Small Fords have been huge in Europe for decades, but only more recently have models such as the Ford Fiesta started to get close to their sales potential in Australia.
The Ford Fiesta is an old nameplate but locally still relatively fresh, having replaced the Festiva as the blue oval’s local city car offering in 2004.
The latest-generation Ford Fiesta was released in January 2010, with an update coming a year later after a switch of production from Europe to Thailand.
That move gave Ford Australia more room to manoeuvre on the Fiesta’s value equation, though two key disappoints that resulted were the loss of a reach-adjustable steering wheel (now tilt only) and soft-touch dash (now hard plastic).
The Fiesta, however, retains the funky interior – complete with mobile-phone-inspired dash controls – introduced with the new model in 2009.
It may not be as smart as the benchmark Volkswagen Polo’s cabin but it certainly has a greater sense of fun.
It also offers better protection after the Thailand update, with electronic vehicle stability control made standard across the range (previously optional on base CL and mid-spec LX models) and side curtain airbags were added (to front, side curtain/thorax and driver’s knee airbags) as standard for LX and range-topping Zetec models and as an option for the CL.
The latter means only the LX and Zetec models achieve maximum five-star independent crash ratings from NCAP.
All Ford Fiesta models are equipped with unique-to-class (check) voice control, for certain functions including Bluetooth.
The Ford Fiesta can be driven away from showrooms from just $16,990 if you opt for the CL hatchback, or $18,990 if you want the automatic gearbox (as most buyers do) or sedan variant that isn’t offered with a five-speed manual.
The middle-of-the-range LX – in either hatch or sedan body style - also starts at $18,990 for the manual, rises to $20,990 with auto, and introduces a turbo diesel option that costs from $21,490 and is linked with a five-speed manual.
For this review we tested the Ford Fiesta Zetec, which is the flagship until the arrival of the highly anticipated ST hot-hatch next year.
There’s a $20,990 petrol manual and $23,490 diesel manual in the Zetec offerings, but our model is the $22,990 petrol auto that combines a 1.6-litre four-cylinder engine with a ‘Powershift’ dual-clutch self-shifter.
As befitting a top-of-the-line model, the Zetec boasts more equipment.
All Fiestas are great to drive, but the Zetec also ups the sporty ante – both visually and technically.
The Ford Fiesta Zetec gains bigger, sportier-looking 16-inch alloy wheels, a sports bodykit that adds elements such as rear roof spoiler to beef up a design that is already more masculine than some of its rivals, such as the Mazda2.
Inside there are sports seats designed to better grip the bodies of the driver and front passenger, which is ideal because the Zetec takes the Fiesta’s dynamic talents up a notch with a stiffer suspension set-up.
The ride remains remarkably compliant, just like other Fiestas without the sports suspension, yet brings an extra degree of sharpness and involvement.
And it makes it simply the best-handling city car you can buy for less than $25,000.
The Fiesta Zetec is an absolute treat on winding roads, offering plenty of tyre grip and deft balance. The steering is perfectly weighted and progressive, as are the brakes.
The chassis can clearly handle much more power than the 88kW produced by petrol Fiestas including the Zetec – and which the 1.6-litre turbo Ford Fiesta ST will no doubt prove – but there’s still no shortage of driving joy.
The engine is relatively torquey for a 1.6, even though peak torque of 151Nm doesn’t arrive until 4300rpm, but the Fiesta is better with a manual gearbox.
Ford’s Powershift dual-clutch transmission works quite well in models such as the Focus and Ford Mondeo, but in the Fiesta Zetec it’s just erratic.
The auto rarely settles on a given gear, while at other times it either holds onto a gear or changes up when least expected. Another slightly disappointing aspect is the lack of a pseudo-manual, tipshift mode that would allow drivers to better exploit the spirited nature of the Fiesta.
Instead, the alternative is to pick L(ow) if you want to keep revs high for better engine response on winding roads.
Volkswagen’s DSG dual-clutch auto, found in the comparably priced VW Polo 77TSI, is far superior in its intelligence and refinement even if it is still prone to some hesitancy in stop-start driving.
Dual-clutch systems also commonly help improve fuel efficiency, though the Fiesta is rated at 6.1 litres of regular unleaded per 100km regardless of transmission choice.
On the practicality front, the Fiesta hatch offers a 281-litre boot that’s larger than average for the city car category (but there’s no spare wheel; just a mobility kit).
If more boot space is needed, the sedan – available in CL and LX (above) trims only – offers 430 litres with deep and wide space, even if there are gooseneck hinges and the rear seats don’t fold completely flat.
Whichever body style is chosen, the Ford Fiesta is at the pointy end of the list when it comes to the best city cars on sale.