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 contemporary Smart ForTwo is better used for city slicker cow-tipping practice than driving it, not that we're advocating vandalism.
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 pulling force that gets you moving--at 148. That may not sound a lot, but it's more than enough in a car that's 700 pounds less than a Corvette.
But potency doesn't always ensure quality. Popov vodka packs a punch, for instance, but it tastes like swill. Can this tiny car with a tinier, odd-cylinder engine be good for once?
Model and PriceFord 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 FeaturesBesides some styling changes with new headlights and a lower-bumper grille that mimics the 2013 Ford Fusion's (which, in turn, looks like a clone of Aston Martin's grille), the structure of the 2014 Fiesta EcoBoost remains largely unchanged from previous models. Which means it’s the same size as its predecessor, 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 2012 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 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 engine.
Family Friendliness and UtilityWhile five people can technically fit into the Fiesta, back-seat leg space has never been one this car's best assets. No, the Fiesta aimed at urban-dwelling Millennials, as marketing folk like to call 'em. Ford will even sell you color-coordinating nail polish to match your Fiesta if that's your thing. Yet, the age of the average Fiesta owner is 42. Ford wouldn't say how many Fiestas are sold to high schoolers versus their working-stiff parents, but we'd bet both subsets see its virtues.
For overprotective parents, the 2014 Fiesta will give them some reason to rejoice as it will finally feature Ford's SmartKey system that can limit the car's top speed, radio volume, and even alert the primary driver—parents—when the car is being driven outside a predesignated area. If you don't like your daughter's boyfriend, you can even program the car to alert you when she's approaching his neighborhood. Talk about being a buzzkill—or just being an attentive parent.
Comfort and QualityWe 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. Yet, despite being an economy car, the 2014 Ford Fiesta never feels chintzy.
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. 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. It rarely ever punishes its passengers, even over rough stuff. If there are any squeaks, rattles, or shakes, we're hard-pressed to find them.
How it DrivesThe 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 no turbocharger whistle; the engine has a calming reverberation, as if its sound were modeled after James Earl Jones singing a cappella. We wouldn't be ashamed to say it sounds a little like a Volvo turbo five-cylinder. 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 takes off, despite steering feel that's marginally less intuitive than the Honda Fit's. That said, the Fit has the best steering feel in the class; second place isn't a bad trophy in this class.
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. It's similar to what's in the pocket rocket Ford Focus ST. We're wondering if Ford gave this car a driveline technology it didn't need to just impress critics, but we're not going to complain. It helps make city driving more fun than it's been in a long time.
SummaryWe 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 reminiscent of a Subaru than any Ford. And yet, it felt refined; its burbling three-banger never became irritating.
We don't think it could.
The 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 American spec late this year.
Spec BoxPrice-as-tested: $19,500 (estimated)
EPA City: 30+ mpg
EPA Highway: 40+ mpg
EPA Combined: N/A
Estimated Combined Range: N/A
Intellichoice Cost of Ownership: Good (2013 Fiesta 1.6 S)