Ford Fiesta SFE redefines small

The 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE comes with a 1-liter engine that's so compact, a Ford engineer packed the engine block in a carry-on suitcase and took it through TSA security. (Ford/MCT)

(MCT) -- Any engine tiny enough to fit in a suitcase needs to be bolted to a lawn mower - or maybe a skateboard for those of us hoping to sidestep old age.

"Push-start me, Pauly, and call 911."

Or, hey, we could probably get the Europeans to take the little wheezers, since they do dainty pretty well.

But in a country so big most of us barely know where Rhode Island resides - somewhere off the coast of Texas? - we require engines with cylinders the size of bathroom trash cans.

Eight would be great, thanks. How else can we possibly do Plano to Santa Monica in 15 hours, carting giant roof racks, three rows of seating and a dozen video devices?

Ironically, Ford disagrees - and that would be the same Ford that builds three-ton, diesel-powered pickups larger than most efficiency apartments.

Despite its long, rich history with ground-pounding pickups, Ford now offers one of the smallest engines in America in its Fiesta subcompact - a 1-liter, three-cylinder motor whose bare block can literally be tossed into a suitcase.

It also is the thriftiest gas engine in the U.S., Ford says, with an EPA rating of 32 miles per gallon in town and 45 on the highway.

Consider this: the three-banger in the 2014 Ford Fiesta SFE I had recently was 15 percent smaller than the thumping two-cylinder engine on a big Harley-Davidson.

I didn't anticipate a lot of wheel spin.

But the only way automakers can meet the monster federal fuel-economy standards ahead is with lots of subcompacts sporting gossamer, gas-sipping engines - or bunches of hybrids and electrics.

Fill my shot glass with gas, please.

Like all new Fiestas, the red SFE I had looked thoroughly international - compact, wedgy and bold with smallish 15-inch wheels pushed to its far corners.

Up front, the Fiesta now wears Ford's signature five-bar Aston Martin look-alike grille and enormous headlamps that cut deeply back into its short front fenders.

I didn't care much for the SFE's silly plastic hubcaps and skinny 185/60 tires - which reeked of the early '90s - but I liked the car's rakish looks.

The SFE's sloping hood zoomed into a big windshield laid back kind of radically. A top with a subtle, alluring curve in it then dropped hard onto a rear hatchback.

Character lines on the sides shot off the front wheel-well lips, racing to the base of huge, high-mounted taillamps and giving the sedan some crisp lines.

All of which was pretty good stuff. But as you know, the real story with the Fiesta SFE resides beneath its hood - somewhere in there.

Wait, I think I see it. While far smaller than any engine to which we're accustomed, Ford's three-banger is actually a pretty sophisticated mighty mite.

As an optional EcoBoost motor for the Fiesta - a 1.6-liter four is standard - the three-banger is turbocharged and direct-injected, giving it enough boost to spin out an impressive 123 horsepower.

(That's three more horsepower than the standard four-cylinder, incidentally, which is rated at 27 mpg city and 38 on the highway.)

But engines with odd numbers of cylinders are inherently unbalanced, forcing Ford to do a lot of tweaking to smooth out the little motor.

And it works. Most people would never guess that they were driving a car with a three-cylinder engine.

But here's the deal with these tiny engines: You've got to flog them hard and often.

Though the car moved away from stops with modest authority, it hummed best between 2,000 and 5,000 rpm.

Fortunately, it is smooth enough that you can drive it all day within that range - and not wince when it swings past 5,000.

For now, the 1-liter motors are available only with 5-speed manuals. But the long-throw tranny shifted pretty smoothly, assisted by a light, positive clutch.

The little engine had no discernible surge or sudden leap in power. So you stand on it and start rowing the shifter, with 60 mph arriving a reasonable 9.8 seconds later, according to Car and Driver.

The SFE felt highly European, moving like a real driver's car - a trait I associate more with European vehicles than our big cruisers.

The steering, for example, was light but pretty lively, and the 2,450-pound sedan turned into corners eagerly, heeling over slightly as it did.

Nonetheless, the front-wheel-drive Fiesta remained pretty composed in hard corners even with its squealing, sissy-grade tires.

Moreover, it was great fun in traffic, able to cut and jump into small spaces even on the perpetually choked Dallas Crawlway - a miserable road I get to avoid a lot more often these days.

In addition, the Fiesta can cruise smoothly, taking advantage of what felt like fairly long wheel-travel in its suspension.

Inside, though, it looks like an $18,585 car. The black interior in mine was mostly hard plastic surfaces and cloth seats.

But it functioned pretty well and didn't detract from the driving experience - once you get past the overly busy dashboard.

A highly stylized hood provided shade for a black-faced speedometer and tachometer, housed in pods that looked like exaggerated tears.

Meanwhile, a high-mounted black center stack with lots of buttons dominated the center of the dash, dropping onto a panel for the car's climate control that looked kind of cheap in flat silver plastic.

Though basic, the interior did feature some nice details. The car's black cloth seats offered decent bolsters with stitching on their edges, for example.

Also, the SFE's black plastic door panels included centers covered in cloth that matched the seats.

In back, average-sized passengers will find pretty good headroom, but limited legroom. (I was comfortable, but I, too, could fit in some large suitcases.)

Still, all politicians should be forced to live with one of these little fuel-sippers for at least a year so they can see what their legislation has wrought.

But in all honesty, I could easily adjust to something as well-developed and likable as the SFE - as long as I had a real hot rod stashed in the darkness on the edge of town.



-Type of vehicle: Five-passenger, front-wheel-drive subcompact

-Fuel economy: 32 miles per gallon city, 45 highway

-Weight: About 2,450 pounds

-Engine: Turbocharged, direct-injected 1-liter three-cylinder with 123 horsepower and 148 pound-feet of torque

-Transmission: Five-speed manual

-Performance 0 to 60: 9.8 seconds

-Price as tested: $18,585

SOURCES: Ford Motor Co.; Car and Driver