Road test: 2012 Ford Fiesta SES Hatchback

There are many ways to get noticed. Wandering through town in the altogether or driving an Audi R8 V10 Cabriolet are two of them. The hitch is that, in the end, both tend to be rather expensive. The more affordable route is to drive a Ford Fiesta wearing the optional premium exterior package, graphic tattoo and the red/black premium interior package. When dressed so the car is like a freshly hammered thumb, such is the manner in which it stands out. The exterior is finished in a brilliant red with black accents, including said tattoo. Inside, it is the same combination — fire engine-red inserts in everything including the seat centres, centre stack and steering wheel. Talk about announcing one has arrived.

The description does not do the overall effect justice. She who must be obeyed donned dark glasses every time she slid behind the wheel. The good news is that the cabin loses none of its functionality because of its rather garish nature. For example, the driver’s space is very well thought out. The seats are commendably comfortable and the instrumentation is clean and uncluttered, as are the rest of the key controls. While a single hand span covers all of the phone/media buttons, all are large enough to operate with a gloved hand. It is a smart design that is made all the more so by the inclusion of Sync in the SES tested. This voice-activated aid makes it a snap to pick a song or place a call. If only the same could be said of the power lock button — it sits in the middle of the centre stack where it can’t be reached readily from either side of the car.

Slide rearward and, while the Fiesta’s exterior dimensions are subcompact, there is surprising interior room. Up front, there’s decent head- and legroom, and, as long as the front seats are not fully rearward, enough leg space for a pair of adults to sit in comfort. No, I am not talking limo-like space but enough that those forced to sit there will do so without too much whining.

Behind that there is the versatility of the hatchback. The Fiesta brings 15.4 cubic feet with the seats in the upright position and somewhere around 26 cu. ft. (Ford does not list a number) with them folded down. Unfortunately, the lowered seats stand about 75 millimetres proud of the rest of the trunk floor, meaning the cargo space is far from flat.

The Fiesta is powered by a 1.6-litre in-line four that pushes 120 horsepower and 112 pound-feet of torque. This is enough to motivate the Fiesta to 100 kilometres an hour in 10.2 seconds and turn the 80-to-120-km/h passing move in 7.5 seconds. It’s not quick, but it’s enough for the cut and thrust of the morning commute. Of course, the fact the engine does not scream whenever it’s forced to work means it is a painless venture running it to redline when needed.

The Fiesta’s base transmission is a decent five-speed manual box. The tester arrived with the optional PowerShift six-speed automatic transmission ($1,250). It’s a clutchless manual (a twin dry-clutch design) that operates like an automatic. Select Drive and it holds the Fiesta on a hill and gives the customary creep when one lifts off the brake pedal. It also shifts through the gears very nicely — it downshifts at the right time and holds that gear through a faster corner, which imparts better balance. My concern was the smell emanating from the engine bay after backing over a curb and up an incline. At the end of the manoeuvre, the Fiesta smelled suspiciously like stinky clutch. This is the second time I have noticed this anomaly, meaning it is not a one-off. True, this is the type of slow manoeuvre that tends to be tough on a regular manual and its clutch, but it did not leave me with a very favourable impression. The long-term ramifications are yet to be determined.

Where the Fiesta comes into its own is the manner in which it hauls its way through a corner. Body roll is minimal, the steering delivers the required feedback and only when one begins to take liberties do the upsized P195/55R16 tires begin to understeer. When this happens, the stability control system gently reins things in and puts the Fiesta back on track. The bonus is that, in spite of the tight and tidy road manners, the ride comfort remains commendably cushioned. Few cars marry the demands of the ride/handling equation together quite as well.

Aside from the stinky smell, the Fiesta SES I tested impressed me as much as it did when I first drove it at a sneak peek at Ford’s proving ground in Michigan. It’s an accomplished runabout that has been very well executed and equally well thought out. The cabin is spiffy and the versatility is intact. The fact it seems to relish being driven with purpose cements its appeal. When dressed in the outré colour packages, it is an extrovert’s dream come true.

Type of vehicle Front-wheel-drive subcompact hatchback
Engine 1.6L DOHC in-line four
Power 120 hp @ 6,350 rpm; 112 lb-ft of torque @ 5,000 rpm
Transmission Six-speed automatic
Brakes Front disc/rear drum with ABS
Tires P195/50R16
Price: base/as tested
Destination charge $1,500
Transport Canada fuel economy L/100 km 6.9 city, 5.1 hwy.

Standard features: Air conditioning, power locks, windows and heated mirrors, cruise control, cloth upholstery, heated front seats, tilt and telescopic steering, Sync, AM/FM/CD/MP3/Sirius satellite radio with six speakers, auxiliary input and steering wheel-mounted controls, clock, trip computer, rear wiper/washer, remote keyless entry

Options Premium exterior package ($800); red/black interior package, ($1,400); tattoo graphics ($500); remote starter ($300); intelligent access ($500); block heater ($100); stewardship fee ($30)

2012 Ford Fiesta SES. Photograph by: Graeme Fletcher, for National Post