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Ford Fiesta

 

From the first turn of the steering wheel you know this new arrival isn't an Asian car. Look around the interior, and the styling cues also confirm that Ford's Fiesta supermini is distinctly European.

Yet it's the steering that really gives the show away. There's a feel, an involvement and a touch of heaviness no Japanese or Korean car maker would have deemed necessary.

The steering wheel itself is large and chunky and the weighting of the power assistance is right on the button. Maybe some drivers prefer the steering to be light and vague, especially at parking speeds, but for me the amount of effort required in the Fiesta is just right, both for vehicle control and driver satisfaction.

This fluency is enhanced on the open road where the car feels just as agile, and the steering imparts the sort of feedback that turns an ordinary drive into a good one.

Factor in sharp pricing and the Fiesta presents a class-leading proposition. Although its arch-rival, the 1.3 Honda Jazz, is $500 cheaper than the entry-level 1.6L five-door Fiesta, the Ford pricing has discount flexibility while the Honda has not.

So in reality the Fiesta becomes the class price-leader, sending a strong message to small car buyers. Auto transmission adds $1800 to the $20,990 manual; the higher spec three-door is $23,990, and the Ghia auto five-door tops the range at $26,990.

As reported in Auto Trader last December, New Zealand gets the same Fiesta models as Australia, but our specification is generally higher, especially with base versions. And, rather than reflecting Aussie market situations, attribute the thumbs-down for the superb 1.4 litre HDi common rail diesel model to a combination of both poor quality fuel and low customer demand.

Ford New Zealand is optimistic we could see the diesel Fiesta when the standard of local diesel improves and, as European influences become more widespread here, there's an expectation of improving diesel car fortunes.

 However, the 1.6 litre twin overhead camshaft petrol engine used in the three Fiesta models introduced to New Zealand makes a good fist of providing the sort of spirited performance needed in a modern small car. Splashing around Wellington roads in the worst February floods in 40 years during the Fiesta's local unveiling highlighted the design's competence.

There is a drive-by-wire connection between the accelerator pedal and powertrain. The 16-valve motor provides brisk performance, if it's a little harsh-sounding under load.

Buyers are being treated to an increasingly wide range of products at this end of the market, but the Fiesta's 74kW of power is the same as the 1.5 Hyundai Getz's and better than all but the class-leading 76kW 1.6 Suzuki Liana.

Similarly, the Ford engine's 146Nm of torque is plentiful, although the healthy 186Nm offered by the Getz tops all the rest.

Some of the 1.6-litre Euro rivals, like the Citroen C3 and Peugeot 206, are more powerful, but they're also considerably dearer, so the smaller engined, less powerful 1.4-litre variants become the natural opposition. Both the Honda Jazz and Mitsubishi Colt have smaller capacity, lower output engines than the Fiesta. There's no word on whether New Zealand will see the new ST150 high performance Fiesta, but the dressed-up three-door Zetec model has the potential to appeal to younger drivers with sporting aspirations.

With a relatively puny 43kW under the bonnet, the 1.3 Ford Ka - based on the previous model Fiesta's chassis - is 42 percent less powerful than the new 1.6 Fiesta. Without the benefit of a five-door version, the Ka has struggled in our market, despite its merits.

The latest generation Fiesta has been around European roads for just on two years, but the Australasian launch was delayed to coincide with the arrival of the four-stage Durashift automatic transmission. Though autos may not be top priority for small cars in Europe, they're vital to meet the needs of many NZ buyers.

Both the manual and auto are geared to around 3000rpm at 100km/h in top gear - low enough to afford good response at important mid-range speeds. The engine can run on either low or high octane petrol, too. I liked the short, positive shift action of the IB5 manual gearbox. The auto is also smooth and responsive. To avoid hunting between third and fourth ratios around town, the overdrive can be disengaged by simply pressing the button on the shift lever.

With the widest track in its class, the Fiesta also has a lengthy 2487mm wheelbase, good body control and a well-sorted semi-independent twist-beam rear suspension.

 We've come to expect a high level of appointment and the Fiesta doesn't disappoint, with features like theatre-dimming interior lights and driving lights on the Zetec and the auto-only Ghia. The car is both comfortable and solid, with good interior space. The Fiesta can't match the amazing rear seat accommodation of the Honda Jazz, but there's still heaps of room up front, generous front seat adjustment and no shortage of headroom.

A one-piece rear seat cushion folds forward to provide a completely flat load area. There's a good outlook from the front seats, height adjustment for the driver's seat and a steering column rake adjuster. Leather-covered steering wheels are standard on all three models. Ford is targeting 700 Fiesta sales in the first year, but if the small car market was as big as it deserves to be, demand for this new model could realistically be five times higher.

At least small car volume is on the move. In the last five years the class has risen from 5.3 percent to 10.7 percent, and it's still very much the preserve of private buyers who comprise 56 percent of the category.

The Jazz (1347 sales in 2003) was upstaged by the Toyota Echo as leader in the small car sector, but around 900 of the Echo's 1533 sales in 2003 were rental cars.

Ford sees the Fiesta appealing strongly to private buyers and, without the strength of rentals, there's little prospect of the car toppling the Echo from its top rung position. Most buyers will be elderly and a high proportion will be women. Remarkably, 74 percent of small car buyers in New Zealand are aged over 50 and 45 percent are more than 70 years old.

Since the phasing out of the Asian Festiva four years ago, the lack of a five-door has left Ford out of the small car market. That's well and truly rectified by the arrival of the German-built Fiesta, a truly meaningful design in the lower ranks.


Auto Trader New Zealand