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Road Test: Ford Fiesta Zetec

By Feann Torr - 11/Oct/2006

Ford Fiesta ZetecSmall cars are making big profits at the moment. In the last few years they've taken over from the large cars in the Australian new car marketplace to be the most popular type of vehicle, and for good reason.

They're cost effective.

Buying a car is one thing, but the day-to-day costs to motorists - maintenance, petrol, insurance - are becoming more and more exorbitant, and small cars are almost always cheaper to drive, insure, and maintain than larger models. There's less weight to wear the tyres and suspension, and together with smaller engines they consume less fuel, which costs less both monetarily and environmentally. And the days when drivers had to make a number of sacrifices to own a small car - performance, practicality, style - are now things of the past.

In Australia there are a number of light cars that are vying for the buyer's dollar, including the Mazda2, Toyota Yaris, Holden Barina, Renault Clio, Volkswagen Polo, and the Ford Fiesta, the latter of which is the car in review today.

The last time we tested the Fiesta was in April 2004 and we liked the way the European-built tiddler went about it's business. This updated model has a more refined character with new styling cues, and the current 2006 Ford Fiesta range begins at $15,990. The model we're testing fetches just under $20,000, but features a number of sporty additions that people like me love to see - larger wheels, stickier tyres, close ratio gear sets and performance suspension systems.

Though the automatic model we tested doesn't benefit from the manual's close ratio gear set, it's not a complete bucket of bolts despite its ageing gearbox, and makes city driving a totally agreeable prospect. With the new Zetec model, Ford has added more spice to its small car offering, but is it the best vehicle in its class? There's no doubt it wants to be, and has plenty of neat features to convince all and sundry of such a feat, but there's only one way to be sure - follow me:

Make: Ford
Model: Fiesta Zetec
Price: $19,990
Transmission: 4-speed auto
Engine: 1.6-litre, inline 4-cylinder, petrol
Seats: 5
Safety: 2 airbags (driver and front passenger airbags), ABS, EBD

Drive: 4/5

Ford Fiesta Zetec
Ford Fiesta Zetec
Ford Fiesta Zetec

Ford's Fiesta Zetec is a very handy vehicle,
more than at home in the hussle bussle of the
city, and just as eager to tackle twisting roads

While there's nothing quite as pleasing as laying a pair of rubber lines from the rear end of a large Aussie V8 sedan, I always get a bit of thrill driving small performance cars, and along with the Clio Sport this is one of the smallest I've ever driven that purports to offer spirited driving.

Like all other Fiesta models, the Zetec features a 1.6-litre engine with a modest 74kW of power, and it's shame that Ford couldn't have whacked on some high lift cylinder heads or at least a modified exhaust for an extra couple of kilowatts, because this is the sports model after all.

Instead, Ford's European branch decided to give the Zetec a boost in cornering performance rather than straight-line speed, and in hindsight I reckon it was a good choice, because this little tacker is quite a tenacious vehicle, and well within reach for many new car buyers.

Though nothing's been done to the engine, the chassis has been tweaked, and one of the biggest contributors to the car's impressive handling ability are the larger wheels. Equipped with attractively-styled 16-inch alloy wheels shod with 195/45 R16 rubber, the Fiesta has scads of mid corner grip. 

Now, 195/45s may sound meek in the face of the Ford Focus XR5's rather expansive 225/40 R18s, but the Fiesta is considerably lighter. Tipping the scales at 1059kg, it's a good 378kg lighter than the Focus XR5 Turbo, which means it doesn't need as much rubber to keep its contact with the road and can even be picked up and moved by three or four burly gents.

As well as the sticky tyres, the Fiesta Zetec gets a tuned suspension system. The suspension has had the most attention out of any of the Zetec's revisions, including modified spring settings at the front and rear, which drop the ride height slightly and help give the vehicle a flat cornering attitude. The front and rear dampers (shock absorbers) have been tuned to be stiffer and not as spongy, and together with a thicker front anti-roll bar and updated suspension bushed all round, the vehicle exhibits far less bodyroll than its more pedestrian stable mates.

Once on the open road, the spritely Fiesta Zetec displays an impressive amount of courage for one so small. You can throw it into corners with something that borders wild abandon, and most of the time you'll stay on the road. To put it more succinctly, the Zetec model Fiesta's bigger tyres and stiffer underpinnings make this vehicle a lot of fun to punt through corners, giving the underpowered vehicle a tenacious personality that begs to be driven hard.

The revisions to the suspension give the Fiesta a more direct feel through the steering wheel, which gives you a bit more confidence to stuff it deeper into a corner, and it feels more closely tied to the road than any of its progenitors. The thing does seem to teeter a little on its outside wheels through really fast corners, and the rear end doesn't always track as faithfully as the front end (perhaps due to its semi-independent twist-beam rear suspension), but in general FoMoCo's feisty supermini is more than happy to spend a day carving its way through winding forest roads.

