Automakers want to hit your sweet spot, and to that end they provide a lot of variation — even within the same model. And that’s why I was able to test two hugely different versions of the Ford Fiesta, the ST and SFE. Both were painted in “Green Envy,” but that’s where the resemblance ended.
First, the ST. This is a highly entertaining road warrior, aimed at young drivers, with a turbocharged 1.6 liter four-cylinder engine making 197 horsepower (and stirred by a slick six-speed manual). The great thing about this car is that it’s mighty fun to drive while also managing an eminently reasonable 35 mpg on the highway (and 29 mpg overall). Zero to 60 comes up in an impressive 5.8 seconds. Yes, it would run rings around plenty of classic Ferraris (including the megabuck 330 America I saw at Caffeine and Carburetors on Sunday).
Spoilers add to the boy racer image. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
If I were ordering this car, I wouldn’t check the $2,000 Recaro seat option, because while these highly bolstered buckets will keep you in place during a full-lock power slide, they make for awkward entry and exit. And $600 seems a bit steep for the metallic paint, but otherwise you’ll want this $24,785 car as is.
I wouldn't spring for the Recaro seats, a $2,000 option (that includes heated mirrors). (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
I wish Americans would get over their horsepower/V-8-engine fixation, because neither are necessary for a good time. The beauty of the ST is throwing it into corners without slowing down appreciably and have the car taking the bend with absolute confidence. Meanwhile, the tuned exhaust is making beautiful music. People buy Minis for just this experience, but you can also find it in an entry-level Ford.
And then there’s the SFE with EcoBoost (a $995 option), replacing the 1.6-liter with a 123-horsepower turbo one-liter, three-cylinder engine and a five speed. The EPA says you can expect 45 mpg on the highway, 32 in town (37 combined). Motor Trend actually got 47 mpg highway out of it — a rare instance of a car bettering the test in the real world. It says something that a normally aspirated car like this one gets better fuel economy than a hybrid like the 2014 Honda Insight.
The Fiesta SFE EcoBoost uses every trick to reach 45 mpg overall. (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
The SFE should be around $18,000 moderately equipped, and a few things, like the infotainment system, felt bare bones. But the car generally retained the quality feel of Fiestas and Focuses. It cuts weight with 38-pound wheels, and saves energy with a clever alternator that recharges the 12-volt battery on deceleration.
For a three-cylinder, the SFE engine is remarkably smooth, without as much vibration as you’d expect. The only drawback here is that the car isn’t nearly as fun to drive as the ST. I was constantly stirring that five speed trying to find some available power, and it takes 8.3 seconds to 60. Yeah, I know it’s a one-liter, three-cylinder engine, but overtaking can be a challenge. Maybe I wouldn’t have noticed this so much if I hadn’t stepped right from SFE to ST.
The three-cylinder, one-liter EcoBoost engine makes 123 horsepower. (Photo: Ford)
Still, driving fun isn’t everything. The ST is more than $4,000 extra, and over five years it will cost you $6,000 more to own. It depreciates faster, too. As a commuter car — especially in back-to-back traffic — the SFE EcoBoost can’t be beat. And glomming on to that three-cylinder engine is highly recommended if you want bragging rights down at the Sierra Club meeting.
Still, I have to admit I’d probably buy an ST despite all this. That 29 mpg overall is still mightily impressive for a car that performs and handles as well as this one. Here's the ST on video: