Friday, September 24, 2010

A Wee Taste of Europe: Will Americans Bite?

September 10, 2010
A Wee Taste of Europe: Will Americans Bite?

THERE are two types of small cars in America. First, there are the bare-bones, price-is-the-entire-object ennui-boxes. These are the cars you end up driving when you stubbornly resist the $2-a-day upgrade at the rental counter.

A few years back, Chevrolet of Canada caught flak for running an ad for the Cavalier that basically said, “Hey, it’s better than taking the bus.” The pitch offended bus riders and public transportation advocates, but I admire that honesty. Cars that duke it out at the very bottom of the market — like the basest Nissan Versa or Hyundai Accent, each priced around $10,000 — promise mobility, and that’s about it.

It took a long time for car companies to realize that drivers in the United States might consider a small vehicle that wasn’t ruthlessly built to a price. The modern Mini Cooper was the trailblazer, proving that Americans might buy a diminutive hatchback on its own merits, even when they could afford something bigger. Cars like the Mini and the Honda Fit offer a more upscale driving experience than the frill-free automotive flounders that scour the bottom of the market for rental sales, college students and frugal commuters.

The Ford Fiesta is a subcompact in the ambitious Fit idiom. It’s not the least expensive small car you can buy (or even, perhaps, the least expensive Ford). But the 2011 Fiesta hews to the European hatchback ideal, and Europeans hold the bizarre expectation that small vehicles should act like real cars.

First, a bit of history on the nameplate: in the late 1970s and early ’80s, Ford sold a hatchback called the Fiesta. In the late ’80s, it introduced a hatchback named the Festiva. Now we’re back to the Fiesta. I asked Ford what the rationale was behind the Fiesta-to-Festiva-to-Fiesta name change, and the response was, “The Festiva was a different car.”

Right. One which happened to be the smallest Ford hatchback, just like the car it replaced. It’s as if Ford canceled the Mustang, replaced it with a V-8 muscle car named the Mutsvang, and then declared that the two vehicles had nothing to do with each other. And I’m afraid that’s the best answer I have for you on that. This Fiesta is a far cry from the bygone Korean-built Festiva, which came with 12-inch steel wheels suggesting that somewhere, a lawn tractor was up on blocks.

Ford’s new baby is available as a sedan or five-door hatchback and offers upmarket equipment like a 6-speed dual-clutch sequential transmission, heated leather seats and the excellent Sync multimedia system.

There are still a few obvious cost-cutting measures. For instance, the rear brakes are drums, not discs. But then again, so are they on a Maybach — the 1932 Maybach Zeppelin, to be exact.

Rear drums aside, the Fiesta is about as safe as it gets in this class. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety named the Fiesta the first minicar to earn the designation of Top Safety Pick. (The distinction applies to Fiestas built after July, when Ford strengthened the door handles.)

Regardless of the build date, the Fiesta interior has enough air bags to raise the Edmund Fitzgerald. And electronic stability control is standard.

There is one engine, a 1.6-liter 4-cylinder that squeezes out an indifferent 120 horsepower. So the Fiesta is slow. Then again, so are its competitors. But you should not drive alongside rivers near college campuses, because you might get passed by varsity crew teams.

The Fiesta’s best talent is making you forget its size once you’re actually moving down the road. The body is so stiff and quiet that I kept finding myself speeding, despite the modest power.

The suspension quietly soaks up impacts while maintaining a controlled ride — there’s none of the Clydesdale clop you hear when the engineers try to dial a soft ride into an overly flexible chassis. You get a sense that the limits are low but that the car doesn’t mind frolicking on an on-ramp now and then.

Mainly, though, the Fiesta seems optimized for the role it will probably fill for most people: commuting. There’s very little wind noise, you have Sync to handle your smartphone and play podcasts, and the fuel economy is excellent — 40 miles per gallon on the highway, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. When you do need to gas up, Ford’s capless filler is one of those small delights that makes life a little easier.

If you had to spend a couple of hours a day in a Fiesta, my sense is that it would endear itself rather than instill resentment. Hey, you don’t like the color of the cupholder lighting? You can change it, boss. It aims to please, the Fiesta.

The Fiesta is really the exemplar of the domestic hatchback’s newfound respectability. But the main challenge for small cars in America is that there’s not much financial incentive to buy them.

In Europe and Japan, driving a smaller car brings tax advantages. Then there’s the cost of fuel, which is currently more than $6 a gallon in most of Europe. When every mile per gallon and gram of carbon dioxide counts on the bottom line, it makes sense to buy the smallest car that will get you to work on time.

And to that end, the Fiesta is a hit. It’s Ford’s No. 1 seller in Europe, with half a million sold in the last year.

But in the United States, unless your car is subject to the gas-guzzler penalty, the taxman doesn’t care whether you have a 1.6-liter 4 or a 550-horsepower V-8. So the financial rationale for entry-level cars mostly amounts to what you save on the purchase price, relative to the next car up the ladder. And for Ford, there’s precious little breathing room between the Fiesta and its bigger sibling, the Focus.

The Fiesta starts at $13,995 for a basic sedan with a 5-speed manual transmission and can cost more than $21,000 for a loaded five-door SES. A couple of months ago, I grabbed a Ford dealership flier that advertised the 2011 Fiesta SE for $16,895. The same dealership was hawking the 2010 Focus SEL, with a leather interior, for $15,495.

The Focus concedes a few m.p.g. — its highway mileage is in the mid-30s — but it offers more passenger room and 20 extra horsepower. The Fiesta is technologically superior, but will buyers care about a dual-clutch gearbox when they can get more car for less money in the same dealership? I know I’m comparing leftover Focuses with 2011 Fiestas, but even once the Focus is redesigned, there will never be much daylight between these two cars.

At current gas prices, the E.P.A. estimates that fueling up a Focus instead of a Fiesta would cost an extra $219 a year (assuming 15,000 miles of driving). Somehow, I doubt that the prospect of saving 60 cents a day will be the deciding factor in many new-car purchases.

However, it was barely more than two years ago that gasoline passed $4 a gallon and the Honda Civic started outselling the Ford F-150. I’ll wager that gas prices will eventually pass $4 again. And when they do, the Fiesta will be the life of the party.

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