Review: 2011 Ford Fiesta SES 5MT

By Kevin Miller

After months of hype including the Fiesta Movement, product placement on American Idol, and the auto show previews, the Ford Fiesta is finally here. Being a fan of small European cars that are efficient because of smart engineering choices, I’ve been eager to get behind the wheel of the Fiesta. Having recently spent two weeks driving two-ton, 300 HP luxury cars I finally got my chance, and climbing into the Fiesta SES hatchback was like a breath of fresh air. Far from bare-bones, the SES trim level of Ford’s smallest entry in the US car market has upscale features like keyless entry and pushbutton starting, and Ford’s SYNC system, the mainstream market’s best implementation of telephone and media integration.

As soon as I got the Fiesta, I installed my two kids’ car seats, loaded up our luggage, and headed from Seattle toward Washington State’s San Juan Islands. I had a ferry to catch, and two anxious kids in the back seat. Not having a lot of time to acquaint myself with the Fiesta’s features, I found myself driving above 75 MPH without significant effort. At those speeds, the Fiesta was settled on the road, not particularly noisy, and essentially right at home. We arrived at the ferry terminal about 90 minutes later, to learn that the sailing we had hoped to take was already full, and the next boat was four-and-a-half hours later. After a quick stop for groceries, we pulled in to the lot and waited… and waited longer as the sailing experienced a 75 minute delay. My daughters and I made the best of the delay, using the Fiesta as our base for snacks, naps, and activities.

The Lime Squeeze Metallic green Fiesta hatchback attracted attention everywhere I took it, from rural towns to urban grocery stores. During my many hours in the ferry line, and on nearly every trip I took on rural Lopez Island, the bright green Fiesta attracted curious people, most of whom knew it was the new Fiesta and wanted to know how I liked it and what sort of fuel economy I was getting.

The attention it attracted was only partially due to its zesty hue. The Fiesta is eye-catching in any color, with angular, swept-back headlamp assemblies, pillar-mounted taillamps, and rear wheels incredibly close to the back bumper. With its silver painted 16” alloy wheels, it really is a well-proportioned car, with looks like nothing else on the road.

Inside, the cabin of the Fiesta SES features a lot of black, but a mixture of materials and textures keep it from being somber. The seat upholstery has a subtle pattern, and there are two different textures of soft-touch plastic on the dash and upper doors, plus padded fabric where elbows rest- this is an upgraded interior scheme from the base door panels and fabric. None of the interior plastic is brittle plastic that is used in so many of the Fiesta’s competitors, though lower parts of the doors and dash are a textured hard plastic.  After several days on the island and several drives to the beach, I had plenty of sand and pine needles in the car; the seat’s nap-free upholstery cleaned up very easily with my vacuum, as did the low-pile carpeting and floor mats.

There is plenty of storage in the Fiesta, despite the lack of a center console with armrest compartment. There are three drink holders between the front seats, plus a cupholder at the back of the center console for the rear seats. Additionally there are bottle holders in each of the generously-sized front door pockets. There is also a surprisingly-large glove box and a map pocket on the back of the passenger seat. The shape of the bottle holder in each front door is such that it protrudes slightly into the footwell; my wife banged her ankle with it when closing the front passenger door as she wasn’t expecting the door trim to protrude so far in to her footwell. While the Fiesta’s front seats lack a center armrest; I made the best of it in our epic ferry wait by stretching out across the front seats; my older daughter even had a nap across the front seats in the ferry queue.

Interestingly, there are no door lock pins or actuators on the interior of any of Fiesta’s doors. There is only a lock/unlock button on the dash, with an amber LED illuminated when the doors are locked and the car is occupied. This means that rear sear passengers don’t have a way to lock/unlock their own doors; it also means that without the key fob, you must lean way into the car and press the dash-mounted button. The keyless entry system has lock/unlock buttons on each of the front door handles; the system unlocks only the drivers’s door if that door’s unlock button is used; it will unlock all doors if the actuator on the front passenger door is used. On several occasions I unlocked the car at the driver’s door and then wanted to open the door behind to put my daughter in her car seat, and I had to either dig the fob out of my pocket or reach in to the center of the car to unlock the rest of the doors. Speaking of the key fob, it is a bit smaller than similar units from most other manufacturers (and even other Ford products) meaning there’s less bulk in your pocket, which I appreciated.

