Five-year-old Ford Fiesta gets its first major facelift, but can it keep up with the fast-moving light car crop?
The facelifted 2013 Ford Fiesta range lowers consumption, increases equipment and introduces a new nose compared with the outgoing five-year-old model.
What absolutely doesn’t change, however, is the Fiesta’s status as the best handling car in the light hatchback class. More than that, subtly reworked suspension aimed at improving ride quality, teamed with a thicker anti-roll bar claimed to be 15 per cent stiffer, delivers a baby Ford that is even more comfortable and incisive than before.
A smaller fuel bill comes with the caveat of slightly less performance, with the existing 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine downsized to 1.5 litres for this facelift, and losing power (now 82kW, down 7kW) and torque (now 140Nm, falling 11Nm) in the process.
That snapshot of changes to the current generation, five-door-only Ford Fiesta is rounded up by a model naming strategy that falls into line with its bigger brother, the Focus.
Fiesta Ambiente is, therefore, the new base model, replacing the existing CL. At $15,825 for the five-speed manual (or plus-$2000 for the six-speed dual-clutch automatic) it is priced $335 higher than before, though it does add a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Ford’s Sync Bluetooth and voice control system, cruise control and power rear windows.
Likewise the Fiesta Trend becomes the mid-range model, and at $17,825 (again, the auto adds $2K) it is only a consolation prize’s worth ($35) dearer than the Fiesta LX it replaces. It also adds Sync over the LX, in addition to alloy wheels and foglights over the Ambiente.
Production delays mean waiting until December for the 1.0-litre turbocharged three-cylinder engine that will sit atop the regular Fiesta range at $20,825.
Apparently the Thailand factory is still tooling-up for the Ecoboost-engined Sport, which gets 16-inch alloys, front and rear spoilers, eight speaker Sony audio with colour central screen and part-leather sports seats.
All Fiestas come with seven airbags, including a rare-for-the-class driver’s airbag, and capped price servicing – for the first 15,000km or 12 months it costs $275, followed in duplicate time and distance increment by $245, $375, $245, $275 and, finally, to 105,000km or 86 months, $245 when the program ends.
The only metal part of the exterior to change on the Ford Fiesta is the bonnet, which gets more aggressive contours.
The headlights fit into the existing front-guard mouldings but their shape is tweaked to flank the trapezoidal grille, which is now enlarged and moved higher in line with the company’s new corporate face. A rear chrome strip and redesigned inner tail-lights completes the rear end restyle.
Ford claims the cabin introduces new soft-touch plastics, yet the reality is otherwise. The dash top plastics remain of the hard, textured variety that signposted the switch from German to Thailand production of local-bound Fiestas in 2011. Previously the dash featured soft touch plastics.
That switch also meant losing reach adjustment for the steering wheel, which is something that hasn’t returned. Ford promises the Fiesta will follow the also-Thai-made Focus and migrate the left-side indicator stalks to the right (and ‘right’) side at some point in the future.
Rear legroom is average for the class, but although the Fiesta lacks roof grab handles, Ford has added rear map lights as standard. The upside is a deep and accommodating boot.
Up front, there’s a handy, netted sunglass-holder and although Nokia-keypad switchgear may be about as cool and tactile as a 5110 mobile from the 1990s, the ergonomics are fine.
Thankfully, the Ford Fiesta still gets the basics right. Its cabin quality may not rival the Volkswagen Polo, or even the forthcoming Renault Clio due to launch locally next week, but it offers among the best seat comfort in the class. The front seats are softly cushioned, which makes it comfortable during commuting, yet there’s generous and firmly padded side supports, which can be appreciated during hard driving.
It’s that brilliant interplay – between accommodating both mundane city driving and spirited country road exploits – that continues to mark the Ford Fiesta down as a truly special light hatchback on the road.
The steering, as another example, is very light to make parking and dealing with quick back street manoeuvring a cinch, yet the directness and slickness of the electro-mechanical set-up also delivers real connection when punting in the bends.
The tyres are of a sensibly average 185mm-wide, 55-aspect 15-inch size to help deliver excellent ride quality, yet the Continental ContiPremiumContact2 rubber used also affords high grip levels for spirited driving.
In addition to the thicker anti-roll bar, Ford claims the dampers have been reworked and the front bushes replaced to deliver better ride comfort. Quite simply, the Fiesta offers lush ride quality around town.
In the bends, the Fiesta doesn’t feel overly firm. It bounces from left to right during quick changes of direction, yet the grippy tyres and great steering team with suspension that is also finely controlled over big dips in the road. It’s possible to barrel into corners at a decent pace in this Ford, then back off the throttle, and feel the car subtly shift its weight and help the nose point.
The Fiesta may remain the benchmark for steering, ride and handling, but its 1.5-litre four cylinder engine can’t keep pace (in both a performance and technical sense) with the small turbocharged engines offered in the Polo and Clio, which are available only in admittedly more expensive models.
It comes as a surprise, though, that the 1.5-litre feels no slower than the outgoing 1.6-litre engine, at least in a straight line, while claimed combined consumption drops 0.3L/100km to 5.8L/100km.
It isn’t loud when revved, although the engine falls short of sounding as sweet or revving as freely as a Honda Jazz 1.5-litre. It is also very tractable, pulling with some decency below 1500rpm in the taller gears of the five-speed manual transmission. Only on steeper hills is the lack of mid-range torque exposed and the 1.5 feels weaker than the outgoing 1.6, demanding a downchange or two to keep revs high.
It is unfortunate, however, that the engines that most require a six-speed manual are those in light hatchbacks such as the Fiesta, which manufacturers in turn deem too expensive to install. The gap between second and third gear in the Fiesta’s five-speed is probably its biggest flaw, because the change itself is otherwise well-oiled easy.
The standout of the two transmissions offered is the six-speed dual clutch automatic. Dubbed ‘Powershift’ by Ford, it offers little of the low speed lurchiness of a Volkswagen DSG and although it isn’t as quick to shift between gears, it is very smooth. It also plugs the gaps of the five speed and is quick to respond to a prodded throttle, shuffling back gears quickly to disguise the paucity of power.
In addition to being the driveability pick, the Powershift is, even more surprisingly, the driver’s pick of the two Fiesta gearboxes. In Sport, it inutitively kicks back gears when going into a corner hard on the brakes, blipping revs as though it is a mini sports car. It adapts as quickly to a harder driving style as it does to a more relaxed one, never being either too frenetic or lazy.
The biggest downside has nothing to do with the gearbox, but rather the manual facility that accompanies it, which forgoes best-practice paddles or a tipshifter for a tiny +/- toggle switch that Ford executives quietly agree is anti-ergonomic.
The automatic gearbox with the 1.0-litre turbo engine should team even more beautifully than the 1.5-litre non-turbo driven here, but that car is on Santa’s sleigh for a December arrival.
While the fortchoming Sport may be the most tempting car of the regular range, there’s absolute certainty that the Ambiente and Trend are the best driving and best value light hatchbacks available for less than $20,000.
Unless absolute practicality is the focus – in which case a Honda Jazz is unbeatable – both Ford Fiesta grades are a near-ideal pick for those who can’t stretch beyond that increment for a turbo-four Polo or Clio.