Compared to its rivals, the Fiesta Zetec is hard to beat. There's nothing in the Holden Barina line-up to challenge the Fiesta Zetec after the demise of the European-sourced SRi models, and vehicles like the Mazda2 aren't quite as sporty to drive, and while the Renault Clio Sport is a quicker and more accomplished vehicle in almost every respect, it's also a good $15,000 more.

Acceleration is taken care of by a 1.6-litre DOHC engine, which is detailed below, and though it's not going to win any land speed records (especially in automatic guise) it's got enough poke to void your driver's license without having to try too hard. And on the other side of acceleration is deceleration, which is taken care of by hardy 258mm ventilated discs up front, and while drum brakes live at the rear, you never really get a sense that the aft anchors are dropping the ball.

The Fiesta Zetec is well behaved in the city, and perfectly suited to such built-up environs with its 9.8 metre turning circle and responsive power steering system. It's small size (3.92 metres long, 1.68m wide) and large glass windows mean it can easily navigate the pitfalls of commuter traffic and tight parking spots as well, and gives the driver an above average view of all that surrounds. It's a very frugal vehicle too, and it also has a decent level of ride comfort, absorbing all but the largest and sharpest of bitumen crags, and with the automatic transmission humming away you barely have to move your hands from the tiller.

It's easy to drive, easy to park, and easy to live with, and won't cripple your bank account either. It's had just enough of a chassis tweak to make it a 'real deal' hot hatch through corners, and should be a decent match for the new Suzuki Swift Sport, but that thing's got more power and costs a bit more. As it stands, the Ford Fiesta Zetec is a very capable compact hatchback, with few - if any - shortcomings. All told, a very tidy little performer.

Engine: 3/5

Powered by a 1.6-litre 4-cylinder engine, the Fiesta Zetec lacks the forced induction 'kick' from high torque vehicles like the new Peugeot 207 GT or the Mini Cooper S (and also the higher insurance premiums), but manages to generate a decent wad of torque two thirds into its rev range.

At 4000rpm the Fiesta makes 146Nm of torque, which feels like more grunt on the road, most likely due to the car's low kerb weight. Equipped with the manual transmission this would no doubt give the Fiesta plenty of shunt (first gear in the stick-shifter has been tweaked for quicker take-offs), but even in its automatic guise the Zetec is no sloth.

Engine: Duratec 1.6-litre 4-cylinder

The transversely mounted inline 4-cylinder engine has a 1.6-litre (1596cc) capacity, with aluminium alloy cylinder heads and engine block. Dual overhead camshafts (DOHC) actuate a total of 16-valves (4-valves per cylinder) and the petrol-powered, fuel injected engine has an 11.0:1 compression ratio and will accept 91 RON unleaded petrol (bu prefers 98 RON) when filling the 45 litre fuel tank.

Fuel consumption: 7.5L/100km

Max Power: 74kW @ 6000rpm
Max Torque: 146Nm @ 4000rpm
0-100km/h: 9.2 seconds

The 4-speed automatic isn't the quickest shifting automatic gearbox with a torque converter, but it is more than willing to run around screaming its cylinders off if you so desire. It's a delight in traffic, but can become a little sluggish when you snaking your way through a winding mountain pass, urging it to change gears with more haste.

Getting back to the engine, and it revs remarkably cleanly - but not rapidly - so the engine sometimes takes time to build steam, but because of the car’s light weight it’s actually not too slow at all. And when you've finally built enough steam and the tachometer needle crawls past 5000rpm, it's party time as the camshafts start to dance to a different tune.

There are also many good things to say about the engine's fuel consumption levels, which are best described as meagre. Displacing 1596 cubic centimetres, or less than half the size of the Holden Commodore's V6 engine, the Fiesta Duratec engine is equipped with a 16-valve cylinder head with dual camshafts, and though there's no variable-valve timing as such, it still delivers impressive fuel economy figures of 7.5L/100km in the automatic model during the combined city/highway cycle. The manual transmission is even more frugal, sipping just 6.8L/100km on the combined cycle. On the freeway and when driven smoothly and predictably, the 4-speed auto on test was able to sip as low as the mid fives per 100km, which is quite a feat and gives the vehicle a respectable cruising range with its 45 litre fuel tank.

Exterior: 4/5

"The Fiesta looks like a Ford Focus that was dropped on its head as a baby," postulates a colleague who shall remain nameless for reasons of national security (Damien - it was Damo!). I don't really agree with that particular assumption of the Fiesta's looks. Stunted it may be, particularly in comparison to the Focus, but it's far from ugly. In my opinion, it's one of the more attractive super minis out there. It's not overtly French like the Peugeot 207 or Renault Clio, and doesn't try to be too posh like the VW Polo, while cars like the Holden Barina and Mazda2 aren't quite as stylish either.

