The 2011 Ford Fiesta is a small car with big-car features and technology and a top mileage rating of 40 miles per gallon on the highway.
Best of all, the Fiesta gets the most out of every sip of gasoline without forcing buyers to pay a premium price for a hybrid powerplant or fuss with the inconvenience of finding diesel fuel in town.
Instead, the Fiesta uses an efficient four-cylinder gasoline engine, dual-clutch automatic transmission, careful weight control and selective features to claim the top highway mileage rating of all gasoline-powered, non-hybrid cars in the country.
Combined with a city rating of 29 mpg, the Fiesta's overall mileage rating of 33 mpg tops the previous best gasoline-powered, non-hybrid cars -- the 2010 Mini Cooper and the Toyota Yaris that have a 32-mpg combined city/highway rating.
But the Fiesta isn't a bare-bones little car. It's longer, wider and heavier than the Mini Cooper and Yaris.
Even base Fiestas come with electronic stability control, curtain air bags, air conditioning and AM/FM stereo with auxiliary audio jack. A knee air bag that helps keep a driver properly positioned behind the steering wheel during a crash also is standard.
And the front-wheel drive Fiesta sedans and five-door hatchbacks -- all with seats for five -- can be had with some items that are unusual in the small-car segment. Examples: Heated front seats, soft-touch dashboard areas and tri-coat exterior paint that has a luster like that found on pricier vehicles.
2011 Ford Fiesta Hatchback SES
- BASE PRICE: $15,120 for hatchback SE; $17,120 for hatchback SES.
- AS TESTED: $19,660.
- TYPE: Front-engine, front-wheel drive, five-passenger, subcompact hatchback.
- ENGINE: 1.6-liter, double overhead cam, four-cylinder engine with Tri-VCT.
- MILEAGE: 29 mpg (city), 40 mpg (highway).
- TOP SPEED: NA.
- LENGTH: 160.1 inches.
- WHEELBASE: 98 inches.
- CURB WEIGHT: 2,575 pounds.
- BUILT AT: Mexico.
- OPTIONS: Automatic transmission $1,070; rapid spec package 301A (includes heated front seats, keyless entry and start, alarm and exterior chrome molding) $795.
- DESTINATION CHARGE: $675.
Starting manufacturer's suggested retail price, including destination charge, is $13,995 for a base, 2011 Fiesta sedan with manual transmission and 120-horsepower, four-cylinder engine.
The starting retail price for a Fiesta sedan with automatic transmission is $15,065.
But the Fiesta with the most attractive styling -- a European look -- is the hatchback, which starts at $15,795 with manual transmission and $16,865 with automatic.
Note that Fiestas with six-speed automatic get the top fuel mileage rating of 40 mpg on the highway. Fiestas with the five-speed manual transmission earned lower ratings.
The pricing puts the Fiesta in the middle of the pack for small cars.
The 2010 Honda Fit, which is sold only as a five-door hatchback, has a slightly lower starting MSRP, including destination charge, of $15,610 with manual transmission and 117-horsepower, four-cylinder engine. The 2010 Nissan Versa sedan with manual transmission has a posted starting retail price of just under $11,000.
Buyers who want to load up their fuel-efficient small car with amenities will find plenty to choose from with the Fiesta. There are car "tattoos," otherwise known as graphics, that dealers will install for $375. Interior lighting can change with the mood of the driver, at the push of a button. Leather seats are an option on higher trim Fiestas.
Ford was the first automaker to install Microsoft's Sync in-car connectivity system in its vehicles a few years back, and it's available in the Fiesta with more features, including linking a Blackberry for listening to music via Internet site Pandora. But some Sync features have to wait. The system isn't compatible with Apple's popular iPhone yet and the navigation uses turn-by-turn directions.
The test Fiesta SES hatchback, built at a Ford factory in Mexico but based on the strong-selling Fiesta introduced last fall in Europe, impressed with its handling on twisty mountain roads.
The car's 16-inch Korean Hankook tires gripped the pavement nicely, and the electric power-assisted steering -- one of the things that minimizes gasoline use -- had a light feel but was precise and quick to respond.
Brakes, however, got hot and were smoking after 35 miles of driving mountain switchbacks.
The ride was a bit harsh, too, with lots of vibrations coming through to passengers on uneven pavement. The vibrating and the sporty back-and-forth motions on the road curves even brought on a bout of motion sickness.
The interior was quieter than I expected, with little noticeable wind noise. I heard the engine mostly during acceleration, but it wasn't raucous or boomy.
The 1.6-liter four cylinder is obviously tuned for fuel economy; get up and go wasn't thrilling. Torque peaks at 112 foot-pounds at a high 5,000 rpm.
The tester had the PowerShift automatic that's Ford's first dual-clutch, automated manual, and its operation felt like a regular automatic with torque converter. There's no option of manually shifting through the forward gears, however.
Power came on smoothly. In hard driving in the city, highway and country roads, the car got just over 31 mpg.
But three adults would scarcely fit in the back seat, and there's no cover over the center console area in the front seat where passengers are apt to put things. Seats, though, were firm and nicely supportive.
Also, while rear seatbacks fold down in both sedan and hatchback, they don't rest flat.
The Fiesta isn't as roomy as some competitors. For example, though the Fiesta hatchback is about as long from bumper to bumper as the Honda Fit, the Fit has 3.3 more inches of rear-seat legroom.
The Fiesta also has less headroom than the Nissan Versa. And cargo capacity of 26 cubic feet in the Fiesta hatchback, with rear seatbacks folded, is quite a bit shy of the Fit's maximum 57.3 cubic feet of cargo room.
I liked the wide range of exterior paint colors, like Red Candy and Yellow Blaze Metallic, that Ford offers. The extra mirror for blind spot detection that was integrated into the regular outside mirrors took some getting used to but soon became a valued safety item.