Pros: European-inspired styling; high-end interior and features; great gas mileage; strong resale value; IIHS Top Safety Pick; go-kart-like handling

Cons: Higher-end models can be pricey; rear seat is small; no navigation option; wind and road noise levels a bit intrusive

The 2012 Ford Fiesta is more than just a fuel-efficient small car. It's a hot little ride with European-inspired styling, a well-appointed interior and handling so keen, you'd swear you were behind the wheel of a more expensive Mazda3 or Ford Focus. Quirky styling and awkward interiors may appeal to some (think Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris or Nissan Versa), but that may not be a durable strategy in the fashion-conscious world of today's iPad-toting young car buyers.

The 2012 Ford Fiesta does more than just break the bland small-car mold. It also offers a dazzling array of exterior and interior color choices as well as premium electronics and communication features uncommon in this price range.

One doesn't look to a car such as the Fiesta as much for its fashion-forward good looks as for its frugal fuel economy and low sticker price. In the Fiesta's case, the frugal factor is there in spades, with one model even achieving the coveted figure of 40 mpg. However, if a low price is at the top of your checklist, the Fiesta may disappoint. A loaded Fiesta will easily punch past the $23,000 mark, making it far more spendy than a Honda Fit, Kia Rio or Toyota Yaris.

Comfort & Utility

The 2012 Ford Fiesta's interior could easily have been plucked from a much more expensive sedan, which makes it all the more special in a car starting at around $14,000. You can choose from S, SE, SEL and SES, with even the most basic trim level offering form-fitting front bucket seats, air conditioning, power locks and mirrors and an AM/FM stereo with an auxiliary audio input jack. Of course, that same entry-level car includes plastic wheel covers and, horror of horrors, manual crank windows.

In fairness, Ford offers packages and higher trim levels that resolve these minor issues. Move up to the SES hatchback or the SEL sedan, and you can go hog wild with options such as the Interior Style Package that adds your choice of white or red leather inserts on black leather seating, the SYNC communication system, a multifunction LCD display screen and an 80-watt premium sound system with six speakers and SiriusXM satellite radio. Other advanced features available on the Fiesta include Intelligent Access with push-button start, keypad entry, a power sunroof, heated side mirrors, 16-inch alloy wheels and heated front seats.

As for interior space, the little Fiesta is actually quite accommodating. Offered as either a sedan or a hatchback, it has room for four adults, with the front-seat passengers enjoying the lion's share of head and leg room. Unfortunately, when compared with the Honda Fit, Nissan Versa and Toyota Yaris, the Fiesta comes up a few inches short on rear-seat legroom. Both body styles feature 60/40 split folding rear seats. But on the hatchback, this feature creates an impressive cargo hold big enough to fit in a couple of snowboards or a weekend's worth of gear.

Technology

Ford packs a lot of comfort and safety technology into the 2012 Fiesta. On the comfort side, the SE, SEL and SES trims can be had with a slightly watered-down version of the SYNC communication system. SYNC allows voice activation of a Bluetooth-enabled cell phone or can call up music from a media device such as an iPod or a Zune. The SYNC system can also read incoming text messages and control popular apps such as Pandora. There is no navigation option for the Fiesta (something you can find on most of its competitors) and no MyFord Touch, so some of the cooler SYNC voice commands are not available. However, Ford's SYNC Services option does let you have access to turn-by-turn navigation as well as sports scores, stock market updates and traffic alerts.

An unexpected treat is the availability of Ford's Intelligent Access entry. This keyless system requires only that the key fob be on your person to let you gain entry to and start the car. A button on the dash serves as the ignition switch. Another unique Ford option is the keypad entry system that uses a numeric keypad located on the driver's door. This is a wonderful idea, perfect for those times when you can't take a remote fob with you, such as when inner tubing down a river or spending a day at the beach.

Performance & Fuel Economy

With only 120 horsepower and 112 lb-ft of torque under the hood, the 2012 Ford Fiesta's 1.6-liter 4-cylinder engine isn't going to impress many driving enthusiasts. But if you can live with a 10-second 0-to-60-mph run, then life with the Fiesta can be harmonious. Both the standard five-speed manual transmission and the dual-clutch six-speed PowerShift automatic have short lower gears that allow for quick acceleration from a dead stop. That's important when merging or trying to dart across a busy intersection. Get the Fiesta up to running speed, however, and you'll want to allow plenty of room before attempting to overtake slower-moving traffic. The more passengers on board, the more time you'll need.

The Fiesta's diminutive power ratings are offset by its ability to sip fuel, something the base car does exceedingly well with an EPA city/highway fuel estimate of 29 mpg city/38 mpg highway for the manual and 29/39 mpg for the automatic. The specially tuned SE SFE package, which includes more aerodynamic body panels on the grille and undercarriage, bumps the mileage to 29/40 mpg.

Safety

The 2012 Ford Fiesta is equipped with front side impact and full-length side curtain airbags, as well as a driver's knee airbag. Electronic stability and traction control are also standard, as is ABS. The Fiesta performs very well in both NHTSA and IIHS crash testing.

Driving Impressions

Who says you need horsepower to have fun behind the wheel of a car? The 2012 Fiesta may not offer gut-punching acceleration, but it will have you smiling ear to ear as you push it through twisting back roads and around hairpin curves. The manual transmission is a delight, with short, quick throws and fluid action allowing for effortless gear changes. Most people will likely opt for the six-speed SportShift automatic, which also allows for manual gear changes but isn't quite as fun as the traditional manual.

The Fiesta's suspension is firm and well modulated, absorbing enough road imperfections to make the ride comfortable without making the car feel too soft. Even the electric power steering unit does a good job of delivering reasonable feedback to the driver. We will always prefer the feedback from a hydraulic system, but the electric-assist steering is tolerable since it saves on weight and fuel consumption. The only major complaint is sound related: a noticeable wind whistle outside the Fiesta's driver's-side window as well as tire and engine noise inside the cabin.

Other Cars to Consider

Honda Fit - The Fit has stronger resale value, more rear-seat legroom and the option of an in-dash navigation unit.

Toyota Yaris - The Yaris isn't as pricey as the Fiesta, but it's a bit bland and doesn't deliver the same sporty driving experience. The Yaris offers a three-door hatchback model unavailable with the Fiesta.

Kia Rio - The Rio offers more features for less money and a better warranty - and every model, not just a special-edition trim, is rated at 40 mpg highway.

Chevrolet Sonic -The Sonic does have a bigger back seat and more horsepower, but the Fiesta has better fuel economy.

AutoTrader Recommends

We prefer the hatchback version of the Fiesta; it's more versatile, and it just looks better. The price in SE trim can be around $16,000, and for that you'll get a nice set of options and packages to personalize your Fiesta. As much as we love the look of a loaded SES or SEL, especially with the custom leather interior, it's hard to justify paying $23,000 for what is supposed to be an entry-level subcompact.

author photo

Joe Tralongo started in the industry writing competitive comparison books for a number of manufacturers, before moving on in 2000 to become a freelance automotive journalist. He's well regarded for his keen eye for detail, as well as his ability to communicate complex mechanical terminology into user-friendly explanations.

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