Time to Fiesta: Pushing 40 MPG at $13K

OK, so I know nothing about automotive marketing. But as a consumer, it’s easy to see when carmakers take unexpected, nonsensical turns. Like when GM decided to cash in on the image of the Hummer as an urban prestige rig instead of focusing on its true talents as an off-road vehicle (a move that ultimately cost the company the brand). So I can’t figure out why Ford isn’t pimping the great fuel efficiency and low cost of the 2011 Fiesta, and instead focusing on the fact that you can sync your smart phone to the car’s dashboard and stream music.

I had a chance to test drive this little car Wednesday morning, on a course over at Candlestick Park, here in SF. Most journalists who tried it out are from car mags (Car & Driver, etc.) so they’re interested in performance and handling as they careen, mach schnell, through a test course. I love to drive, but I was hardly putting the Fiesta (or the Honda Fit or Toyota Yaris, which were there for comparison’s sake) through the paces. I’m sure all the Ford reps are still laughing about my glacial maneuvering through the cones.

But that’s not the point. The point is, this car can get 40 miles per gallon (on highway, 30 in city). It’s a gasoline combustion engine. No fancy battery (and accompanying life-cycle conundrum). No expensive clean diesel engine. It’s just a smart engine design–in fact, the secret sauce is a dual automatic clutch called PowerShift that makes the efficiency of the automatic Fiesta a tad better than the manual version. It’s a bit unusual to drive the PowerShift–you can tell the engine is operating slightly differently than a conventional automatic–but it didn’t impact the driving experience for me. (And most consumers are just trying to get from point A to B. They’re not geeking out about how well the cars handle on a slalom course. Am I right?)

But here’s the kicker: the manufacturer’s suggested retail price is $13,320–though you’ll be paying extra for the PowerShift feature, so that low price tag comes with slightly lower fuel efficiency. And here’s the bigger deal: carmakers are finally coming out with more efficient cars with standard gasoline engines. The Toyota Yaris gets 36 MPG on the highway and starts at $12,600. The Honda Fit is a little less efficient (33 highway) and is more expensive.

Yep, zero-emissions cars are here. And they’re starting to become affordable–thanks to the Nissan Leaf, which will drop to around $20,000 for rebate-collecting Californians. But the EV infrastructure is still lacking, and how are apartment-dwellers or folks without a garage or driveway going to charge their cars? And then, of course, there are hybrids, but the Prius starts at $22,000 (and comes loaded with a negative stigma, thanks to those acceleration issues). And Ford’s own hybrid, the Fusion, only gets one mile per gallon improvement on efficiency, at a much higher sticker price, than the Fiesta.

So why aren’t carmakers making a bigger deal of their high efficiency in the budget car division? Maybe the Fiesta, which is getting some pretty positive reviews on driving performance, will bring out attention back to simply making better (read: more efficient) gasoline cars.

Freelance writer Mary Catherine O'Connor finds that a growing number of companies are proving the ways that they can make good financially, socially and environmentally (as the triple bottom line theory suggests).With that in mind, she contributes to Triple Pundit, as well as to Earth2Tech and other pubs focused on sustainability. She also writes The Good Route, an Outside Magazine blog that addresses the intersection of sustainability and the active/outdoor life.To find out more, or to reach her, go to www.mcoconnor.com.

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