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Ford's three-cylinder Fiesta provides more smiles per gallon

The turbocharged 1.0-liter, three-cylinder Ford Fiesta can be both fuel efficient and fun to drive, but unfortunately not at the same time.

March 30, 2013|By Brian Thevenot, Los Angeles Times
  • The 2014 Ford Fiesta is a turbocharged 1.0-liter, three-cylinder subcompact. Its engine will be the most efficient non-hybrid power plant in America, Ford says.
The 2014 Ford Fiesta is a turbocharged 1.0-liter, three-cylinder subcompact.… (Ford Motor Co. )

For all the hype over hybrid, electric and diesel cars, automakers sure haven't sold many of them.

They have themselves to blame. Car companies somehow keep squeezing more power from less gasoline in cars priced thousands of dollars less than comparable hybrids or diesels, which still account for just a fraction of U.S. car sales.

Take Ford Motor Co.'s newest gas-only miser, a turbocharged 1.0-liter, three-cylinder engine about the size of a coffee can. Powering the subcompact Fiesta, the engine will be the most efficient non-hybrid power plant in America, Ford brags. Translation: maybe mid-40s mpg on the highway.

The 1.0-liter Fiesta won't be sold in the U.S. until the fall, but a week testing the similar European version suggests that hybrid and diesel competitors will have their hands full with Ford's three-banger. Fitted to an already slick car, with stout build quality and tight handling, the tiny engine seemed to beg for high-revving abuse.

The 1.0-liter boasts 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque, all for a price likely to undercut any diesel or hybrid by a large margin. The current Fiesta starts at just $14,200, and Ford usually adds only about $1,000 to the price of other models for a turbocharged EcoBoost engine. Without releasing specific pricing, Ford tells us that the three-cylinder will be marketed as a mid-priced "sport" package.

The current Fiesta power plant, a 1.6-liter four-cylinder, gets 120 horsepower but just 112 pound-feet of torque. On the road, the difference felt bigger than those numbers suggest. The bigger Fiesta motor felt like a drag by comparison.

And yet the 1.0-liter package raises a central question: What's the point here — miles per gallon, or smiles per mile? Ford will tell you it's both, but we can't help but suspect that one will come at the expense of the other.

The 1.0-liter turbo is much more powerful and refined at higher revs. But that kind of driving hampers hopes for hybrid-fighting fuel economy in real-word driving.

The engine starts to shine at about 3,000 rpm. Unfortunately, that's exactly where Ford wants you to lay off the gas. Like a mom handing out a curfew, a tiny "upshift" arrow on an in-dash screen starts flashing just as the turbocharger starts to make the mini-motor sing.

On another screen, the Fiesta's "eco mode" handed out grades to the driver in three categories of eco-correct driving: speed, shifting and anticipation. Each category offered the driver a chance to earn between one and five flower petals for soft-shoed driving.

In practice, it seemed the only way to earn five petals would be to cut a hole in the floorboard and pull a Fred Flintstone. Despite many miles of trying to raise our eco grades — gingerly tapping the accelerator; dutifully upshifting before the mom arrow started flashing — we couldn't get more than three flower petals in any category.

More to the point: You won't buy this car if you test-drive it this way. At lower revs, the 1.0-liter runs a bit rough and feels underpowered.

There's a reason that three-bangers haven't become widespread. The odd number of cylinders makes them inherently unbalanced. Ford has tried to counteract this effect by using an unbalanced pulley and flywheel to offset the engine's natural shaking. But some of the roughness remains.

Still, the gas pedal provides a simple cure. The motor smooths out quite nicely when pushed, delivering remarkable power accompanied by a pleasing growl.

Despite the Fiesta's eco mode, there's evidence that Ford understands the 1.0-liter must be revved to be enjoyed. In a rare move, the automaker is offering the engine only with a manual transmission in the U.S. — giving the driver complete control over engine speed and shift points. (Many of today's cars don't even offer a manual, and just 7% of cars sold last year had stick shifts.)

As a more-with-less engineering exercise, the 1.0-liter deserves the buzz it's getting. But part of that hype comes from estimated efficiency. And that's where things get complicated.

Ford's turbo cars have already stirred some controversy for failing to measure up to their Environmental Protection Agency fuel economy ratings in real-word driving. Consumer Reports recently cited several Ford EcoBoost models as failing to meet EPA estimates or to get better mileage than larger nonturbo motors.

In nearly 100 miles of testing the European Fiesta, we saw 30 mpg in a mix of city and highway driving. That's good, but hardly game-changing. Full disclosure: Our testing included some heavy traffic and spirited driving. But it also included many miles of light-footed driving and early upshifting in an unsuccessful attempt to please the car's eco-nannies.

The current base Fiesta, with the 1.6-liter four-cylinder, has an EPA rating of 29 mpg in the city, 39 on the highway. The much larger Honda Accord, with a comparatively huge 2.4-liter, is EPA rated at 27 city and 36 highway with a continuously variable transmission.

So even if buyers of the three-cylinder Fiesta get much better mileage than we did, they're not likely to save a ton of money on gas. In pure highway driving, the 1.0-liter probably will get terrific mileage. But it may do less well around town in the hands of all but the most delicate drivers.

The car's success may come down to money and marketing. If Ford keeps the sticker price in check — say, about $17,000 — the turbo Fiesta could be a real player in a fiercely competitive small-car segment.

And packaging the car as a "sport" edition, perhaps with stiffer suspension, is the right play here. The 1.0-liter is likely to compete more directly with sportier versions of the Honda Fit and Dodge Dart than with pricier hybrids like the Toyota Prius.

Engine size and efficiency aside, this car is a blast to drive. And isn't that enough?

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