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2011 Ford Fiesta

I took the family on a European-style beach vacation this summer…to the Jersey shore.

No, this isn’t one of those tourist bureau magazine pieces where I try to convince you that the Costa Snooki is the next San Tropez. Rather, it’s about the vehicle that my wife, our two preschoolers and I used to get there. The 2011 Ford Fiesta.

The Fiesta is currently the best-selling car in the old country, taking on all comers with a lively mix of style, fuel efficiency and a premium feel that’s priced to sell. But while it is a big hit, it’s not exactly what the American nuclear family would call big.

In fact, the Fiesta is the first subcompact Ford has tried to sell to us well-fed folk in more than a decade. Available as either a sedan or hatchback, prices start at $13,995 for the four-door and $15,795 for the five-door, pitting it against a diverse group of small vehicles that ranges from the popular Honda Fit to the oddball Nissan Cube.

Flashy looks are not in short supply among this bunch, and the Fiesta has them in droves. The little jellybean is adorable, with deep dimples, flared wheel arches and huge headlights that are all the better to see you with. It doesn’t hurt that Ford offers an extended color palette that includes the nail polish-esque Bright Magenta I spent a week trying to pretend I didn’t look ridiculous driving around in, along with Yellow Blaze and Lime Squeeze -- the most popular choice so far.

Even Ford is a little surprised.

The interior avoids any family resemblance, with an angular, silver instrument cluster and center stack combo that doesn’t just come across as foreign, but interstellar. On top of it is a small screen for the stereo system and computer, which lets you customize things like how many times you want the turn signal to blink when you give it a light tap: once or thrice.

Through various option packages, an upgraded audio system, Sirius satellite radio and Ford’s voice-activated Sync system are all available. In-dash navigation is not. Instead, by using your cell phone for connectivity to “the cloud,” Sync now offers turn-by-turn directions, along with stock quotes, weather and horoscopes -- the latter in case you don’t trust the accuracy of the other information.

What I like most about all of it is that, unlike GM’s similar OnStar system, it’s automated, so you never need to speak to a real person and can continue your hermetic ways. This is a bit odd, though, as Ford has relied heavily on social networking to promote the Fiesta, and later this year will be adding a new function to Sync that reads tweets to you -- as if Twitter is still going to be cool by the time you read this.

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The cabin itself is narrow enough that Ford didn’t deem it worthy of center armrests, but has lots of headroom, and the front seats slide way back if you’re riding solo, or with just a shotgun. Any more people onboard and you’ll need to share, since legroom is a zero sum game and there’s only so much to go around. Driving that point home is the absence of a magazine pouch behind the driver’s seat, surely because it’s the least likely place that you’ll find someone sitting. In theory this is a five-passenger car, but that’s true only if one of them is named Bethenny and has her own reality show.

Still, with a little scrunching, our three-hour tour to the beach was manageable. The cargo area accepted a full-size suitcase, carry-on bag, three backpacks and some random beach toys, all without encroaching upon my view out of the rear window. Forget the strollers.

Material quality is primo throughout, and the doors and hatch shut with an authority that would make a Crown Victoria either jealous, or proud of its petite progeny. The Fiesta is no tin can and nothing else in the price class comes close to its refinement. Crash test ratings are pending, but it comes standard with seven airbags, including side curtains and one for the driver’s knees, which I’m sure has absolutely nothing to do with all of that scrunching.

To help you avoid the need to deploy them, the Fiesta comes with Ford’s new ‘duh why didn’t I think of that’ blind spot-eliminating side view mirrors, which have the upper outside corners canted outward to give you a wider view. They take some getting used to, but are helpful once you do. You can also have them heated, along with the front seats for just $195.

Somewhat lost in all of this is the fact that, at its core, the Fiesta is an economy car, and a very fuel-efficient one at that. The engine is a 120 hp four-cylinder that can be had with a 5-speed manual or Ford’s first twin-clutch 6-speed automatic transmission. EPA figures are 28 mpg city and 37 mpg highway for the manny and 29/38 for the auto.

But, wait, the advertisements say 40 mpg highway. Call the FTC!

You obviously missed the asterisk. It indicates that to go that far on a gallon you need to purchase a $395 Super Fuel Efficiency package, which amounts to a more aerodynamic body kit that can be had only with the automatic. According to the EPA, it will save the average driver $0 a year on fuel, so unless you are an outlier that has a two-hour highway commute each way you might as well pocket the cash up front. It does look cool, though, and since mods are all about image this one is at least more socially relevant than a set of spinners.

You will want to spend the extra $1,070 it takes to get the automatic, if you can. While a stick shift seems a more natural fit for a spunky subcompact, the Fiesta’s 5-speed could use one more. Even slight hills on the highway often require downshifting into 4th gear just to maintain the speed limit, and it’s not exactly a rocket getting there in the first place. Clearly the fuel economy test was the highest priority when they chose those five gear ratios.

The automatic has a much better collection of cogs, and was a more welcome companion on our trip, but since it doesn’t offer any manual controls like every other twin-clutch automatic does, you can forget about any shift-it-yourself fun. This is a minor quibble, though, since you’d probably just waste a lot of gas trying to outsmart the gearbox. Instead, let it handle the propulsion while you revel in the Fiesta’s astonishingly good driving dynamics.

A very European combination of soft springs and stiff dampers makes it a winner on all surfaces. In the city, the little guy eats up potholes better than some…heck, many of the crossovers and SUVs I’ve driven lately. You see the hole, you think about how small the car is, you cringe and you never feel a thing. It just soaks it up while the shocks keep it from doing a follow-the-bouncing-ball impersonation as you go looking for the next one.

On fast, winding roads the body of the Fiesta rolls over a bit, but then it just sticks there until you straighten out, or turn the other way, the electric power-assisted steering providing a level feedback normally reserved for cars named after animals. It’s hardly a stretch that DC Shoes impresario Ken Block drives a racing version of one of these in the Rally America series. At speeds that 99 percent of Fiestas will ever be driven the Fiesta is unflappable.

It stops well, too. The brake pedal is as progressive and responsive as the levers on a bicycle, and that's with rear drum brakes. How quaint.

Still, when my wife asked my 3-year-old son what he thought of the sporty little car we were driving around in, he responded that “it’s not a sports car, it’s a Jesse car.” For those of you without young children, he was referring to Jesse, the Yodeling Cowgirl from the “Toy Story” movies. In other words, he called the Fiesta a chick car.

At least that’s one sassy chick.

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2011 Ford Fiesta 5-Door SES

Base Price: $17,795

As Tested: $19,660

Type: 5-passenger, front-wheel-drive, 5-door hatchback

Engine: 1.6-liter inline 4-cylinder

Power: 120 hp, 112 lb-ft torque

Transmission: 6-speed dual-clutch automatic

MPG: 29 city/38 hwy