This is the first in a year-long series of reviews by road test editor Christopher Jackson, as he experiences a random sampling of new-car test-drives.
Something always seems to happen when it comes to scheduling press cars for the Chicago Auto Show. No matter what the weather or the time of year, it seems that when it comes time to find wheels to tootle from Detroit to the other side of the lake, whatever is in the driveway is always somehow inappropriate. Sometimes it’s a less-than-efficient ride, such as last year when I did it in a Ford F-150 (EcoBoost engine or not, there’s just no reason to go that far in a pickup truck that’s not hauling anything), or the years that I had city-friendly commuters like the Toyota Yaris and Kia Rio. Efficient or not, little subcompacts usually aren’t happy about four-hour freeway trips, thanks to being light enough to be blown around by big trucks, and seats that are designed more for low cost than long-term comfort.
So it was this year; after several weeks of big, comfortable sedans, my transport to Chicago was…a Ford Fiesta. And as I steeled myself for another long day in an econobox, a second wrinkle arose, in the form of the biggest snowstorm to date, in a year already marked by record snowfall. I looked at the Fiesta, sitting in the drive on all-season tires already half-buried in five-plus inches of snow, then at the forecast which called for another six to nine inches over the course of a day, and wondered just how interesting this was going to get.
At least I had some assurance of being comfortable. The Fiesta’s generally better-equipped for comfort than its more frugal competitors, though the interior is more snug. If you want shoulder room, you’re better off consulting a Nissan Versa or Toyota Yaris. The Fiesta’s got a bit more fashion than function. The trapezoidal layout of buttons on the center stack begs to be interpreted; does it look more like angel wings, an insect face, or a Transformers symbol? You be the judge. Unfortunately this style comes at the expense of some intelligibility; the Fiesta requires some squinting to get used to the layout. It’s topped by a very small information screen. SYNC and Bluetooth connectivity are on board, as well as a USB jack so the Fiesta would play music off of my phone, so that particular necessity for road tripping was covered. The seats boasted cool cloth upholstery, and had optional seat heaters, always welcome during the days of single-digit temperatures. The Fiesta’s also available with the MyFord Touch interface, but it wasn’t a part of my tester.
This year, Chicago was also followed immediately by a convention, so in addition to myself and my auto show luggage (and the computer, and camera bag) the Fiesta also had a big load of books and con gear to haul. The five-door Fiesta sports just over twenty-five cubic feet of cargo space with the seats folded, but it requires creative packing to make the most of it thanks to an odd-shaped luggage compartment and rear seats that fold but don’t tumble. Once I had crammed everything in, I added an emergency kit, tow strap, blanket, extra water and a shovel. I hoped I wouldn’t be camping out in the Fiesta for any reason, but it doesn’t hurt to be sure. Why couldn’t this have been a week with a Subaru? Any Subaru?
Whatever. The Fiesta’s not a Subaru, and no amount of wishing is going to make it one, and I had a trip to make. I made myself comfortable in the Fiesta and launched myself into the teeth of the storm.
Once out on the roads, which were terrifyingly dismal as the snow bucketed down from the sky (and in areas, the news reported “frozen fog,” which was a terrifying concept for some reason) it became clear that the Fiesta does have something in common with Subarus, after all. Have you watched rallycross or WRC highlights lately? If so, you might’ve noticed that the Fiesta’s a pretty high-profile contender in both of those motorsports. This little car doesn’t shout about it the way the Subaru WRX does, but it’s got rally cars in its bloodline.
And it showed, instantly. The freeways were covered with snow, making it a slippery go without snow tires, but the Fiesta’s responsive and confident stance (more stable than the rather pedestrian MacPherson strut front and twist beam rear suspension would suggest) ensured that we plowed forward through the heavy falling snow, wind and ice. I-94 was actually shut down near Jackson, thanks to multiple crashes, so I detoured south to the Ohio Turnpike to continue west. The Fiesta’s standard traction control and a very talkative suspension and steering made it relatively easy to navigate the slop, and I churned along at five to ten miles per hour faster than the rest of the sparse traffic. We made a decent team, the Fiesta and I; the car warned me quickly of black ice, and churned forward through the heavy powder without putting a wheel wrong.
The turnpike was an entertaining mess, but at least it was open. Since the storm had hit overnight, there weren’t many cars out, but the ditches and median were punctuated by semi trucks that had gone off in the slime. Some had flopped onto their sides in undignified heaps, others had plowed trenches into the median and buried themselves too deeply to get out. The farther I went, the worse it seemed to get. I was snug and warm inside the Fiesta, but I passed a truck that had taken a bite out of another’s trailer, spilling spaghetti everywhere, then a rig full of Welch’s juice that had come together with a car hauler full of new Fords, turning the snow purple for a few dozen yards. I even passed a flare-marked Dodge Charger police cruiser with its trunk knocked into the back seat. I’m going to guess that it stopped to help a stricken truck and then got run over by yet another. It was bad out there.
It wasn’t much better off the road. I stopped at a rest area and found the lot completely unplowed, buried under five inches of freshly fallen snow. Of course this didn’t sit well with the Fiesta, which threatened to get stuck upon departure. Turning off the traction control and spinning the wheels eventually got the little car moving, however.
But the Fiesta pressed on, and we pushed through. Even after the roads began to clear as the turnpike maintenance crews caught up with the storm, there were patches of ice under every bridge, resulting in queasy moments that were quickly caught up by the stability control.
The Fiesta and I reached Chicago by late afternoon, the trip having taken nine hours instead of the usual four. I wasn’t particularly fatigued, and the Fiesta’s quick reflexes made short work of Chicago’s positively homicidal traffic. With the roads dry, the Fiesta was able to make the most of its 1.6 liter four-cylinder’s 120 horsepower and was quite happy nipping through traffic. So was I, though I was also ready to get off of the roads.
I’d like to say that the Fiesta positively wowed the valet parkers at the W Hotel in Chicago, but seriously, it’s a $17,000 car, it was covered in frozen slush and road salt, and my tester was silver, rather than sporting any of the cool colors on the Fiesta’s palette like “Blue Candy” or “Green Envy.” The Fiesta shares its slightly frowny face and horizontal grille elements with the Fusion and Focus, so it’s got a familiar Fordish look that (around Detroit especially) borders on the ubiquitous. It disappeared into the parking garage without a trace and in the process summed itself up nicely. The Fiesta’s a very confident and capable little entry-level car, with world-class underpinnings and quite a bit of driving talent, but it’s also perfectly happy to be a nigh-invisible commuter and just haul groceries–no matter what the weather’s like.