Ford’s press kit for the Fiesta indicates that the audio system controls are inspired by a mobile phone. I don’t know exactly what that means- I do know that the system is straightforward to use after you get the hang of the menu system, though it took me a while to realize that the option “soft keys” at the bottom of the red display matrix on the dash are actuated by unlabelled buttons below the rest of the audio controls. On the left side of the audio control, there are buttons to select CD, Radio, Sirius (Satellite radio), AUX, and Phone. The AUX input supports a standard audio jack, USB connection of an iPod or other media device, or streaming Bluetooth audio. On the right side, there is a numeric keypad for manually entering stations or phone numbers. The center of the audio system has volume and menu controls. Among the nice features of this system are the fact that there are 20 AM, 20 FM, and 30 Sirius preset locations, allowing you plenty of memory locations for your favorite stations. There are audio controls on the steering wheel and a voice-command button on the turn signal stalk, but no volume adjustment is available on the steering wheel; you’ve got to use the volume knob on the dash.

At night, the red illumination of the audio system buttons made their labels somewhat difficult to read, and the audio display screen was a little too bright when driving in areas with low ambient lighting. In the day time, visibility and legibility of the controls and the display screen was great, and was not obscured by wearing polarized sun glasses. The standard audio system features only four speakers with 40 W output; the upgraded audio in my test car had 6 speakers and 80 W. While it was far from concert-hall sound, it was perfectly adequate for a car in this price range. People who want more punch from their audio systems may have a difficult time retrofitting different systems into the Fiesta because of its bespoke display and control panel.

The Fiesta’s climate controls are straightforward, with large knobs for selecting fan speed, air distribution, and temperature. Large buttons within those knobs are present for selecting air conditioning, recirculation, and the rear window and exterior mirror defrosting. The only other controls on the dash were buttons for the single-stage heated front seats, and for control of the interior ambient LED illumination. While that LED illumination was interesting and gave visibility in the footwell and cup holders at night, it doesn’t dim with the rest of the instrument lighting; I ended up turning it off to cut distraction while driving at night.

While the center stack features red illumination, the speedometer, tachometer, and fuel gague in the instrument cluster have white illumination which is easier to see. There is a small electronic display with red LED characters in the instrument cluster which displays outside temperature and the odometer/trip computer functions.

Visibility out of the the Fiesta is excellent. Large windows and large mirrors provide a great view out whether on the open road or a narrow parking garage. The only place the visibility could be improved is out the back window via the rear view mirror- the sloping roofline restricted rearward visibility in the mirror, though the view out back for reversing was great. The integrated spotter mirrors on the door mirrors took some getting used to but were useful. I was pleasantly surprised to find an auto-dimming electrochromatic rear view mirror in the Fiesta.

The manually-adjustable driver’s seat has height and rake adjustment as well as enough fore-aft travel to keep my 6’4” body comfortable, the leather-wrapped three-spoke steering wheel is also adjustable for rake and reach. The black, patterned upholstery is comfortable and easy to clean (as I found out after a rainy trip to the beach with my kids), and the seats are supportive enough to keep me in place during the exuberant driving the Fiesta’s chassis encourages, without being either too soft or too firm.

The Fiesta may be a small car, but that didn’t stop me from using it in the same way we use our much larger family cars. I was able to carry five people (including two kids in car seats) plus two enormous duffel bags on a run from the ferry landing to the cottage where we stayed. Too, my family of four fit for a long weekend with all necessary luggage. Although rear seat legroom didn’t look huge, the front seatbacks don’t have hard frames, meaning that knees (or toddlers’ feet) can contact the seatback without nudging (or kicking) the front seat and disturbing the driver.

