The Ford Fiesta SFE EcoBoost is Dearborn's new fuel miser, designed to achieve hybrid-like economy without resorting to hybrid technology. The Ford Fiesta itself returned to our shores in 2011, but the Fiestas available to the U.S. public so far have all packed four-cylinder engines underhood. The SFE hides a turbocharged 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine producing 123 hp and 148 lb-ft of torque.
SFE stands for Super Fuel Economy, which represents Ford's efforts to put a very small engine into a very small car -- providing economy without resorting to battery packs, a diesel powerplant, or stop/start in order to keep the car as simple and affordable as possible. There is a system on the SFE that, strictly speaking, works in the same general fashion as a regenerative braking system to power the 12-volt battery, though it does not contribute anything to the powertrain.
In the case of the Fiesta SFE, Ford's three-cylinder approach has resulted in EPA ratings of 31 mpg in the city and 43 on the highway, for a combined 36 mpg rating. The SFE is offered in four-door sedan and five-door hatchback guise.
The Fiesta SFE motor's other claim to fame, besides fuel economy, is that it produces 3 more hp than the 1.6-liter inline-four cylinder offered higher in the range. The 1.0-liter Fiesta EcoBoost SFE also easily bests its four-cylinder sibling in torque, offering 36 lb-ft more than that same 1.6-liter inline-four. True to its gas miser character, the only available transmission for the SFE is a five-speed manual. The SFE is based on the SE trim level, so that means 15-inch steel wheels with plastic covers.
The SFE is also designed to undercut hybrids and pure-electrics when it comes to price.PHOTO BY JAY RAMEY
How Does it Drive?
We spent a whole week in this Fiesta, using it for daily commuting and running errands -- the sort of tasks for which this version of the Fiesta was designed. Much praise has been heaped upon the Fiesta's finely sorted suspension and handling, and the sweetness of its front-wheel drive setup carries over into the SFE model.
The five-speed manual in this hatch was nice and smooth, with no excess revs intruding on the upshifting. We didn't have to row through all the gears just to get it to in-town cruising speeds of 35 mph. This engine and gearbox combo also allowed for surprisingly easy merges into highway traffic. About the only time the engine felt a bit winded was going up very steep hills, though the lower gears provided plenty of grunt for that sort of driving. The only issue with the five-speed gearbox worthy of note is that it was a bit slow out of first gear, though once the car gets rolling, there is plenty of torque in reserve. Tires won't spin as wildly as on some overeager hot hatches, but it's still possible to make them squeak a bit in first.
Road and wind noise were well suppressed at highway speeds in the SFE, as in the other Fiestas, and it didn't take much throttle input for the hatch to move around with much more powerful cars on the road. Going through the corners on some B-roads, the Fiesta stayed through the curves, exhibiting nimble and undramatic handling with no complaints from the tires. The steering setup was direct, if a bit numb, but we liked it better in this car than in some of its competitors in the same segment.
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The SFE model maintains the hallmarks of the Fiesta that have made it a popular hatch. The suspension didn't bob and dribble around on potholes -- something one might expect from cars this small and this light -- and that was a definite plus. Combined with the front of the car staying very flat even in sudden maneuvers, our overall impression of its driving manners was very positive. The turning radius was also surprisingly tight, so it made it easy to thread through tight parking lots. The Fiesta's steering is known for its predictability and comminicative nature, and that is indeed what we found in this version of the hatch, even though it can feel a bit numb at times even though it lacks other segment entrants' fake dialed-in weight. The SFE's dynamics, overall, are still something other small hatches (and sedans, lest we forget) aspire to achieve. The inline-three cylinder does cause a minute amount of body vibration at idle, but it's not particularly noticeable, and evens out as the car gets going.
Actual observed fuel economy landed just a bit south of the 36 mpg combined rating; we ended up doing a lot of driving around town, rather than interstate, and that meant lots of sitting at red lights and first gear starts uphill. The heavy A/C use in the summer heat no doubt robbed us of a few points when it came to the mpg figures, though our 35-mpg average over several days came out about where we expected. We didn't try to hypermile it with panel gaps taped up with masking tape and the A/C off or anything like that; we'll leave that to the hypermiler enthusiasts.
This is a gas mileage special, but that doesn't mean that cost-cutters have cheapened the interior. As on other Fiestas, nothing seemed to have been thrown out to make the car lighter or cheaper in some effort to get an extra fraction of 1 mpg, so the plastics were good for the segment, and there weren't any parts that seemed like they were picked out of some global parts bin to save money. Like other Fiestas we've driven, the seating position and other ergonomic details were well thought-out.
The SFE is available in sedan and hatch form, and is based on the SE trim level.PHOTO BY FORD
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Do I Want One?
Those who desire hybrid fuel economy without the hybrid price will want to give the Fiesta SFE a serious look. By offering this specific model in the U.S., Ford hopes to woo those shopping for hybrids and pure-electrics -- the most affordable ones remain a few thousand dollars north of the starting price of the Fiesta SFE. The unavailability of an automatic transmission will perhaps be a dealbreaker for some, but there is no denying the tried-and-true formula that Ford offers here. The Fiesta SFE isn't meant to dazzle with fancy displays calculating range and up-to-the-second fuel economy, but rather, to provide a pure form of frugal motoring that has been seemingly absent for a couple decades.
With a starting price of $17,900 in hatchback form, the Fiesta SFE readily undercuts the hybrids and diesels that offer similar fuel economy figures, with the Mitsubishi Mirage being its closest natural enemy solely in terms of mpg figures and powerplant form.
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