CAR REVIEW: 2014 Ford Fiesta: Short memories and shorter cars

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The Ford Fiesta wasn’t a name that had good feelings associated with it. I had a philosophy professor in college that drove a red one, almost unbelievably, because he was as big as the car itself. Although he was one of my favorite professors, his hygiene could best be summed up as “sporadic.” I’m guessing his 20-year old Fiesta got a bath more often than he did. I’d take the teacher back in a heartbeat, his car, not so much.

Which is why the current 2014 Ford Fiesta, now in the third model year in the states, is such a curious case. From the era that made Billy Ray Cyrus, we didn’t get Miley this time around. We landed a true gem that keeps its tongue — and other body parts — firmly planted where they belong.

Give credit to Ford Europe on this one. Long after we gave up on the small econobox and moved to lifted pickups, Europe and the UK held tight to the game of small cars built well. It’s a long-term plan, that game. Margins on small cars are even smaller, and while the Big Three were gorging at the table of luxury SUVs, European manufacturers were plugging away with — some good, but some bad — small cars constantly. The Ford Fiesta there was a derivative of the Focus, the best-selling car on the planet today, and couldn’t be ignored here in the colonies post-recession. Global platforms like the one the Fiesta is built on allow manufacturers to widen some of those slimmer profit margins on small cars, and open possibilities in developing countries. The short of the long: Ford Europe knew the Fiesta was good, but were waiting for us to catch up.

But you know that already. The Fiesta isn’t sneaking up on anyone at the moment. This year, to October, Ford has sold more than 60,000 Fiestas in the states, an increase of more than 30 percent over 2012. And while adoption of the Fiesta hasn’t been as widespread as Ford might have liked, there’s room to grow in the B-segment and it’s likely to only get bigger in the next five years.

Perhaps that’s why Ford is pegging more hopes on two imports from Europe again as a way to bump Fiesta up to the top of the (small) mountain.

The first example is the Fiesta ST, a blisteringly fast brute that’s still smaller than the aforementioned professor. Unveiled last year, the ST is an import that Europe has had for a while; hot hatches are hot property there. Instead of the Fiesta’s base 1.6-liter four, the ST gets “EcoBoost” treatment, or rather, turbochargers. The base 120 horsepower is throttled to 197 horsepower, which in a car that weighs less than 2,800 lbs., is the difference between a space heater and the space shuttle. Why does this thing have rearview mirrors?

The second example is the Fiesta SFE, an ultra-small engine in a fuel economy model. Whereas smaller displacement engines are relatively common in Europe — more than a handful of cars on the road there have less than 1-liter engines — Ford in the U.S. is banking on the idea that their city-car version of the Fiesta, equipped with a 1.0-liter turbo three, will have appeal. Think a 1-liter three will have less appeal here than socialism? Or the metric system? (*Is there a difference?) Consider that the small motor makes more horsepower (123) than the base 1.6-liter four.

But for our purposes, we were offered a base, 5-door hatchback with manual transmission to ponder the Fiesta’s future stateside.

The only difference for 2014 is a chrome grille, and the aforementioned smaller engine (TBA on dealer arrival date) and that’s about it. The Fiesta’s same characteristics shine through like they did last year. We found the chassis to be infinitely fun and tossable, if not a little too tight. We can’t fault that, there’s only so much you can do with a car that starts under $15,000.

More engine nerdiness: I don’t mind small engines. While the growl rumbling from a 6.0-liter V12 gets your heart racing at startup, the idea of mashing the throttle everywhere you go does too. It’s true: driving a slow car fast is infinitely more fun than driving a fast car slow. From parking lot to interstate, the Fiesta feels lively and willing to spool up and unwind — even if the speedometer reads 55 mph.

Our weeklong tester, a middle-of-the-road model that clocked in at only $17,135, reaffirmed our belief that there are very few cars in the small segment that would be bad picks. Based on your need: style, resale, perceived durability, or engine, there’s a good choice everywhere. The Fiesta’s shape and style inside may not appeal to older buyers, but it’s not supposed to. Ford’s marketing and messaging is aimed squarely at the 20-something set.

Or, you know. The people who wouldn’t remember what an old Fiesta looks like anyway.

Aaron Cole is managing editor of the Aurora Sentinel. Reach him at [email protected]