The rear seats of the Fiesta fold forward in a 60/40 split to expand cargo space. When folded forward, the rear seat’s cushions are not flush to create a flat load floor; there is a 3” difference in height, and the seat backs are not flat. Unlike the competing Honda Fit, the Fiesta doesn’t have tricky flip up/fold down rear seats.

While I really liked the Fiesta, no car is flawless. When I opened the Fiesta’s doors on a rainy afternoon, rain dripped from the roof onto the upholstery in both the front and rear seats, and the upright side glass allowed rain to fall onto the power window switches on the front doors. Too, driving in the rain got the door sills dirty, which will lead to dirty pant legs when getting in and out of the Fiesta. I also found that the dash had a dim reflection on in windshield both daytime and night time.

With 120 HP, the 1.6 liter four-cylinder is more than adequate for getting the Fiesta wherever you want to go. As you might expect with a small-displacement motor, it needs to be revved if you need to go quickly. Although the Fiesta is comfortable at high speeds on the freeway, you have to row the gears to get there. Happily, the little four sounds happier the faster it is spinning. When on the freeway and moving over a lane to pass, shifting to third gear is required to land in the engine’s sweet spot. The car’s light weight and low power had me coming into corners and onramps traveling faster than I might in a heaver and more powerful car – because the tires and suspension can handle it, because it keeps up speed for merging, and because it was actually a lot of fun.

The 5-speed manual transmission is an effective tool in getting the Fiesta where it needs to go, but it doesn’t offer much in the way of feedback.  My logbook notes show I used the term “ultra-vague” to describe the shift feel. Nearly every time I shifted into reverse, I wondered whether I was actually in gear. Most of the time I was, a couple of times I wasn’t, and grinding emanated from the gearbox when I began to engage the clutch. Feel wasn’t significantly better in the forward gears either, and although I never missed a shift, no credit should be given to the Fiesta’s long-throw, feeling-free shift mechanism.

On my first day in the Fiesta, after slowing in traffic on the highway and needing to regain speed, I downshifted to fourth gear around 35 MPH and found myself totally outside of the Fiesta’s power band. I downshifted to third gear and tried again, with similar results. Then I downshifted to second and was back in the game, picking up speed. Fortunately, the Fiesta’s engine loves to rev, and the car is enjoyable to run to full throttle regaining speed or getting onto the freeway. The ratios of the five-speed manual transmission are such that you’ll be in third gear by the time you reach 60 MPH, as opposed to reaching that speed in second gear in many manual-transmission cars. The Fiesta’s front disc and rear drum brakes stop the car without drama when it’s time to slow down.

Ford’s suspension engineers seem to have struck a great balance for everyday use in the Fiesta’s chassis tuning- the car is composed at even high speeds on the freeway (with only a tendency to follow freeway ruts), yet there is enough suspension travel to put up with rough country roads (and even poorly maintained gravel lanes). The Fiesta is equipped with Ford’s “Advance Trac with ESC” electronic stability control. The system tends to err on the side of caution; it cut in very early when driving on gravel, and I was unable to find any control for disabling the system.

The Fiesta is happy to run errands all afternoon in the suburbs, cruise down the highway at 75 MPH, or explore rural roads between pristine beaches and organic farmland. Whether the road is paved with asphalt, tar-and-gravel, or only gravel, the Fiesta was sure-footed and quieter than expected given its size. Sound isolation is provided by a SoundScreen laminated windshield, as well as by the use of sound deadening methods such as foam in the front fenders and fiber rear wheelarch liners.

