Getting into a new Ford Fiesta has been pretty high on my to do list, so I was pretty happy when the Blue Oval obliged me by sending over a green five-speed, along with a full tank of gas.

Initial Impressions

I was pretty pumped when the bright green Fiesta arrived curbside and they handed me the key.

Actually, key fob is more like it, because this one had a optional push-button entry and keyless start system that comes with heated front-seat cushions and other goodies ($795). I opened the door and was greeted by supportive black leather-trimmed seats with ivory piping ($715) – this level of refinement in the cabin was not expected but very welcome.  So what’s this thing cost?

According to the window sticker, my top-of-the-line SES hatch starts at $17,120. Standard features include Sync, Sirius Satellite Radio, an upgraded 80-watt six-speaker stereo, 195/50R16 all-season tires, cruise control and audio controls on the leather-wrapped steering wheel, bonus interior and exterior lighting and other details.

The price can go up further if you add a moonroof ($695) or the six-speed automatic ($1,070). The latter is desirable because in reality it’s a slick-shifting dual-clutch automated manual transmission and it helps the Fiesta deliver its best fuel economy, an estimated 30 mpg city and 40 mpg highway.

“The Ford Fiesta brakes, steers and handles very well and rides with the steadiness of a bigger car, yet it doesn’t feel heavy”“The only downside is that the more widely spaced gears make it feel a bit less playful”

Head for the Hills

The 2011 Ford Fiesta I tested with its five-speed manual is said to deliver 29 mpg city and 38 mpg highway.  Before I took it for a spin I paired my iPhone with Sync so I could make hands-free calls and stream Bluetooth audio. Low and behold I found some goodies; this version of Sync includes something new called Traffic, Directions and Information (TDI).

TDI is essentially turn-by-turn navigation that’s integrated into Sync’s voice command structure, but it actually uses your Bluetooth-paired phone (smart or dumb) to make a toll-free call to an automated operator who asks you your destination. Once complete, the route is downloaded into the car, the call hangs up and guidance begins via voice commands and visual prompts on the in-car screen.  Pretty awesome.

Once I was synced and my tunes were ready I headed for the hills.  I wanted to engage the car in some fun corners, so I headed for some twisty two-lane mountain roads favorited by my motorcycle riding buddies.

Highway 7

Getting to Highway 7 is a pretty basic feat of both city and highway driving. But even here the 2011 Ford Fiesta SES impressed me.  The car has rock-solid straight stability and surprisingly precise steering via its electric-assisted power steering system (EPS).

The Fiesta’s EPS system uses anti-drift logic counteracts the effects of crosswinds and excessive road camber, and an anti-nibble program cancels out cyclic vibrations that come from minute wheel imbalance or coarse road inputs.

Inside, the height-adjustable seats, tilt-and-telescoping wheel and thick leather-wrapped steering wheel combine to create a very comfortable driving position.  Most astoundingly it was the first car I’ve ever sat in where I didn’t have the seat in it’s furthest back position.

Highway 7 twists and turns   The 2011 Ford Fiesta SES’s 195/50R16 Hankook all-season gripped well, and allowed me to maintain a good head of steam through the narrow twisties.

If things go badly the Fiesta is equipped with a driver’s knee airbag, plus front, side and side curtain airbags — seven in all.

Refuel

When I stopped to refill the tank and grab some nourishment in the form of half-frozen soda I discovered that I’d averaged 39.5 mpg since I started. I’d never broken the 75 mph mark but I had gained about 2,500 feet of altitude.  Impressive.

The Fiesta is geared to run at lower rpm at highway speeds, about 2,600 rpm at 60 mph.  The only downside is that the more widely spaced gears make it feel a bit less playful when you come to a tight corner and gear down to accelerate, the only exception is the first two gears which are actually quite short which allows the car to accelerate to 45 mph fairly quickly.

As for the brakes they’re firm, effective and easy to modulate

Competition

Let’s talk competition.

Compared to the Yaris, Fit and Soul, the Fiesta provides far greater interior refinement and more electronic gadgets than you would expect in this price class. Sure the base price of the Fiesta is higher than the Asian competition but for the equipment, it seems easy to justify. Our tester was a well-equipped SES hatchback with SYNC, leather seats, keyless start and heated seats carrying a price tag of $17,120 (a Fiesta SE sedan, PowerShift transmission and SYNC lists for $16,660).

The most direct competition for the Ford comes in the Mazda 2. Compared to the 2, the Fiesta delivers more horsepower, more finesse, SYNC and better fuel economy.

Boil it Down

The Ford Fiesta brakes, steers and handles very well and rides with the steadiness of a bigger car, yet it doesn’t feel heavy.  A bit of performance has been traded for fuel economy, but the gains are meaningful and I think it was a worthwhile trade.

The 2011 Ford Fiesta range has a longer list of standard and optional equipment than most, if not all, subcompacts. Meaning you could easily spend $2,000 or $3,000 less than my test car by starting with an SE or avoiding premium paint, push-button start and leather.

At the end of the day, the Fiesta is quite possibly the best small car in America.  Now all I want is for them to throw an Ecoboost engine in one paired to a six-speed transmission.

Check out our gallery of the car below: