By the time you read this the Ford Fiesta will still not be on sale in the United States, but 100 of them will be doing whatever it is they do on American roads as part of a promotion called the Fiesta Movement.
To juice up some enthusiasm for its latest shot at selling a subcompact car to the truck-loving, double cheeseburger-eating folk in these parts, Ford has doled out a fleet of European versions of the little 5-door to a select group of Facebook and YouTube savvy hipsters who each get to take one home for six months and share their feelings about it on the internet with anyone who's interested. Since it will be a while before we get our hands on a U.S.-spec model for a full review, we took one of the Movement cars out for a couple of hours in New York City to see what all of the manufactured buzz will soon be about.
While the island of Manhattan isn't exactly a driver's dream like the no-speed-limits Isle of Man in the UK, it is a nearly perfect venue for a quick test drive, offering every type of road surface and driving condition imaginable, from stop and go cobblestone streets downtown, to high-speed freeways that border the east and west coasts. There's even a twisty mountain road at the far north end. Well, it's just the entrance to a park, but there are two 90-degree turns, and they do go uphill, so we make do.
The impressions of the Fiesta start before you even get behind the wheel, and they are good, as long as you like neon. It is a sharp-dressed little guy, with an edgy design language that Ford calls 'Kinetic.' The headlights are drawn back tightly, the front fenders bulge, the wheel arches are exaggerated, and instead of the Gillette razor grille found on most Fords, it gets one of those big-mouth lower air intakes that are so fashionable these days.
Click here for PHOTOS of the Fiesta
Mine was draped in a shocking bright green paint called 'Squeeze,' while other colors include such classics as 'Hot Magenta' and 'Tango,' a haute couture version of 'Safety Orange.' They may be a bit much for some people, but the car wears them well and certainly gets ogled as a result. Clearly Ford hopes that will translate into it being Googled as well. It’s hard to say if the Fiesta will look quite as rich, or simply cheap in the silvers and whites that are more common color choices on this side of the pond.
Inside the drama continues with a look taken straight out of a toy store version of a Romulan Bird-of-Prey from “Star Trek.” Design aside, the materials are excellent, particularly the soft-touch plastic on top of the dashboard. You could sleep on the stuff and not completely hate yourself in the morning. The same could be said for the substantial front seats with legroom fitting of a car that is currently built and sold in Germany.
Our Fiestas will come from Mexico. Olé.
It's a nice place to operate from, and has all kinds of premium goodies that you wouldn't expect to find on the discount rack, including a keyless pushbutton start. We'll see if that option makes it here, but Ford's voice-activated Sync multimedia system will. The only place that it is truly lacking is on the beverage front, where three, sad, shallow cupholders that hardly live up to the name reside in the center console, tasked with providing refreshment for potentially five passengers.
Note to Ford: The Honda Fit has 10. I still don’t know why, but it does.
Not that you're likely to load up a subcompact with more than two people too often, but rear seat room is more than decent enough if you’d like to give it a shot. Cargo space can't match what you get in the Fit - which offers so much capacity with the seats folded down that Honda is clearly employing some practitioners of black magic on its design team - but it isn't less than you'd expect either. A four door sedan will also be available.
By any measure, you can't consider the Fiesta without sizing it up against the Fit, which is the reigning king of affordable subcompacts as far as car enthusiasts are concerned - notwithstanding the much more expensive and much smaller MINI Cooper. On the inside the Ford comes across as superior, with a premium look and feel that outclasses many larger cars, let alone the competition in the sub-$14,000 range this one will likely play in when it goes on sale next year.
Ford swears that unlike many of the vehicles they have brought from overseas in the past, the Fiesta will make the trip largely unabridged. Same suspension feel and same engine, with just a few tweaks to meet U.S. emissions and safety requirements. This is good. Except perhaps that suspension thing.
Just two blocks from where I picked up the car, I unintentionally drove it through a good old fashioned Big Apple-certified pothole that devoured the right front tire. I'll chalk it up as an anomaly for now, and it was probably the thin 40-series tires on 17-inch wheels that were mostly responsible for the flat, but this is exactly the sort of event that cars coming from Europe and its picture perfect, 70 percent gas-tax funded road system often have to be modified to handle before they are ready for their Broadway debut.
Fortunately, a replacement tire (it’s 'tyre' in England where the Fiesta is presently the #1 selling car) was nearby and I was able to continue my trip around town without further ado. I'm glad that I did.
Gaping maws of tarmac aside, the Fiesta has a superb ride, with enough give and take between comfort and handling to make it just right for vehicular endeavors ranging from the urban grind to alpine roads (I went in and out of that park a few times to make sure.) The electric power assisted steering with variable assist is as good as these systems get, moving seamlessly from feather light to full feedback, with the quick responses of a well-trained housefly.
More than anything else, the Fiesta is so refined overall that it makes the otherwise excellent Fit feel like a well-made steel drum in comparison, and the Toyota Yaris, Chevy Aveo and others like rusty ones. Granted, the one I drove was top of the line, but the best of the worst is still junk. The Fiesta is not junk.
Then, of course, there is the engine. Given the confines of my drive, I didn't get to ring it out much beyond the parameters of sensible driving, but I look forward to that opportunity when it arises. Despite its measly 1.6-liter displacement, the 4-cylinder engine is a torquey little treat with the deep thrum of a mill twice that size. From the driver's seat, this is the best-sounding small four cylinder engine I've heard in a long time, enhanced by a cabin that filters out road and wind noise like there's a professional audio technician on board. Unless you have a taste for buzz boxes, one rev and you'll be hooked, too.
The 120 horsepower it provides is plenty adequate, and even with just five gears in the manual transmission it goes from chasing holes in traffic to easy highway cruising without missing a beat. The word 'tractable' may have invented to describe this powertrain. Better still, it gets about 40 mpg on European fuel economy tests, which should translate to mid-30's on the EPA cycle. Anything less and Ford will have totally missed the point of selling this car here.
As we've seen over the past year or so, carmakers do not possess crystal balls that give them the ability to see the 3-5 years into the future that it takes to bring a vehicle to market. Just as we were given some of the most powerful cars and trucks ever made last year, gasoline hit $4 a gallon and they became instantly irrelevant to a large swath of the buying public. This is part of the reason Ford decided they could do with something sensible like the Fiesta in its showrooms. The difference is that even though gas is hovering at around $2 a gallon now and big is starting to look good again, tougher fuel economy and emissions standards on the way mean that small, efficient cars will be force-fed to us whether we like them or not.
We'll like this one.
What do you think of the Fiesta?
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Gary Gastelu is FoxNews.com's Automotive Editor.