilled the Fiesta EcoBoost with a standard torque-vectoring system that works with the car’s stability control. It uses the Fiesta’s brakes to automatically feed more power to the wheel that needs it in extreme handling situations, working seamlessly. We’re wondering if Ford gave this car a driveline technology it didn’t need, but we’re glad the Fiesta has it. It helps make city driving fun, more fun than it’s been in a long time.
We drove the snot out of the 2014 Ford Fiesta, hurrying it through mountainous switchbacks on Mulholland Drive to get a feel for the Fiesta’s new engine and torque-vectoring system as quickly as we could. The car still delivered in the neighborhood of 30 mpg. Its engine hummed along, with a growl that reminded us far more of Subaru’s engines than Ford’s standard fare. And yet, it felt refined; not only did it never get irritating, we don’t think it could.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta is saddled with some inherent flaws: cramped rear seat and visibility-impeding rear pillars. But you forget about those quickly with an above-par interior and charismatic feel that might be among the most fun per dollar out there. The fuel economy ain’t shabby, either. But we wonder how many buyers will look elsewhere because they can’t get the engine with an auto box initially. And we wonder what the car’s price and performance will be when it’s fine-tuned for the U.S.
As promised, we saved you most of the engineering speak, and even at that we had to get a little technical to explain the car’s new features. Just know that it all adds up to be fun and frugal. And one more F-word on our initial drive of this car: Fantastic.
Hopefully, it’ll stay this good when it arrives in spring 2013.