Americans never have been too keen on small cars — particularly subcompacts — because for decades the state-of-the-art for those sub-species has been pretty dim. Buying a subcompact car traditionally has meant cramming yourself in, living with gloomy interiors, cheap fittings, grouchy mechanicals and bottom-of-the-food-chain styling.

Ford’s new 2011 Fiesta is being viewed as the vanguard of a new era for subcompact cars. Not that there haven’t been some decent current examples: Honda’s Fit has a following, Chevrolet’s Aveo (soon to be Sonic) and Toyota’s Yaris also are in the game, too.
But it’s the Fiesta and its Euro-hip design, plus Ford’s high-volume showrooms, that industry watchers say will help determine whether subcompacts can turn the corner to sell in fairly large numbers and be perceived as cool and refined enough to overcome Americans’ historic aversion to small cars.

It took a while for us to figure out why we prefer the hatchback version of the 2011 Fiesta, but a scan of the spec sheet shows the 5-door hatch body style is almost 14 inches shorter than the Fiesta sedan. We think the shorter hatch looks better in profile, as its 98-inch wheelbase is identical for hatch or sedan. Our top-of-the-line Fiesta SES hatchback tester wears a base price of $17,120. The base price starts at $13,995.

With the 2011 Ford Fiesta you get a rev-happy 1.6-liter 4-cylinder and a 5-speed manual transmission as standard. Ford’s snappy new PowerShift 6-speed automatic transmission is an option at $1,095, but we’d recommend it, despite the fact the 5-speed manual is direct, light-shifting and couldn’t be easier to use, unless working a clutch pedal just isn’t your idea of entertainment.

The 4-cylinder’s 120 horsepower is sturdy enough to generate meaningful acceleration in the 2,500-pound Fiesta, and strangely enough, it gets sweeter as the revs get higher; from 2,000 to 4,000 rpm, the engine is slightly coarse and sounds grumbly, but once the tach needle passes 4,000, the variable valve timing really earns its keep as the engine revs with vigor and real aural delight to its 6,350-rpm power peak.

The Fiesta’s standard electrically assisted power steering doesn’t generate much feel, but it responds with linearity and consistency. It helps the Fiesta deliver on its gas pump-cheating fuel-economy numbers, too; we drove the thing hard for a week and couldn’t get less than 30 miles per gallon.

Wish we could say we liked the ride, but this is one area in which the Fiesta still feels like a subcompact car. Ford engineers got the handling side of the equation mostly right — body roll is acceptably controlled and quick cornering is a delight — but the Fiesta’s front suspension feels harsh if the road surface isn’t all but smooth.

You’ll be pleasantly surprised by the upbeat design of the Fiesta’s interior, particularly the techy look of the dash’s center stack with a large rotary-knob controller, although the adjacent full numeric keypad is fussy and not necessary, particularly considering Ford’s universally acclaimed Sync voice-activated control for most infotainment functions is standard equipment on the Fiesta SES model.

We figure the all-new 2011 Fiesta achieves the mission: it’s a subcompact car that isn’t the “penalty box” these cars used to be.

The Fiesta is entertaining to drive, isn’t dismal inside, has all the latest safety features and is admirably efficient. If word gets around, maybe it won’t take another shock-and-awe rise in gasoline prices for Americans to consider small cars for more than just winning the latest gas-pump war. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters

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