Author John Knox with his 2011 Ford Fiesta SE hatchback, May 2011Enlarge Photo
Last month, as I was filling the tank on my 2008 Ford Mustang convertible, I realized my car had become untenable.
I bought the metallic blue ragtop before the financial system melted down, and before gas prices soared. And yes, it was an impulse (read: stupid) decision to own a car like that in a location where roads are ice-covered and slippery six to eight months a year.
Since I'm not yet wealthy enough to be a two-car family all by myself, the Mustang had to be my daily driver.
Expecting a tradeoff
But by the time I was done filling up, I'd made my decision.
Figuring there was no better time to trade in a convertible than spring, I stopped by Riverview Ford, my local dealer, to respond to Ford's "Swap My Ride" offer. I wanted to look at something far more practical than my Mustang, and it had to get way better gas mileage.
My eyes fell on the new 2011 Ford Fiesta first. I'd read some favorable reviews and I liked its looks.
My first reaction to the test-drive car my salesman offered was, "I'm not sure I can afford one with all these bells and whistles." I actually said it out loud.
As it turned out, it was the exact same car I purchased, in the end.
Not like any previous Fords
The interior fit and finish and the quality of the materials reminded me of my Volkswagen Jetta. It wasn't that hard plastics had been banished, just places your touch might fall are done in padded or soft-touch materials. That gave it an upmarket feel.
2011 Ford FiestaEnlarge Photo
The car didn't feel like any previous Fords I'd known. My Mustang was very reliable, with zero warranty issues. I did scheduled services and put tires on it; that was the sum total of its needs. But, reliability aside, the Mustang felt like a good many Fords I'd known in the past.
I ended up buying a 2011 Ford Fiesta SE in Tuxedo Black, with the Sync Entertainment system and the six-speed "Powershift"automatic transmission (in deference to my partner in crime, who doesn't feel comfortable with a stick), plus the ever nebulous "Sport Appearance Package".
I wanted the manual; I didn't get it
I had to go through much wailing and gnashing of the teeth, because I'd been set on having the five-speed manual. I must have whined, interjected, argued with, cajoled, teased, and prodded my partner in every way possible to get that stick.
2011 Ford Fiesta interiorEnlarge Photo
I lost, fair and square. But for once in my adult life, I can't complain.
The six-speed "Powershift" is a different gearbox than I've ever driven before. First, it's a dry transmission. That is to say, it doesn't use transmission fluid and it doesn't have a torque converter.
The simplest explanation is that it's a pair of manual transmissions, each with an independent clutch, combined in one housing. The first one handles gears 1, 3 and 5, and the second 2, 4, 6 plus reverse. The gear shifting is automatic, and electronically controlled..
Having used the car for a month now in varying road conditions, I can say it's the least annoying automatic tranny I've ever driven. Infrequently, though, it does get confused in stop-and-go traffic. Fortunately, my commute is short and I live in a city where there's a rush minute, not a whole rush hour.
2011 Ford FiestaEnlarge Photo
I can consistently replicate the confusion by coming almost to a complete stop, then suddenly accelerating. The transmission's programming should be updated to correct for this case, and I imagine it will be.
In future models, letting the driver select gears manually with paddle shifters would address this rather handily.
On the road, the car feels solid and secure. The electric power-assisted steering uses a variable assist based on the vehicle's speed. It does a great job of transitioning between high assist at low speeds and less involvement at higher speeds.
It's not perfect, but it communicates a lot of the important feel from the road to the driver. Historically, you haven't seen attention to that kinds of detail in cars of this price range.
Fun with front-wheel-drive
Most importantly, it's fun to drive. In other words, I've been having a blast in a front-wheel-drive car on windy twisty roads. And that's a sentence I didn't ever expect to write.