LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Right as we're about to shift into third gear after accelerating away from the stoplight, the engine gets kind of vocal and there's a bit of urgency in the powertrain, and we're thinking that this engine is something of a growler, which is neat. And then we also notice that there's no traffic on either side of this 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE, and it comes to us that this car is kind of quick, too.
We're not talking about seeing the red shift as the SFE achieves light speed, but still this 2014 Fiesta is getting after it in a way that's unexpected from the small, fuel-efficient transportation pods usually found down here in the cheap end of the price spectrum. This 1.0-liter engine not only delivers 8 hp more than you get from the Honda Fit, but also gets 12 mpg more than the Fit on the EPA Highway cycle.
Not bad from a turbocharged 1.0-liter engine with just three cylinders. That's right, three is the magic number in engine design at the moment, and it certainly brings some magic to the usefully revised 2014 Ford Fiesta, which finally feels more like what we hoped it would be from the start.
Revenge of the Killer Bs
A handful of years ago when fuel prices went up and the economy went down, small B-class cars began to come to the U.S. Little transportation pods aren't supposed to suit Americans, but the success of the Honda Fit soon proved otherwise. Simplicity and utility are always appealing, and more than the 66,000 Ford Fiestas that will be sold during 2013 prove it.
For all this, the cars in this category haven't been great to drive. Sure, there's a class for B-size sub-compact cars in U.S. road racing, plus the FIA World Rally Championship largely features such cars from various manufacturers (including Ford), yet the Fiesta has always seemed unhappy on the road, especially since it bobs around like a cork in a pail of water.
Without fanfare, the 2014 Ford Fiesta has been upgraded, and you see it in the new high-style grille and a new face for the dashboard, plus available leather-trimmed seats and a leather-trimmed steering wheel. And yet the most important addition to the car is the optional ($995) 1.0-liter EcoBoost engine, a turbocharged three-cylinder that brings the 2014 Fiesta alive even as it makes this SFE model as thrifty to drive as a hybrid or a diesel. Plus, it's got three cylinders!
Formula 1-style cleverness in a three-cylinder package
Now that the transmission is the key to both performance and fuel economy in so many cars, we can't remember the last time we made a fuss about an engine. Yet this three-cylinder turbo is really clever, and even Ford boasts that this is the trickest engine it makes. The 999cc inline-3 makes 123 hp @ 6000 rpm, not to mention 125 lb-ft of torque @ 2500 rpm rpm. When the Fiesta SFE is equipped with its five-speed manual transmission, the result is an EPA-rated 32 mpg City/45 mpg Highway and 37 mpg Combined.
When the Ford engineers tried to shrink down the displacement of a conventional four-cylinder engine, they discovered that the shape of the cylinders compromised the power (and cleanliness) of the bang that the direct injection helped delivered. As it turns out, the three-cylinder configuration not only makes a bigger bang but also the exhaust scavenging from the combustion chamber is better, which improves both the efficiency of the variable valve timing (featured on both the intake and exhaust side) and the ability of the tiny, 1.5-inch impeller of the turbocharger to spool quickly up to its maximum speed of 248,000 rpm.
You'll find clever stuff everywhere you look within this German-built engine. The cylinder head is high-density aluminum to reduce weight and the block is iron to withstand pressure, control vibration and noise, and reduce size. The twelve valves in the cylinder head are filled with sodium to keep them cool, while a trick water and oil system in the block promotes quick warm up even as it reduces frictional power losses. Low-friction detailing is everywhere, and even the alternator is smart enough to disengage while you're accelerating. To quell vibration from this long-stroke, three-cylinder configuration, the flywheel and crank pulley are purposely unbalanced to compensate, so power-sapping balance shafts aren't required. A quiet, rubber timing belt runs in an oil bath, so it's good for 150,000 miles of life. And finally, the 1.0-liter EcoBoost weighs less than 215 pounds.
If you were one of those engine nerds -- who are like fireworks enthusiasts with really, really good pocket calculators -- you'd be feeling all excited and sweaty by now.
Flat-out and no one has to know
We could tell you that we're impressed by this small engine's clean-burning fuel efficiency, but we would be lying. The best thing about the 1.0-liter EcoBoost in the 2014 Fiesta SFE is the power it makes, plus the way it makes it.
When you drive lazily, the littlest EcoBoost picks you up with plenty of thrust at low rpm because you have a turbocharger calibrated for peak performance at low rpm (90 percent of peak torque is available from 1,350 rpm to 5,375 rpm), plus variable valve timing. At mid-range rpm, the direct injection makes possible a relatively high compression ratio of 10.5:1 to foster crisp acceleration, and some 148 lb-ft of torque is available for a few moments under overboost conditions in throttle transitions. Meanwhile, the six-hole fuel injectors help fill in any slumps in the power curve thanks to trick programming. Most important, the engine revs out cleanly to redline, so you have excitement under your throttle foot all across the face of the tachometer, even with a plain old five-speed transmission.
As a result, you have here in the 1.0-liter EcoBoost an engine that's more drivable than its competitors (including Ford's own 1.6-liter four-cylinder), gets better fuel economy (5 mpg more on the highway compared to the Ford 1.6), and is more fun. You can drive the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE as if you were one of those Finnish racers who end up upside down in a ditch most of the time, and no one in the traffic around you has to know. The chassis still bobs around more than we like, but now that the Fiesta ST is on the market, we know where to find the parts to fix that.
Cheap and cheerful, and we mean that in a good way
Altogether the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE is a cheap and cheerful car, only now the cheerfulness is more noticeable than the cheapness. In fact, the 2014 Fiesta doesn't have to be cheap, as this Mexico-built car comes in three trim grades and some ten exterior colors (plus ambient interior lighting in seven colors!). More important, details like SYNC with a MYFord Touch-operated electronic interface with a 6.5-inch screen show you that you don't have to stretch your pocketbook around a Ford Focus in order to be comfortable with fuel efficiency.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE sedan starts at a price of $17,240, while the price goes up to $17,280 for the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE hatchback (the destination and delivery charge is $795). Sadly the MyFord Touch electronic interface with navigation isn't available in the SFE model.
We like B-class cars because they typically offer more dramatic design and more interesting technology than larger cars. Even so, the driving experience of cars like the Fiat 500, Honda Fit and Mazda 2 doesn't always match the elegance of the design solution. Until now, the Chevrolet Sonic has been our class favorite for fast driving. But with the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE, we finally have the European-style small car that we've wanted all along.
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