My first peek at this pioneering car came back in June when Ford brought a pack of them, four-doors and hatchbacks, to our garage for a preview. Judging by the turnout, you’d have thought it was an array of Shelby Mustangs, not economy Fiestas. Now I’ve been able to live with one of them for a week. It is the most noteworthy new Ford in a long time.
The Fiesta SFE — SE trim + FE for fuel economy — was designed for energy efficiency first (tougher fuel-economy standards take effect in 2016) and value second, with a dollop of fun-to-drive on top. It requires the buyer to commit to something very nearly radical here in the land of the V-8: a three-cylinder engine of just one liter displacement. In American, that’s 60 cubic inches — smaller than a lot of motorcycle engines. Variable valve timing, direct fuel injection and turbocharging help compensate for lack of size.
Overseas, where it’s been available for some time, Ford’s Brazilian-built “baby EcoBoost” has been named an International Engine of the Year for three years in a row. The jury of motojournalists from 35 countries was impressed by its output — 123 horsepower, 148 lb-ft of torque — and the fact that its block is small enough to cram into the overhead bin of an airliner.
In another revolutionary move, at least for our market, the SFE is available only with a clutch pedal and a five-speed gearbox — there’s no automatic transmission option. Ford says about 25 percent of Fiesta buyers go for the manual anyway, and an automatic would push the price across some line that the bean-counters drew in the sand. The SFE starts at about $17,000, of which $995 is a premium (!) for the EcoBoost Three. The mid-level SE trim includes Sync Bluetooth-USB-voice recognition, so the SFE is not a bare-bones bottom-feeder. Our test car also had a Comfort Package, with automatic climate control and heaters for the driver’s seat cushion and the wing mirrors, that pushed the sticker to $18,190.
Here’s the payoff: The SFE delivers 32 mpg in city driving — even though you never get beyond third gear — and mid-40s on the highway. This approaches hybrid efficiency, but for thousands less and without the weight and complication of the extra electric motors, batteries and computers. At idle, the little engine shakes a bit, but it settles down under throttle. Instead of adding an internal balance shaft, the engineers counterweighted the flywheel to smooth out the three-cylinder’s inherent lumpiness.
Ford people say things like “The EcoBoost Three is down on size but not on performance” and “It has great drivability — most people couldn’t tell the difference from a four-cylinder.” It’s hard to disagree, so long as you keep the engine on the boil, work the gearbox smartly and don’t get cocky at stoplights. The shifter is a bit rubbery and reverse can be hard to find, but in town and on secondary roads the 1.0-liter Fiesta rides firmly and steers and brakes confidently. The bigger surprise is on the highway, where the car is quieter and smoother than expected. You’d easily survive driving it coast-to-coast (which would take less than $300 worth of low-test gas).
If America accepts the mini-motor, future Fiesta Threes could have features such as stop-start and more sophisticated transmissions, which would cost a few extra shekels but might squeeze out even more mpg. Next year, the 1.0-liter motor will be available in the Focus, too.
Frugality aside, what’s most appealing about the SFE is that it has to be driven, actively and with forethought, not just aimed mindlessly down the road while sensors, microprocessors and servomotors do the work. Winding roads, hills and passing become challenges — not because of a lack of power, but because the operator has to consider timing and gear selection and use two hands and both feet.
When your offspring comes to you and says, “Hey, I found this used 3-Series that would be a great car for me at school!”, hand over the key to one of these SFE Fiestas instead. You’ll save a fortune on gas, insurance, maintenance and speeding tickets, and he or she will learn to drive.
Silvio Calabi reviews the latest from Detroit, Munich, Yokohama, Gothenburg, Crewe, Seoul and wherever else interesting cars are born. Silvio is a member of the International Motor Press Association whose automotive reviews date back to the Reagan administration. He is the former publisher of Speedway Illustrated magazine and an author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.