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Joy ride: 2014 Ford Fiesta SE

The Ford Fiesta might be cheap, with minimal features and some marginal trim, but beneath this economy-minded surface is the heart of an enthusiast.

The Ford Fiesta SE is slow, cheap, has minimal legroom, comes with an eye-gougingly terrible version of Ford’s Microsoft Sync, and has a silly name.

That’s what I was thinking when my press demonstrator Fiesta arrived on the heels of the Toyota Corolla S. After all, the Corolla was about as much fun to drive as a narcoleptic mule – and it cost $6,000 more. How could the little Fiesta be any good, when the mighty Corolla was so sleep-inducingly boring? But the Ford “Party” is everything the tired Toyota is not, and proves that cheap can be very, very fun.

Fiesta literally stands for party time

What I hadn’t been expecting to find in the $16,845 Fiesta was an enthusiast’s car, but really that is what it is. Shockingly, for what is in essence an econo-box, a great deal of attention seems to have been paid to the driving dynamics. Also, because this car was designed for the European market, it has something very rare: a manual transmission.

Sure, the manual in the Fiesta isn’t fantastic. The clutch throw is long. And worse than that, there is a really annoying piece of trim above the pedal that seems designed to catch on shoes. But it the shifting motion and feel was still solid enough to let me indulge in my Steve McQueen fantasy life.

What really sets the manual off is the handling. The Fiesta is shockingly nimble. Driving it is reminiscent of my time spent behind the wheel of a Triumph TR6: very manual, but also responsive and engaging.

This surprising gift is partly down to the fact that it is so small that I could almost touch the rear wheel well from the driver’s seat, but Ford’s chassis and suspension engineers should give themselves a pat on a back. But the person who did the steering? That person I want to hug.

To drive the Fiesta correctly you have to unleash your inner Italian.

On a short wheelbase car, light sport steering often makes the car so jittery that it is a pain in the ass to drive. Not so the Fiesta. The steering is direct and fast, but it also requires a fair amount of force. The result is that it always felt like I could put the wheels where I wanted them.

The the little 1.6-liter four-cylinder Duratec engine holds the Fiesta back a bit. It produces 120 horsepower and 112 pound -feet of torque. That is plenty to get you around. However, to really enjoy the sublime handling, you need to keep the weenie Duratec at high revs.

To drive the Fiesta correctly you have to unleash your inner Italian. Think of the throttle like a switch, which should always be set to on. Then control vehicle speed with the transmission.

But is it any good as a car?

Still, most people looking to buy a car for $16,845 – the price of my Fiesta – want practical transportation not a go-kart.

On that count, the Fiesta does well but misses excellence. Its 31 mpg average fuel economy score is good but not exceptional. And the interior just doesn’t live up to the promise of the driving dynamics.

That’s not to say there aren’t good things. Take the very well designed soft-touch dash and Tardis-like cargo area fore example. But these bright spots are almost outshined by problems. Trim throughout the car feels cheap and, in places, not well installed. For example, the panel covering the steering column on my press demonstrator was already loose at the corners.

The Fiesta’s archaic version of Sync is perhaps the worst bit. This system comes with Bluetooth streaming and voice commands, which sounds good, but it is confusing to operate, frequently cannot find Bluetooth devices, and has ‘graphics’ that just look out of place in a new car. I found myself yelling at this system more than once during the week, and this was not my first time using it. The way around this is to get the optional MyFord Touch system, which costs extra, but will probably be good for your blood pressure.

On the whole, I would be happy to live with the Fiesta from a practical standpoint, particularly if I lived in a place like Seattle or San Francisco where a small car is really an advantage. The problem is that for just a few thousand more, I could have the more capacious Volkswagen Golf … tough choice.

Conclusion

In the end, what really won me over to the Fiesta was a summer evening drive with my wife. The windows were down, the Rolling Stones were – finally – streaming from my phone, and the road was full of curves. I was having nearly as much fun as I had two weeks prior when I was driving the Audi S8 in the Rocky Mountains.

The Fiesta is obviously in a different universe then the S8. However, thanks to its simplicity, eagerness, and downright cheapness, it is a joy to drive. Best of all, I felt like I was getting away with something. Now it is time to plot how I can poison my editor so that I get to drive the Fiesta ST, or, as I call it, the “Fiesta Caliente.”

Highs

  • Excellent sport style steering
  • Low entry-level price
  • Sports car like handling
  • Good gas mileage

Lows

  • Low quality interior trim
  • Extremely frustrating Sync infotainment