I managed to cover just over 300 miles in my week with the Fiesta; after that time the trip computer indicated 100 miles remained until the tank was empty. The car reported an average of 35.9 MPG, at an average speed of 35 MPH. Realistically, I covered about 180 miles on the freeway with speeds between 60 and 80 MPH, and the rest was on rural roads with plenty of stops, and speeds between 25 and 55 MPH. The EPA rates the five-speed Fiesta 28/37 City/Hwy MPG, 32 combined, so I managed to beat that by about 4 MPG. That compares favorably to most other small cars we have tested including the: Volkswagen GTI (29.9 MPG), Scion xD (31.8 MPG), Nissan Sentra 2.0 (26.0 MPG), Ford Focus (28.4 MPG). Only the Volkswagen Golf TDI (37.5 MPG) beat the Fiesta, but at $25,514 it is almost $7000 more expensive. The 2010 Toyota Prius we tested returned an average consumption of 46 MPG, but the Prius starts at $22,800 (over $4000 more expensive than the well-equipped Fiesta), and it lacks some of the Fiesta’s features and is also far less fun to drive.

The Fiesta is leading the OneFord initiative, and is one of the first well-equipped small cars to reach our shores for sale. Although the least expensive Fiesta sedan starts at $13,320 and the Fiesta hatch starts at $15,120, my Fiesta SES has a base MSRP of $17,120 and includes things like air conditioning, power locks/windows, power adjustable/heated exterior mirrors, ABS, stability control, and plenty of airbags. My car was equipped with “Rapid Spec 301A” package for $795, which includes heated front seats, chrome exterior beltline molding, keyless entry and start, decklid molding, and perimeter anti-theft alarm. Adding those figures and the $695 destination fee, the Mexican-built Fiesta I tested has a sticker price of $18,590, which is a bargain given the levels of equipment on the car. Major options available (but not on my car) include leather upholstery for $715, and a moonroof for $695.

My epic week with the Fiesta let me experience the car in a wide variety of uses: single driver in traffic, a full load of wet passengers after a rainy afternoon at the beach; full of duffel bags for a short drive from the ferry. Whether cruising on a rural interstate at 90 MPH on a 90° F day, driving at 30 MPH on a gravel road in a torrential downpour, or running errands around the suburbs, our Lime Squeeze Metallic green Fiesta handled it all with ease. The Fiesta’s relatively light weight, willing engine, and properly tuned suspension make the car chuckable when you want to have fun, and easy to use when you just need to get from place to place. The fact that it is well-equipped, inexpensive to buy and returns good fuel economy make it a smart choice in the subcompact class.

Author: Kevin Miller

As Autosavant’s resident Swedophile, Kevin has an acute affinity for Saabs, with a mild case of Volvo-itis as well. Aside from covering most Saab-related news for Autosavant, Kevin also reviews cars and covers industry news. His “Great Drive” series, with maps and directions included, is a reader favorite.

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6 Comments

  1. Very good review. It seems like most of your quibbles are relatively minor and could easily be remedied by Ford in the next model year (adding small rain gutters to the door frames, adding a low-sheen coating to the dash) or a couple years later. I’m really surprised an arm rest is not available between the front seats; that seems like a gross oversight on Ford’s part. Overall though, the Fiesta really seems to have met all the targets laid out for it. Well done, Ford.

  2. Very nice review.

    Is there any way to change the red display color? Red displays have always been a deal-killer for me. One of the reasons I would never buy a Mazda6.

  3. The more Ford markets its Kinetic (European -derived) Design cars like the new Fiesta in the U.S. the fewer reasons I will have to drive in Europe.

    For the first time since the Ford Probe, Ford’s packaging may have it’s Mazda sibling (Mazda 2) beat.

  4. We bought a fiesta SES around 3 weeks ago and love it! we took a 1500 mile round trip 4 days after we bought it. It was very comfortable and quiet. We got 44 MPG from one tank, and averaged 40. The sync is wonderful, it will even find restaurants and hotels for you. Oh, the problem you had with the driver door only unlocking one door, it is a setting that can be changed to unlock all 4. Nice review.

  5. I love this car! Will definitely be looking at the Econetic which is sold in Europe.

  6. I’ve admired the Fiesta for its style and, after reading your review, am very glad to know that Ford built a winning small vehicle! I currently drive a Honda Fit and enjoy its small size so much, but maybe I will make the Fiesta my next ride? Buy American, y’know. :)

    The Fit also has no center armrest and I had difficulty adjusting to car life without that (seemingly standard) feature.

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