Designed in Germany, the Fiesta has a really simple but modern profile. There's no shockingly radical styling cues here - it's just a solid small car with pumped wheel arches, tidy headlight clusters and decent sized 16-inch wheels. The drums on the rear axle detract a little from the Zetec's sporty character, but things like the front foglights and vertically-stacked high-mount brake lights at the rear more than make up for such eyesores. The 2-door hatchback Fiesta body shape has a sportier profile than the 4-door model, with more steeply raked front and rear windscreens, and with the seven-spoke 16-inch wheels it delivers a trendy and compact image for the Zetec.

Interior: 3.5/5

Ford Fiesta Zetec

The interior may not be the roomiest in the
universe, but everything works, and the small
digital displays back lit in green look quite nice

Like the exterior, the interior is actually quite cool. Though there's no centre arm rest (very few of these pint-sized cars have them) the overall look and feel of the interior is pretty good for a car of this size. Four large round air ducts dominate the dash, blistering out towards the occupants, and staggered numerals in the instrument cluster give the car a touch of sportiness, while the digitally displayed trip computer wedged between the main dials adds a touch of sophistication.

The seats are pretty good little pews despite their slim width, and though there's not a huge amount of room inside the car, everything is within arm's reach, which makes for a fairly seamless driving experience. The driving position (though adjustable) is likewise positive, and both the front and rear seats are finished in different type of cloth stitch compared to its lesser brethren to create a bit of a differentiation between the flagship Fiesta and its underlings. I also liked the fact that the update to the Fiesta range includes a new audio system, which in Zetec models fitted with the 5-speed manual gearbox gets stereo input connectors for MP3 players, such as the Apple iPod.

The upper sections of the dashboard are finished in a soft rubber-like material and is far better than the staid and stiff plastics often employed on the dash.

Front and rearward vision is bordering on excellent thanks to the large windscreens fore and aft, and though the C-pillar is a bit thick and means that head checks are a must, overall vision from within the Fiesta is impressive. The overall layout and a lot of the interior features, such as the centre console housing the stereo system, mimic those items seen in the adept Ford Focus - a good thing - and helps create a closer connection between the two models.

In the rear, seating doesn't amount to much, but if you've never had the chance to relax in the back of a Rolls Royce Phantom or perhaps a Holden Caprice, then perhaps it won't seem quite so squashy. There is room for five in the Ford Fiesta Zetec, but four passengers is a slightly more sane option, and even then you'll want the front seat moved as far forward as possible. Sure, rear seat room isn't brilliant, nor the best in class, but it is expected of something that measures less than four metres in length. The same thing goes for the the boot. It's small, 261 litres small, which is about enough room for a couple of 25kg potting mix slabs, a couple of pairs of boots and some groceries on top of that, and perhaps a shovel. Perhaps.

In terms of safety systems, you get a fair whack of extras for a car in the sub $20k category, including and the now obligatory ABS and EBD (electronic brakeforce distribution), and a pair of airbags covering the driver and front passenger. There is a safety pack that adds another four airbags protecting front and rear passengers - adding side curtain airbags and side thorax airbags - but I was unhappy to discover that only the Fiesta Ghia models can be equipped with this package.

Overall: 3.5/5

Ford's tuned and tinkered Fiesta Zetec surprised me with its tenacity when thrown into a corner, and even more impressive is its dual personality, able to cruise in from a day hacking through the alps and then slot into commuter traffic in the big smoke. It may be lacking the kind of interior space that larger cars avail, but at the same it also eschews many of the costs of larger cars - tyres, fuel, oil, insurance, etc.

It's a good looking car this one, designed by Germans no less, and with its attractive 16-inch wheels and front fog lights, it's more visually appealing than lesser Fiestas and goes a lot harder through corners too - which is one my favourite things about the Zetec.

Compared to this time last year, the Fiesta has gained many more owners, and it's good to see the Zetec heading up the range as the sporty leader. Almost everything about the car has been intelligently thought out and well put together, but I feel a larger engine and a manual transmission would do wonders for this spritely Ford small car. There has been talk of the larger 2.0-litre Fiesta 'ST' coming to Australia now that Fiesta sales have taken off, the XR4 perhaps? But as it stands the Zetec is still a very lively performer, and with all the best bits from the small car world - cost effectiveness chief among them - it makes for a surprisingly impressive motor vehicle.

Pros:

Cons:

  • Frugal Engine
  • Simple Styling
  • Perky Chassis
  • Same Engine as Normal Fiesta Models
  • Rear Drum Brakes
  • Rear seat room

Comments on the review? The Car? Your Car? Email us.

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